Since 2003, human-rights investigators and news media reports have described a Boeing Business Jet as one of the most-dreaded planes in the Central Intelligence Agency's clandestine air force. The modified 737—a model rolled out in Renton in 2001—was built for executive fun and comfort. But it is alleged to be the flagship of the CIA's "extreme rendition" squadron, ferrying suspected terrorists to secret agency prisons or countries where the U.S. is said to outsource torture.
The use of this jet, with a 6,000-mile flying range and plush customized cabin, has until now been Boeing's only connection to the prison airlifts. But a British author and an ex-prisoner's attorney say that records uncovered by Spanish investigators show Boeing has a more direct role—planning and organizing the flights through a unit of its Seattle commercial airplane division.
Boeing won't confirm or deny the claim. But the Spanish documents, and an investigation by Amnesty International and the Council of Europe, indicate Boeing was making arrangements for as many as 1,000 rendition flights through 14 countries by four CIA planes, including that notorious Boeing Business Jet.
"Travel agent for the CIA seems the right words," Stephen Grey says of Boeing's role. A British author, he has written about prisoner rendition and the CIA's global torture program in his new book, Ghost Plane, in which he has documented about 90 rendition flights. (Amnesty International estimates "hundreds of victims" wound up at CIA "black sites.")
The Bush administration has acknowledged transfers of Al Qaeda suspects to Guantánamo Bay but has denied the U.S. engages in torture-transfer flights. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in 2005 that the United States "does not use the airspace or the airports of any county" for such purposes. Senate Democrats, who take control in January, are promising a full investigation.
According to Grey and others, a wholly owned Boeing subsidiary called Jeppesen Inc. cleared the airways and runways for the CIA, providing landing and navigation assistance, scheduling flight crews, and booking hotels for them. Jeppesen is a unit of Boeing's Seattle-based Commercial Aviation Division.
The cargo of prisoners includes many who say they were tortured and others who claim to have been mistakenly abducted and abused. One detainee, Khaled el-Masri, a German of Lebanese decent who is suing the CIA and aviation companies under the Alien Tort Statute for alleged Fifth Amendment (due process) violations, says he now plans to add Boeing to his lawsuit.
Masri "was injected with a drug and chained to the floor of the plane," says his attorney, Ben Wizner of the New York ACLU. "I don't think anybody would hold Boeing responsible for manufacturing the plane. However, the emergence of [Boeing's flight-assistance role] changes all that."
The prisoner flights, launched by the Clinton administration to transfer foreign suspects to trial in the United States, became a darker undertaking following 9/11. George W. Bush approved what critics say amounts to the kidnapping of foreign nationals, some flown to countries such as Morocco or Egypt, known for abusive interrogation techniques. Others were taken to a system of CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Europe, or the U.S. compound in Guantánamo, rights groups say.
In his book, Grey cites documents showing Boeing made travel arrangements for the CIA flights. He does not specifically name Boeing, but in a phone conversation last week with Seattle Weekly, Grey confirmed that Spanish government documents he obtained name Jeppesen's International Trip Planning unit as rendition flights planner.
Boeing bought the Denver-based company, then called Jeppesen Sanderson, in 2000 for $1.5 billion from the (Chicago) Tribune Co., whose mixed portfolio includes the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Cubs. John Hayhurst, then a Boeing vice president here, hailed Jeppesen as "another enduring global brand" for Boeing's business roster. Boeing later bought two related companies and expanded the Jeppesen unit, offering electronic mapping and navigation services to airline, general aviation, and government customers along with flight and trip planning.
Spain's largest newspaper, El Pais, last year reported that Jeppesen was named the CIA's flight arranger in investigative documents compiled by Spanish police. More recently, The New Yorker magazine noted the connection, reporting "it is not widely known that the [CIA] has turned to a division of Boeing, the publicly traded blue-chip behemoth, to handle many of the logistical and navigational details for these [rendition] trips."
On its Web site, Boeing boasts: "From Aachen to Zhengzhou, King Airs to 747s, Jeppesen has done it all."
But what, exactly, has it done? How deep is Boeing's involvement in the rendition flights? The company won't specifically say. From Chicago headquarters, Boeing spokesperson Tim Neale points out that flight planning is done for "thousands and thousands of customers each year. It's done on a confidential basis, and unless a customer authorizes us to comment, we can't."
He adds: "Jeppesen's flight planning process is to provide the route that is going to be followed, how much fuel is needed on board, where they will stop, and how many people will be on board, for weight reasons.
"We don't necessarily know very much about the purpose of a flight because that information isn't necessary to create a flight plan. What somebody's going to do when they get off is not part of that plan."
It's not publicly known how much Boeing, the nation's No. 2 defense contractor, earned from the flights. The CIA, a stand-alone agency, does not reveal its contracts and agency work can be billed through other government departments, including the Pentagon. Jeppesen has done $7.7 million in defense contracting since Boeing bought it in 2000, based on a review of Pentagon records.
Grey says he plans to soon post on the Internet "assorted aviation documents including Jeppesen planning data" that confirm Boeing's role (Update: Grey posted the flight logs today at www.ghostplane.net.). The documents include, he says, a 2004 Boeing-arranged flight on the Boeing jet from Morocco through Spain and on to Afghanistan, which coincides with the Masri case.
Masri was mistaken as an Al Qaeda suspect and arrested by Macedonia officials on New Year's Eve 2003. In a Virginia federal lawsuit filed against ex-CIA Director George Tenet and others, Masri says he was "forcibly abducted" in Macedonia and handed over to U.S. officials. He was beaten, drugged, and eventually flown to a CIA prison in Afghanistan, he says. Five months after his abduction, the suit notes, "Mr. El-Masri was deposited at night, without explanation, on a hill in Albania"—and that was two months after U.S. officials realized they made a mistake, the suit says.
The lawsuit was thrown out earlier this year, not because it lacked merit but because it could lead to disclosure of state secrets, a federal judge ruled. Masri is appealing and Wizner, his attorney, was scheduled to make his arguments this week before a Virginia appeals court.
"Obviously," says Wizner, "before we can add Boeing to the suit, we have to get it reinstated. It's a real hurdle—the CIA is, in effect, claiming immunity, that they're never liable in such cases." He's buoyed by three federal court rulings in recent months that rejected similar government-secrets argument—all of them cases involving challenges to warrantless eavesdropping authorized by President Bush.
"If the el-Masri suit can continue, we would try to develop evidence that people within Jeppesen were aware that detainees were being subjected to human rights abuses on these flights," Wizner says. "If we can show that, Boeing should by all rights be a defendant."