Published on Sunday, March 20, 2005 by the Knight-Ridder Tribune Newspapers
Jet's Travels Cloaked in Mystery
by John Crewdson and Tom Hundley
(KRT) - Last June, the Boston Red Sox chartered an executive jet to help their manager make a quick visit home in the midst of the team's championship season.
But what was the very same Gulfstream - owned by one of the Red Sox's partners, but presumably without the team's logo on its fuselage - doing in Cairo on Feb. 18, 2003?
Perhaps by coincidence, Feb. 18, 2003, was the day an Islamic preacher known as Abu Omar, who had been abducted in Italy the previous day and forced aboard a small plane, also arrived at the Cairo airport.
Omar, whose given name is Osama Nasr Mostafa Hassan, was imprisoned by the Egyptians and, he claims, brutally tortured. The public prosecutor in Milan, Armando Spataro, who is investigating Omar's apparent kidnapping, expects to file charges within a few days, according to an Italian official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Spataro made headlines last month when, attempting to identify the plane that transported Omar from Italy to Egypt, he served a warrant on the Italian commander of the air base at Aviano, Italy, which is home to the U.S. Air Force's 31st Fighter Wing.
Spataro declines to say whether the Gulfstream that landed in Cairo, which bore the tail number N85VM, departed from Aviano around the time of Omar's disappearance.
But Federal Aviation Administration records obtained by the Chicago Tribune show that Gulfstream N85VM has been many places around the world that the Red Sox have almost certainly never gone.
Between June 2002 and January of this year, the Gulfstream made 51 visits to Guantanamo, Cuba, site of the U.S. naval base where more than 500 terrorism suspects are behind bars.
During the same period, the plane recorded 82 visits to Washington's Dulles International Airport as well as landings at Andrews Air Force Base outside the capital and the U.S. air bases at Ramstein and Rhein-Main in Germany.
The plane's flight log also shows visits to Afghanistan, Morocco, Dubai, Jordan, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, Azerbaijan and the Czech Republic.
Egypt, Afghanistan, Jordan and Morocco are among the countries to which the United States is known to have "rendered" terrorism suspects. Under the increasingly controversial practice of "rendition," terrorism suspects arrested abroad have been forcibly returned to their native countries for interrogation, sometimes with methods that are precluded by U.S. law.
The New York Times reported last month that, days after Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush authorized the CIA to transfer suspects to third countries without obtaining separate presidential approval in each instance.
Reacting to media disclosures of some renditions in which the suspects later were found to have no terrorist connections, the House of Representatives last week voted 420-2 to prohibit the use of federal money for sending detainees to countries that practice torture.
Whether or not Gulfstream N85VM was involved in the rendition of Abu Omar or others, its itinerary has bordered at times on schizophrenic.
Less than two weeks after returning from Frankfurt, Germany, the plane was pressed into service after a Friday night game to fly Red Sox manager Terry Francona home to Yardley, Pa., in time for his son's graduation, according to the Worcester Sunday Telegram.
A week later the Gulfstream was back in Washington, D.C., headed for Shannon, Ireland.
In addition to its FAA flight history, the Gulfstream has been tracked, and sometimes photographed, by the worldwide cadre of aviation aficionados who call themselves "planespotters" - not because of its possible connection with the U.S. government, but because planespotters pride themselves on keeping meticulous records of every aircraft that comes and goes at their chosen airports.
The Red Sox logo was visible, for example, in photos taken at an air show in Schenectady, N.Y., on Aug. 23, 2003, eight days after the Gulfstream returned to Washington from an around-the-world flight that included Anchorage; Osaka, Japan; Dubai; and Shannon.
The logo was not visible when the Gulfstream was photographed during a fuel stop in Shannon on June 12, 2004. But when the plane turned up at Denver's Centennial Airport in February of this year, a photo showed it was sporting not only the Sox logo but a new registration number, N227SV.
Mahlon Richards, a co-owner of Richmor Aviation in Hudson, N.Y., and the Gulfstream's charter agent, confirmed that N85VM and N227SV, which share the same manufacturer's serial number, 1172, were in fact the same aircraft.
According to FAA records, the Gulfstream's owner is not Richmor but Assembly Point Aviation, a company with an address in Albany, N.Y., but no telephone number. Dun & Bradstreet describes Assembly Point as a "religious organization" that is somehow involved with "churches, temples and shrines."
Assembly Point's sole officer and director is Phillip H. Morse of Jupiter, Fla., who reportedly made millions from the sale of the catheter-manufacturing company he founded in Glens Falls, N.Y.
Morse is a part-owner of the Red Sox, and Richards said Morse "likes to advertise the team" - hence the Red Sox logo that the jet sometimes sports.
Richmor provides charter customers and supplies pilots, maintenance and provisioning, "like with any other managed aircraft," Richards said.
The Gulfstream, which is based in Schenectady, N.Y., rents for $5,365 an hour, which works out to $128,760 for a 24-hour day or a little more than $900,000 a week. Photos of the plane's interior on Richmor's Web site show plush leather chairs and polished wood paneling.
Assuming the Gulfstream has been flying to Guantanamo on government business - a relatively safe assumption, because Guantanamo is a military reservation closed to tourists and sightseers - at standard rates those trips alone would have cost taxpayers about $13.7 million, enough to buy a less grand executive jet.
Richards said he did not know why the plane had made more than 50 trips to Guantanamo, had been in Cairo on Feb. 18, 2003, or had visited any of its other exotic locales.
"I don't ask my customers why they go anywhere, whether it's West Palm Beach or the moon," he said.
Asked who had chartered the Gulfstream for the February 2003 flight to Cairo, Richards replied, "I'll have to check with some people and call you back."
He called back several hours later to report that "my customer" did not want to be identified. Messages left at the Red Sox corporate offices in Boston and Morse's Florida home were not returned.
Although the CIA has consistently declined to discuss any specifics of its rendition program, CIA Director Porter Goss told Congress last week that, since Sept. 11, renditions had been carried out with "more safeguards and more oversight" than before.
Whatever mission it was on, Gulfstream N85VM left Dulles International Airport on the morning of Feb. 4, 2003, bound for Germany's Ramstein Air Force Base, FAA logs show. Once it had landed at Ramstein, the plane was not required to file further flight plans with the FAA until it was ready to return home.
Nicoletta Tomiselli, a spokeswoman for ENAV, the Italian equivalent of the FAA, said her agency was unable to release information about arrivals and departures at Aviano because it is a military air base.
Nor does the FAA have access to such information, except for scheduled commercial flights from Aviano that terminate in the United States.
FAA records do show, however, that at 4:19 a.m. local time on Feb. 18, 2003, the Gulfstream was on the ground at HECA, the designation for Cairo International Airport, with a flight plan for a return to Dulles with a fuel stop in Shannon.
According to its manufacturer, the Gulfstream model 4 can carry up to 10 people at a top speed of 550 m.p.h. and fly nearly 5,000 miles without refueling, roughly the distance from Chicago to Moscow, depending on the number of passengers aboard.
Although Omar's suspected kidnappers could be charged with the evidence already in Milan prosecutor Spataro's hands, identifying the aircraft used to fly Omar from Aviano to Cairo could broaden the investigation to include officials who authorized his rendition.
Any indictment of U.S. intelligence personnel would likely strain Washington's relationship with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of President Bush's strongest supporters in Europe.
But the traditional independence of Italian prosecutors guarantees that "even the minister of justice cannot tell us who to prosecute and who not to prosecute," Spataro said in a recent interview.
Before he resigned last June, former CIA Director George Tenet testified that the CIA had orchestrated more than 70 renditions during his seven-year tenure. There reportedly have been another 30 or so since then.
What makes the Abu Omar case different is the fact that Omar was not first arrested by Italian police before being handed over to whoever rendered him to Egypt, something that arguably would have shielded those involved from criminal charges.
According to a Muslim woman who said she saw it happen, Omar was snatched off the sidewalk by several men and hustled into a parked van, which drove off accompanied by another car.
Precisely what happened to Omar after that is not known, except that a source familiar with Spataro's investigation says he was driven 175 miles from Milan to the Aviano air base.
The only eyewitness account of how rendition targets are prepared for their journey comes from a veteran Swedish police inspector, Paul Forell, who was present when such a team arrived at Stockholm's Bromma airport on the night of Dec. 18, 2001.
Forell told Sweden's Channel 4 last year that those arriving at the airport included eight Americans wearing hoods and two others in business suits who introduced themselves only by their first names and said they were from the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm.
"They were very professional in their way of acting. They acted very deftly, swiftly and silently," Forell said, adding that he had the impression the team had carried out many previous renditions.
The two Egyptian-born suspects, Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery, who had been arrested earlier in the evening by Swedish security police, were handcuffed and their clothes cut from their bodies.
Suppositories apparently intended as a sedative were inserted into their anuses and diapers were put on both men, followed by dark overalls, blindfolds and hoods that completely covered their heads.
The prisoners were put aboard an unmarked Gulfstream that had flown to Stockholm from Washington's Dulles airport.
The Stockholm Gulfstream, a later model 5 that bore the tail number N379P, also has been spotted in Karachi and Gambia during other renditions.
After the plane landed in Cairo at 2:35 a.m. the next day, al-Zery and Agiza were taken to Masra Tora prison. According to Swedish government documents made public by Channel 4, when the two men were visited by the Swedish ambassador five weeks later they told him they were being tortured.
Neither man was found to have any al-Qaida connection, and al-Zery was released without charges. Agiza, who previously had been convicted in absentia of membership in an Egyptian Islamic radical organization, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Prosecutor Spataro has reason to believe the story told by Omar last year in two telephone conversations with his wife.
According to two judicial orders authorizing continuation of the taps on Omar's home telephone, a translation of which was obtained by the Chicago Tribune, Omar explained to his astonished wife, Nabila, that he had not run away but had been kidnapped on the street in Milan 14 months earlier.
In their first conversation, on April 20, 2004, Omar said he had convinced the Egyptians he was not dangerous and had been set free, with the condition that he not leave the Egyptian city of Alexandria.
On May 10, judicial records show, Omar called his wife again. Recounting his ordeal, Omar said he had been questioned at an air base in Italy and then drugged and flown to Egypt, where he was imprisoned and tortured with electric shocks.
"These circumstances," the judge concluded, "if confirmed, would represent a very severe violation of Italian sovereignty."
The U.S. State Department has criticized Egypt for "numerous, serious human-rights abuses" during interrogations, including cases of torture that resulted in death.
Italian investigators discount the possibility that Omar made up his story for the benefit of the police, because during one conversation he directed his wife to destroy his computer before the police discovered it - a statement he likely would not have made had he known he was being overheard.
The second call from Omar was the last. Two days later, he was re-arrested by the Egyptians. Italian authorities assume he still is alive and in an Egyptian prison, although they don't know for sure.
Spataro says the Italian government has made a formal request to Egypt to return Omar to Italy but has not received a reply. An Egyptian Embassy spokesman in Washington did not respond to questions about whether Omar had been charged with a crime in Egypt, whether his complaints of torture were true or whether he would be returned to Italy.
© Copyright 2005 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services