SAN DIEGO -- A branch of the Navy secretly contracted for a 33-plane fleet that included two Gulfstream jets reportedly used to fly terror suspects to countries known to practice torture, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.
At least 10 US aviation companies were issued classified contracts in 2001 and 2002 by the obscure Navy Engineering Logistics Office for the ''occasional airlift of USN [Navy] cargo worldwide," according to Defense Department documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Two of the companies, Richmor Aviation Inc. and Premier Executive Transport Services Inc., chartered luxury Gulfstreams that flew terror suspects captured in Europe to Egypt, according to US and European media reports. Once there, they were tortured, the men told relatives. Authorities in Italy and Sweden have expressed outrage over flights they say were illegal and orchestrated by the US government.
The Gulfstreams faced scrutiny in 2001, but what hasn't been disclosed is the Navy's role in contracting planes involved in operations the CIA terms ''rendition" and what Italian prosecutors call kidnapping.
''A lot of us have been focusing on the role of the CIA, but also suspecting that certain parts of the armed forces are involved," said Margaret Satterthwaite, a New York University School of Law researcher who has investigated renditions.
The Navy contracts involve more planes than previously reported -- other news outlets said there were 26 planes; the AP identified 33.
Italian judges have issued arrest warrants for 19 purported CIA operatives who allegedly snatched a Muslim cleric from Milan in 2003 and flew him to Cairo aboard Richmor's Gulfstream IV, according to FAA records cited by the Chicago Tribune. The jet belongs to a part-owner of the Boston Red Sox, who told The Boston Globe that the team's logo was covered when the CIA leased the plane. Another case involves two men taken from Sweden to Egypt in 2001 aboard Premier's Gulfstream V.
Neither the CIA nor a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon would comment for this story. Officials at the Navy Engineering Logistics Office in Arlington, Va., did not respond to messages requesting comment.
Joseph P. Duenas, counsel for the logistics office, declined to provide the contracts, saying they ''involve national security information that is classified."
The secrecy surrounding the contracts makes it unclear why the logistics office issued them, but one reason may be the office's anonymity -- some career Navy officials have never heard of it.
John Hutson, a retired rear admiral who was the Navy's judge advocate general from 1997 to 2000 and is critical of the Bush administration's detainee policies, said he was not familiar with the office. Told of its activities, Hutson said logistics office employees could be held liable if they knew the planes would be used for renditions.
The office has been around since the mid-1970s, according to a former employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the office's activities are secret. The office operates under different names: it's also known as the Navy's Office of Special Projects and its San Diego location is called the Navy Regional Plant Equipment Office.
None of those names is listed in the US Government Manual, the official compilation of federal departments, agencies, and offices. A man who answered the phone at Navy Engineering Logistics' Arlington office refused to give his name or the agency's address, suggesting it may be classified.
In court documents filed in the case of a fired Office of Special Projects whistleblower, government lawyers described the agency's principal function as ''the conduct of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence activities."