WASHINGTON -- Private American contractors who help the CIA capture terrorism suspects abroad and transfer them to secret jails are increasingly becoming the target of investigations in Europe and at home.
In Italy, Sweden, Germany, and the United States, lawmakers, public prosecutors, and human rights groups are scrutinizing the role of the US companies, which are far easier to track down and hold accountable than the CIA.
In some cases, inquiries focus on companies that appear to be thinly veiled CIA fronts. A lawsuit brought last week by the American Civil Liberties Union against three obscure companies accused of conspiring with the secret agency is seeking financial compensation for a German man who alleges he was wrongfully imprisoned and tortured by the CIA. But in other cases, scrutiny by European investigators and human rights advocates has focused on mainstream companies whose part-time work for the CIA now threatens to leave a permanent mark on their reputations.
The lawsuit and the European inquiries -- which have named a handful of private aircraft charter companies -- could help to peel back the veil of secrecy surrounding the ''rendition" operations, which have provoked widespread criticism and concerns that terrorism suspects are taken to countries where they might be tortured. Last week on a trip to Europe, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended the practice as a necessary tactic in the war on terrorism, but underscored the need for secrecy.
In addition to the ACLU lawsuit, attention has also come from Amnesty International, which is investigating hundreds of flights made by private US companies, from an Italian prosecutor, and even from ordinary citizens who look for the private planes.
New-York based Richmor Aviation, one of the nation's oldest aircraft chartering and management companies, has borne the brunt of Europe's outrage over the secret CIA flights and detentions. In February 2003, according to flight records, it provided a private jet and a pilot for a trip from a US military base in Germany to Cairo.
European investigators now believe that flight was part of a CIA rendition mission in Milan that secretly captured Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, a Muslim cleric suspected of terrorism, and flew him via Germany to Egypt, where he alleged later that he had been tortured.
The case has prompted Italian prosecutors to charge 22 purported CIA operatives with kidnapping, although Italian prosecutors acknowledge they may never be able to find and arrest the agents.
Law enforcement officials in Germany, a newspaper in Portugal, and researchers with Amnesty have begun examining Richmor's flight records for signs that the flights may have violated local or international laws.
The Gulfstream jet that Richmor leased to the CIA, owned by Red Sox part-owner Phillip H. Morse,, is followed by plane-spotting hobbyists all over the world who report on the Internet when they spot the plane landing at airports and track its tail number -- originally N85VM -- in Federation Aviation Administration records. Every trip seems to spark scrutiny, said Mahlon Richards, a co-owner of the company.
''It has a very negative effect on our business," Richards said. ''It is getting out of hand."
Recently Swedish members of parliament announced an inquiry into a 2002 flight by a Richmor jet to Sweden, even though the company says the flight was just a private tour for a wedding party.
Specialists say the CIA uses private companies as a means of hiding agency involvement in secret operations. But those companies are far easier to punish than the CIA, as they are vulnerable to sanctions, crippling lawsuits, or simply bad publicity.
''People are starting to talk about what they are going to do. Are we going to recommend that these planes not be allowed to land?" said Anne Fitzgerald, a senior adviser at Amnesty International, who is helping to analyze the logs of thousands of flights -- including some by Richmor planes -- for a report on rendition due out next year. ''I guess if you are met by Germans waving placards, you are bound to think twice about traveling there."
On Friday, Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro, said in a telephone interview that he is ''very interested in pursuing" any private companies that might have been involved in Nasr's capture, but that he has no information so far about them.
Richmor was a subcontractor with little knowledge about the larger missions of the flights, Richards said in an earlier interview. He referred initial questions about the flights to
Last March, an employee for Computer Sciences Corporation who asked not to be named said that the company did not transport terrorism suspects but that it does transport senior US officials who want to keep a low profile.
On Friday, Michael Dickerson, spokesman for the company, said ''as a matter of policy, CSC does not comment on rumors or speculation regarding the existence of contractual relationships with the US intelligence community."
Government contracts involving intelligence matters are almost always kept from the public, said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, a public policy, research, and advocacy organization.
''I don't even think you can get a copy of the CIA contract on janitorial services," he said. ''They consider that sensitive information."
The Associated Press reported in September that Richmor was one of 10 private aviation companies to be issued classified contracts in 2001 and 2002 by the Navy Engineering Logistics Office for the ''occasional airlift of [US Navy] cargo worldwide."
The Massachusetts-based Premier Executive Transport Services was also cited as having received a classified contract.
Last week, Premier was named alongside two other private companies in an ACLU lawsuit filed against former CIA director George Tenet and a host of ''John Doe" CIA operatives in another controversial rendition case. The suit was filed on behalf of Khaled al-Masri, a German man who says he was snatched from Macedonia in December 2003 and flown to Afghanistan, where he was then beaten and held incommunicado for five months before US officials determined they had captured the wrong man and let him go. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that Rice had admitted that Masri's abduction had been a ''mistake."
Steven Watt, a lawyer working on the lawsuit, acknowledged that it will be difficult -- if not impossible -- to uncover the true identities of the ''John Doe" operatives he is seeking to sue, but says he is optimistic that he can hold the private companies accountable.
''At least with the corporations, they have agents, we know where these people are," he said.
Watt said that in the case of Premier, which allegedly owned the executive jet that transported Masri to Afghanistan, he will deliver the legal papers to the company's registered agent, the Dedham-based law firm, Hill & Plakias.
Premier has no other physical address. Neither do its officers, who can only be traced to post office boxes in Virginia and Maryland.
Hill & Plakias has become the only public face of the company, bearing the brunt of a public protest in front of its offices in December 2004, after the Globe published an article disclosing Premier's connection to another rendition case in Sweden.
A second company named in the ACLU lawsuit on Masri's behalf is the North Carolina-based Aero Contractors, which allegedly provided the pilot and crew that flew him from Macedonia to Afghanistan. The New York Times has reported that Areo appears to be controlled by the CIA.
The third company named in the Masri suit is Keeler and Tate Management, a Nevada corporation that bought the Gulfstream jet shortly after the plane's Massachusetts connection was brought to light. It has no listed telephone number or physical address, and no phone number or address for its manager, Tyler Edward Tate, could be found.
Watt said that even if Keeler and Tate do not have a phone number, offices, or any employees, the company still has at least one asset that a court can seize to pay off damages to Masri: a plane.