A Story That Cries Out for Follow-Up

Earlier this year, our print brethren at CJR called attention to the press’s piecemeal effort in adding “substantial layers to our knowledge of what the CIA daintily calls extraordinary rendition” — the frightening practice by which the U.S. government delivers suspected terrorists to countries that might not be particularly reluctant to use torture. Last March, “60 Minutes” reported that “well over 100 people have disappeared or been ‘rendered’ all around the world” in recent years. As the lead-in to the segment described it, “Witnesses tell the same story: masked men in an unmarked jet seize their target, cut off his clothes, put him in a blindfold and jumpsuit, tranquilize him and fly him away.”

Now the AP has broken a new angle in the story, reporting, as we saw on page A21 of Sunday’s Boston Globe, that “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”:

At least 10 U.S. 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. … 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.

But what had not previously been disclosed, wrote the AP’s Seth Hettena (with Rukmini Callimachi contributing), was “the Navy’s role in contracting planes involved in operations the CIA terms ‘rendition’ and what Italian prosecutors call kidnapping.” Making that connection for the first time, Hettena shined a faint light on the secrecy surrounding the Navy branch, also known as its “Office of Special Projects.” The CIA and a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon would not comment, and a lawyer for the logistics office, tracked down by AP, “declined to provide the contracts, saying they ‘involve national security information that is classified.’”

The “office’s anonymity” is such, the AP reported, that “some career Navy officials have never heard of it” (including John Hutson, the Navy’s judge advocate general from 1997 to 2000), and none of its various names “is listed in the U.S. Government Manual.” “A former employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the office’s activities are secret” did reveal, however, that the office has existed since the mid-1970s. (Separately, we found that the term “Navy Engineering Logistics Office” does not appear on the Navy’s Web site, nor does it appear in the archives of Nexis’ major papers, magazines, or news transcripts categories — ever.)

It’s a tantalizing piece of reporting, one that would seem to open new doors in the rendition narrative. The story went out over the AP wire Saturday afternoon, and many papers reprinted it over the next few days, including the Washington Post, which posted a longer version Saturday. Four days later, however, no one has followed up on it — not the Post or the New York Times, not other papers or magazines, not television — with even a brief recounting of the AP’s findings.

This is too important a story to let slide. There is clearly more than meets the eye here — and the AP’s initial foray leaves clues. We can think of a couple of ways for reporters to proceed, right off the bat:

-Try again to get through to a person with an identifiable name at Navy Engineering Logistics’ Arlington, Va. office, even if only to get a “no comment” for the record.

-Prod those in Congress (such as Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia or Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts) who have been speaking up about rendition to use what powers they have to follow up themselves — or at least to comment on the Navy’s involvement.

The AP broke the story. Now it’s up to the other press heavyweights to bring their considerable resources to bear and do their part.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.