Terror suspects' torture claims have Mass. link
Secrecy shrouds transfer jet
DEDHAM -- Most here know Hill & Plakias as a family law firm that handles real estate and civil squabbles for the residents of this Boston suburb.
But the inconspicuous office above a Sovereign Bank, across from the red, white, and blue flags of a used car lot called Patriot Motors, is also the address of a shadowy company that owns a Gulfstream jet that secretly ferried two Al Qaeda suspects from Sweden to Egypt.
That prisoner transfer, which occurred outside the normal extradition procedures and without notifying the men's lawyers, sparked an international uproar after the two men contended that they had been forcibly drugged by masked US agents and tortured with electric shocks in Egypt.
This spring, the Swedish government launched a series of investigations into the 2001 operation.
Since that time, the jet -- apparently on long-term lease to the US military -- has surfaced in other alleged cases of what the CIA calls "extraordinary" rendition -- the secret practice of handing prisoners in US custody to foreign governments that don't hesitate to use torture in interrogations.
The covert procedure, which must be authorized by a presidential directive, has gained little attention inside the United States.
Yet, "extraordinary rendition," one of the earliest tools employed in the war against terror, has outraged human rights activists and former CIA agents, who say it violates the international convention on torture and amounts to "outsourcing" torture.
"People are more or less openly admitting that there are certain practices that we would rather not do in the US, so why not let our allies do it?" said Ray McGovern, a former CIA operations officer who has frequently criticized the tactics used in the war on terror.
In recent weeks, the practice has become nearly synonymous with the white, 20-seat, private Gulfstream jet, numbered N379P and registered in Massachusetts.
The Sunday Times of Britain reported two weeks ago that it had obtained a classified flight log of the plane that showed 300 flights from Washington, D.C., to 49 nations, including Libya, Jordan, and Uzbekistan -- three countries where the State Department has reported the use of torture. The story focused on the jet and Premier Executive Transport Services, the Massachusetts-registered company that owns it.
Sightings of the plane -- at refueling stops in Ireland and in Karachi, where it reportedly picked up another suspect -- have been published in newspapers across the globe and on the Internet. Records at the US Army Aeronautical Services Agency show the civil aircraft has a permit to land at US military bases worldwide.
But in Massachusetts, little is known about the jet, apparently even by the lawyer who serves as the public face of the company that owns it.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss the affairs of the client business, mainly for reasons I don't know," said Dean Plakias, whose Washington Street firm in Dedham is listed as the legal local representative of the company. When asked whether the company even exists, Plakias said, "Millions of companies are set up in Massachusetts that are just paper companies."
In a later interview, he said the owners of Premier "are simply a client that leases the plane . . . out to third-party operators." He would not comment on the relationship between Premier and those operators.
When asked why the company wanted to be authorized to do business in Massachusetts or whether the plane ever traveled to Logan International Airport, Plakias said he "can't respond."
The company first incorporated in Delaware in 1994 and then in Massachusetts two years later. Neither Plakias nor the Delaware resident agent, The Prentice-Hall Corporation System, would release any information about the company or its owners. Both Plakias and an employee at Prentice-Hall said their main role was to forward mail and update annual filings to the government. Plakias acknowledged that he had not filed the required annual report to the Massachusetts secretary of state's office since 2000.
The identities of the company's owners are obscure at best.
The most recent records at the Massachusetts secretary of state's office list Bryan P. Dyess as the president and member manager and Mary Anne Phister as treasurer. No Massachusetts address could be found for Phister. The only Bryan P. Dyess that a Globe reporter could locate receives his mail at a post office box in Arlington, Va., on North George Mason Drive, 7 miles from the Pentagon.
Records with the Federal Aviation Administration list the current vice president as Colleen A. Bornt, whose only address appears to be a post office box in Chevy Chase, Md. Records indicate that both Dyess, 48, and Bornt, 54, received their Social Security numbers in the mid-1990s.
People who receive Social Security numbers late in adulthood are either recent immigrants or people given a new identity, said Beatrice Gaines, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration. Former CIA director George Tenet told the 9/11 commission in March that "renditions" were a major part of the plan to combat Al Qaeda in the late 1990s and that at least 70 had taken place prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In May, Newsweek reported that an undisclosed US agency set up a "covert charter airline" to move CIA prisoners because "it was judged impolitic [and too traceable] to use the US Air Force." Seymour Hersh's new book, "Chain of Command," suggests that a secret group inside the Department of Defense conducts the renditions. A CIA spokesman declined comment for this article.
In May, the Swedish television show "Kalla Fakta," or "Cold Facts," obtained a telephone number for Premier's owners from Plakias that began with the 703 area code of Arlington, Va. Fredrik Laurin, a journalist who helped produce the program, then posed as a potential client who wanted to rent the plane. The woman who answered the phone, identified as Mary Ellen McGuiness, said "the plane was on a long-term lease with the US government," said Laurin, who recorded the conversation for the show.
The first time the plane was mentioned in the press appears to be in October 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks. The Pakistani newspaper The News International reported that a jet "having the registration numbers N-379 P" landed at the Karachi airport at 1 a.m. one day that month to collect a foreign Al Qaeda suspect believed to be Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammad, a Yemeni university student.
Two months later, the same jet landed in Stockholm to take two Egyptians who had applied for asylum, Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed Al-Zery, to Egypt, according to a recently unclassified report by Sweden's Justice Department, interviews with Zery's lawyer, and news reports.
Kjell Jönsson, a lawyer for Zery in Sweden, said in a telephone interview that masked US agents inserted an unknown drug into his client's rectum, diapered him, and shackled him before bringing him aboard the plane. Jönsson said they also placed a blindfold on him that remained for some time -- perhaps for weeks -- after his arrival in Egypt. In Egypt, Jönsson said, "They were interrogated under violence. The electrodes were put on sensitive parts of their bodies. It's no secret."
Jönsson said that he later learned his client had been suspected in 1993 of involvement in an extremist group in Egypt called Talaeh al-Fatah, associated with Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. But after nearly two years in prison, Zery was released and cleared of all charges without ever going before a judge.
Jönsson said his client was abused despite "diplomatic assurances" that the Egyptians gave to the Swedish government that Zery would be treated humanely and given a fair trial. Agiza, the other suspect, was sentenced by a military court to 25 years imprisonment for being a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an outlawed militant group.
A month after the Swedish operation, in January 2002, a Gulfstream jet arrived in a Jakarta, Indonesia, airport to whisk away 24-year-old Muhammad Saad Iqbal, believed to be an acquaintance of Richard Reid, the British "shoe-bomber," according to the
On Jan. 29, after the plane's registration number had appeared in the press, Bornt, the company vice president, wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration requesting that it be changed, according to an employee at the agency's aircraft registration office in Oklahoma City. The letter was written on Premier's letterhead, which bore the address of the Dedham law office.
The Massachusetts connection hit a nerve with US Representative Edward D. Markey, a Malden Democrat who has been fighting in Congress to outlaw extraordinary renditions. "I am appalled and saddened to learn that a company linked to Massachusetts appears to be aiding and abetting the transport of prisoners to foreign nations where they are likely to face torture in violation of the Geneva Convention," said Markey.
In Dedham, Plakias said he was not involved in the day-to-day activities of the company. When asked whether he knew of the plane's travels, he said: "I have read a couple of news reports. I really don't know whether they are accurate or not."
Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com.