As they powered down the aircraft on the tarmac of Barcelona’s El Prat international airport, the personnel disembarking from a sleek Gulfstream jet would have looked little different from the other tired and hungry aircrew.
But as they took off the next morning for Washington, a glance at their recent layovers – Riyadh, Amman, Bucharest – would have given a clue: this was no ordinary plane.
According to documents that have emerged from a seemingly obscure legal squabble in upstate New York, the jet, Gulfstream N85VM, formed an integral part of the fleet of private aircraft that helped the CIA to run its clandestine programme of extraordinary rendition after the 9/11 attacks.
The records offer an unprecedented insight not just into the movements of the Gulfstream jet, but also into how the rendition programme was subject to a culture every bit as corporate as other initiatives undertaken by a US administration keen on outsourcing the affairs of state to the private sector.
The Gulfstream IV executive jet was made available at a cut-rate $4,900 an hour. Crew members were paid $800 a day, according to invoices submitted to the hearing. They would submit expenses claims for meals and stay in expensive hotels. Before each flight an administrative officer at the US department of state would hand over a “to whom it may concern” letter which made clear that their mission offered “global support to US embassies worldwide”. They were warned, however, that they needed to provide detailed explanations on their invoices.
The real value of the documents is the way they allow the most comprehensive and verifiable picture to date of the CIA’s so-called “ghost planes” to be mapped out. In the past, White House administrations under both George W Bush and Barack Obama have moved to ensure that details of the programme did not leak out from court proceedings.