passenger jet in question, which trundled off the assembly
line in Washington state in late 2001, looks unremarkable
from the outside. Its paint scheme is low profile: The top
half is painted white, the bottom is painted gray, and red
and blue striping runs along the midsection of the vehicle
and up the tail fin. There is no corporate logo of any sort
on the aircraft. Stamped on the fuselage near the rear of
the plane is a key clue to its shadowy life, a tracking code
known as a “tail number,” essentially the Federal Aviation
Administration’s version of a license plate.
show plane number N313P was initially purchased by a Massachusetts
company called Premier Executive Transport Services Inc.,
a tiny firm that owned one other plane.
as Premier acquired the Boeing, the company began making intriguing
modifications to what is normally a short-range aircraft—mainly
the sorts of things you’d do if you wanted to fly epic distances
without stopping for gas. The changes are documented in a
thick sheaf of FAA paperwork obtained by the San Francisco
Premier tweaked the wings, installing “winglets,” little vertical
fins designed to help planes take off from short runways and
under tough weather conditions and to boost fuel efficiency,
and thus, range. Next, Premier put in an auxiliary fuel tank
system, adding seven extra fuel cells, again increasing the
vehicle’s range. Then, in 2002, the plane was sent off to
a hangar in Dallas, where technicians added a sophisticated
data and antenna system, a 24-inch flat-panel TV, and a new
this time, a San Francisco Bay Area guy, a brainy character
with a background in science and a penchant for speaking in
baffling aerospace jargon, became one of the first people
to notice that something strange was going on with plane number
N313P. We met this gentleman, whom we’ll call Ray, on a blustery
night in early December in a dimly lit burger joint in the
East Bay suburbs. Ray’s a hardcore planespotter, one of those
somewhat eccentric hobbyists who spend their free time tracking
the flights of aircraft by sifting through FAA data, airplane
radio transmissions, and the Web postings and snapshots of
are dozens of planespotter Web sites—Airliners.net, Landings.com,
and Flightaware.com are among the most popular—loaded with
photos of aircraft and arcane facts about modern aviation.
Some sites are focused on commercial planes, while others
are dedicated to ferreting out details about military vehicles
and classified experimental craft. Planespotters tend to be
inveterate data-fetishists, men obsessed with the accumulation
of facts—and over the past year, some of those facts have
migrated from their insular online universe to the mainstream
media, causing migraines for the CIA and the Bush administration.
who uses some, shall we say, interesting methods to
get some of his information, has asked us not to use his real
name for this story. He greeted us with a half joke. “There’s
no story here! Condoleezza Rice says we don’t torture people,”
he said, laughing and pointing to a story on the front page
of USA Today.
in 2002, Ray and fellow planespotters started noticing some
odd flights: civilian planes traveling to places like Afghanistan,
Azerbaijan, Libya, and Uzbekistan—the kind of thing Ambrose
Bierce meant when he famously declared that “war is God’s
way of teaching Americans geography.” Planespotters slowly
developed an index of the tail numbers of these aircraft,
but as Ray and his pals started searching for more information
about the jets, they stumbled into a spider web of front companies,
cover stories, half-truths, and obvious lies.
verify one thing, however. For some reason, plane N313P had
blanket permission to land at any U.S. Army base anywhere
in the world, a fact that sparked his curiosity, since very
few private companies are allowed that level of access to
military facilities. Army records indicate the service has
issued only 24 such permits in the past two years. Planespotter
listservs bubbled with speculation that the plane was a spookmobile,
a vehicle owned by a phony front company and used by the CIA
to carry out agency missions.
certainly wasn’t implausible. The spy agency has a well-documented
history of creating bogus aviation firms to cover its tracks,
most notably Air America, a Vietnam-era company that later
became the subject of a Hollywood film.
Ray got another juicy clue: Using FAA data, he caught the
plane making a trip from the States to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Given the intense secrecy surrounding the controversial base,
where the US is holding hundreds of men pulled off the battlefields
in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ray couldn’t imagine the military
opening up its Gitmo landing strip to a civilian plane owned
by an insignificant little company. “That’s when I realized
that these things were the real deal,” he said.
convinced it was being used for “extraordinary rendition,”
the process of dragging purported terrorists to countries
where regard for human rights is low and the use of torture
in eliciting testimony is common.
point, there’s little doubt the plane served as the CIA’s
torture taxi. The Washington Post, 60 Minutes,
and numerous German media outlets have all tied Boeing number
N313P to the agency, and all traces of its putative owner,
Premier, have vanished. The company’s boss appears to be a
completely fictional character.
the Boeing’s alleged role in the kidnapping of a German citizen,
a 42-year-old man of Lebanese descent named Khaled El-Masri,
that put Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the defensive
during her recent visit to Germany.
the CIA is using a fleet of some 26 planes,” said Steven Watt,
a human rights expert with the American Civil Liberties Union
who is working on El-Masri’s behalf. The agency’s network
of front companies, Watt argued, is “complicit in unlawful
acts of torture and detainment.”
tale, laid out in a lawsuit filed in federal court Dec. 6
by the ACLU, reads like a post-9/11 spy novel. A really fucking
scary spy novel.
to the suit, El-Masri was forcibly abducted on New Year’s
Eve 2003, while on vacation in Macedonia. His captors—a rotating
crew of armed Macedonians, apparently law enforcement agents
of some sort—held him in a hotel room for 23 days, he claims.
Eventually, El-Masri says, seven or eight men clad in black,
their faces covered by black ski masks, entered the room.
They hooded him, chained his wrists and ankles, wrapped him
in a diaper, and threw him on a plane, where, he alleges,
he was injected with some sort of sedative drug. ACLU investigators
later identified the aircraft as plane N313P.
purportedly ferried him, semiconscious, from Macedonia to
Kabul, Afghanistan, making a stop in Baghdad on the way. In
Kabul, the suit claims, “Mr. El-Masri was removed from the
plane and shoved into the back of a waiting vehicle. The car
drove for about ten minutes. Mr. El-Masri was then dragged
from the vehicle, pushed into a building, thrown to the floor,
and kicked and beaten on the head and the small of his back.
He was left in a small, dirty, concrete cell. When he adjusted
his eyes to the light, he saw that the walls were covered
in crude Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi writing. The cell did not
contain a bed.”
believes the jail was a secret CIA detention center, a former
brick factory outside Kabul called the “Salt Pit.” For five
months, El-Masri says, he was locked in a solitary cell in
the Salt Pit and interrogated by Arabic-speaking inquisitors
who asked him repeatedly if he was involved with the Sept.
11 hijackers, if he’d journeyed to Jalalabad on a false passport,
if he hung out with Islamic extremists living in Germany.
was, El-Masri didn’t have any terrorist connections. He was
the wrong guy, a conclusion the agency apparently reached
in late May 2004, when, El-Masri says, he was thrown on another
plane and dumped in Albania.
Watt said “the allegations are substantiated by flight records”
placing plane N313P in Macedonia, Iraq, and Afghanistan during
the times at issue. As of mid-2004, FAA records show, the
plane had spent more than 1,300 hours in the skies, enough
time to make 100 flights between the United States and Kabul.
doesn’t stop with Premier. When journalists started connecting
the dots in 2004, Premier sold the Boeing to a Reno firm called
Keeler and Tate Management Group LLC. The transaction is recorded
in FAA documents we obtained.
Keeler and Tate is named in the ACLU’s suit—along with Premier,
another aviation outfit, and former CIA chief George Tenet—nobody’s
really checked out the company yet, so we decided to take
a little trip up I-80 to northern Nevada to see what we could
uncover. Things got shady fast.
cold, gray December day, we paid a visit to the Nevada secretary
of state’s office, a little stone building in Carson City,
a small town nestled between snow-flecked Sierra peaks. The
office, which oversees all businesses incorporated in the
state, has several documents related to Keeler and Tate on
file—and all of them look screwy.
to the state records, Keeler and Tate is owned by a guy named
Tyler Edward Tate, whose signature appears on three different
official documents. The signatures vary markedly from document
to document. Obviously we’re not handwriting experts, but
we got the distinct impression they weren’t made by the same
there doesn’t appear to be a Tyler Edward Tate anywhere near
Reno, because he’s not in the white pages and the name didn’t
pop up in an extensive review of online databases.
live person we could find on the Keeler and Tate paperwork
was Steven F. Petersen, an attorney who acts as its “registered
agent.” A registered agent is someone who handles any subpoenas
or lawsuits served on a business.
runs his practice from a suite at 245 East Liberty St. in
Reno; it’s the same address listed on Keeler and Tate’s official
letterhead and is the only address listed on any document
related to the company. We headed there next.
a surprise when we arrived at the building, a five-story brown-glass
office cube in downtown Reno, a few blocks from the neon-lit
casino strip. Petersen shares his suite with a guy with deep
Washington, D.C., connections, a man named Peter Laxalt.
and Peter Laxalt have a clear business relationship. The sign
on the office door says Laxalt is “of counsel” to Petersen’s
law firm, meaning he works with Petersen.
directory says the suite is also home to the Reno branch of
the Paul Laxalt Group, a major Capitol Hill lobbying firm.
background is in order: Peter and Paul Laxalt are brothers.
A hawkish Republican, Paul Laxalt is one of the bigger names
in Nevada politics, having served as governor, from 1967 to
1971, and later as a U.S. senator, from 1974 to 1987. He was
a close confidant of Ronald Reagan (heading his election campaigns
on three occasions), a strong supporter of the MX nuclear
missile program, and a liaison between the Senate and the
White House during the Iran-Contra scandal. An Army veteran,
he was also, according to The New York Times,
a good friend of late CIA director William Casey.
leaving Congress, Paul Laxalt pulled a classic politico move,
promptly forming a lobby shop, dubbing it the Paul Laxalt
Group, and hiring his brother Peter.
by the office three times and confirmed that both Petersen
and Peter Laxalt use the space, but we couldn’t get past the
receptionists, who, for some reason, didn’t seem too freaked-out
when we started talking about the CIA, torture, and mysterious
aviation companies. Stymied, we placed a call to the D.C.
headquarters of the Paul Laxalt Group, where we reached an
employee named Tom Loranger, who told us, “We don’t have an
office in Reno. . . . I don’t think Peter is working for us
we called the office at 245 East Liberty one last time. The
receptionist said we had indeed reached the Paul Laxalt Group,
but, unfortunately, Peter Laxalt wasn’t available. She took
a message; he never called back.
ACLU, Watt admitted he’s still piecing together the Keeler
and Tate puzzle, but he feels certain the firm is simply the
CIA’s latest ruse. “If I were a resident of Reno and I knew
a local company had a role in human rights abuses, I wouldn’t
be overly happy about it,” he said, adding that by his tally,
at least 150 people have been the victims of extraordinary
is clear. FAA flight logs reveal the plane, which now bears
a new number, is still flying, taking off regularly from a
North Carolina airfield that The New York Times
has linked to the CIA.
the night at the El Dorado, a garish hotel-casino that happens
to have cheap rooms and wireless Internet access. Now, generally
speaking, we’re not big on gambling, but we were in Reno,
and in Reno gambling is practically a civic responsibility,
so we decided to examine the odds.
this is all just strange coincidence—what appears to be a
CIA shell company operating out of the office of Peter Laxalt,
brother to a big-time Washington powerbroker who counted as
his friend a notorious spymaster and former head of the agency.
Maybe Keeler and Tate is a thoroughly legit outfit.
seriously doubt it. When you walk into a situation this spooky,
there’s only one way to place your bet.
Thompson is a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian,
where this story first appeared. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Trevor Paglen is a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University
of California, Berkeley. An expert on clandestine military
installations, he leads expeditions to the secret bases of
the American west and maintains paglen.com. He can be reached