A word from Richard Miniter

Richard Miniter is the prominent journalist and author, most recently, of Disinformation: 22 Media Myths that Undermine the War on Terror. We spoke to him originally when he published Shadow War: The Untold Story of How President Bush is Winning the War on Terror last year. Yesterday he wrote to comment on John’s Standard column “Leaking at all costs.” He wrote:

I just read your [John’s] piece in the Daily Standard. In general, you are more right than you know. In the course of reporting for my books, I talk to a number of CIA employees and intelligence officials and virtually all have a profound antipathy to Bush and [CIA Director Porter] Goss, especially the analysts.

Yet it was this sentence that grabbed my eye: “The [Times] reported that its sources included ‘interviews with former C.I.A. officers and pilots.’ It seems difficult to believe that the information conveyed in those interviews was unclassified.”

Actually, much of it is unclassified. I know the main author of that NY Times account, a Brit named Stephen Grey. He is a thorough reporter, a longtime friend and was my boss at the Sunday Times of London. A week after the London bombings, I stayed in his London townhouse and we talked about his airplane rendition story. It turns out that the movements of the CIA aircraft (and virtually all private aircraft) are a matter of public record. All you need is a tail number and you can usually obtain its movements for the past year.

Even without the tail number, you can pore through the records looking for suspicious movements (DC to Kabul to Baku and back, say). The CIA could ask (as can private parties as well) that its leased planes not have its logs publicly reported, but, whether through incompetence or design, they have not. Also, Grey told me, the incorporation records of Aero and other leasing outfits are publicly available. Here again the CIA was sloppy. Apparently many of the people named in those documents overlapped with people named in corporation’s documents, i.e., Joe Blow shows up as the chief executive of several different aircraft companies simultaneously and a Google search strongly suggests that Blow has a CIA connection. Add in some visits to bars frequented by charter pilots and airplane mechanics’ shops, and you have a large chunk of the story — all without a single CIA leak.

As for the former CIA officers cited in the Times account, I strongly suspect that those particular individuals left the agency in the 1980s. I believe I know who at least some of them are. Again, those former officials would probably not be in a position to know about particular renditions.

Richard Miniter

UPDATE: Reader Rich Cox comments:

In your post this morning regarding airplane tracking online, Richard Miniter states: “It turns out that the movements of the CIA aircraft (and virtually all private aircraft) are a matter of public record. All you need is a tail number and you can usually obtain its movements for the past year.”

This is true to a point. That is, if the “pilot” or dispatcher has filed an IFR flight plan. That is, Instrument Flight Rules, and has received clearance from ATC. Additionaly of course, this assumes that the actual tail number for the airplane is being used. Otherwise, it might be just a call sign or if its the CIA, anything they want it to be.

A flight might be (within our airspace) conducted VFR, which in most circumstances, require absolutely no flight plan or documentation of the flight. This is a good thing for us, the pilots, but may give the willies to others.

Rich Cox
Certified Flight Instructor, Instrument, and Multi-Engine
Advanced Ground Instructor

And P.S.Malloy comments:

I like Miniter, but he and the other CIA rendition leak apologists are being a little too cute. The fact that it may have been possible to reverse engineer the story using public information does not mean that it would have or could have been done. My sense is that that story would never have seen the light of day without the leak that generated it. Actually obtaining the publicly available facts cited by Miniter would be like finding a needle in a haystack in the dark, and I think the CIA was counting on that in not covering its tracks completely (this is probably symptomatic). In a media world where journalists are time and time again shown to have failed to use the most readily available resources (eg, Google), should we really believe that a reporter would sift through the thousands of flights daily to find a suspicious pattern without an inkling that something would turn up? And what is the statement about “corporation records”? I am a corporate lawyer and have incorporated many companies. All that is typically publicly available is the charter, and normally that does not contain any names. Also, these state records are not searchable, so there is no way a reporter would know where to begin. It may be that there are some “corporation”-based filing obligation of a company involved in aviation that I am not aware of but that does not seem to be what Miniter is talking about. If the standard for judging whether otherwise classified information is fair game is whether on any basis it could be pieced together using publicly available information regardless of how unlikely or remote, then the press has a built in justification for publishing just about any leaked information. We have heard this implausible justification for the aircraft rendition story before (from the NYT ombudsman among others), but it relies on the existence of a near-supernatural uber-reporter, that doesn’t now (if it ever did) exist.

JOHN adds: I don’t doubt, as Mr. Miniter says, that “much of” the information on covert flights is unclassified. My comment was directed to the interviews with “former CIA officers and pilots.” I would think that practically anything those sources would say, beyond what is a matter of record for aviation purposes, would be classified; and the article specifically notes that one of these sources did not want to be identified because he had signed a secrecy agreement. I also think, however, that it is highly probable that the article in its entirety was prompted by leaks from one or more current CIA officials.

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