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Thu, Mar 03, 2005

Plane Spotters Embarrass Spooks

Millions In CIA Secrecy Blown By Geeks Who Obsess Over Tail Numbers

It seems to have started in Britain, the rather peculiar pastime of standing in the rain at the end of the runway, watching planes land and take off and collecting photographs and lists of their tail numbers, in the same way avid bird-watchers keep logs and details of the variety of avian life they've seen. It makes as much sense as any hobby, which is to say, not much, but it's always been regarded as a harmless activity. But is it? According to Newsweek magazine, the combination of these harmless eccentrics and the Internet has made it extremely difficult for the CIA to maintain the "cover" it needs for the aircraft it uses in clandestine activities.

In a small item in the Periscope section of the March 7 Newsweek (currently on the stands), Newsweek's Mark Hosenball describes how plane spotters not only "outed" two reputed Agency aircraft, a 737 and a Gulfstream, they also may have exposed Agency activities in some extremely sensitive locations. Hosenball helpfully describes to Newsweek's readers how to do it, although he does keep the tail numbers of the aircraft to himself (somewhat pointless... the cat can only come out of the bag once). Someone in the US intel community admitted to him that this kind of thing was "not helpful."

To illustrate what Hosenball is getting at, it took Aero-News less that five minutes to establish the following: The 737 in question is actually a Boeing Business Jet (737-7BC), Construction Number 33010 and Line Number 1037. It first flew December 12, 2001 and on the 20th was delivered to c company called Premier Executive Transport Services with the registration number N313P. In November, 2004 it was transferred to a company called Keeler and Tate Management LLC of Reno. The ownership trail on the Gulfstream V is similar; although it may have passed through another firm called Bayard Foreign Marketing. It flew under N379P while owned Premier Executive Transport Services Inc and N8068V under Keeler and Tate Management. (It originally had the test registration N581GV). In the FAA's online database, 8068V shows up as a Robinson R-22 whose registration was cancelled in 1993 due to export to South Africa. (The old PETS numbers have already been reserved by new owners).

Unfortunately, this may be much more than the tip of the iceberg. The CIA is very unlikely to have more than one BBJ, and the exposure of this machine -- if it is indeed an Agency machine -- has not only eliminated *its* utility to the Agency, but also made any reasonably likely replacement much less likely. There are not many options left to the Agency for moving people and stuff without raising a hue and cry. The G-V likewise is a machine that is optimal for what that kind of organization does. It's not exceedingly rare, it's not remarkable looking, and it has range and speed. But from now on *every* Gulfstream operator is going to get the hairy eyeball, all over the world, from folks who have reasons to dislike or fear American spooks. Including any Gulfstream operators who are really spooks.

Perhaps this is what DCI Porter Goss meant on February 17th when he told Congress: "Our officers are taking risks, and I will be asking them to take more risks--justifiable risks--because I would much rather explain why we did something than why we did nothing." Perhaps he was speaking of the essential paradox of clandestine duty in an open society.

Once the CIA operated numerous businesses, known as "proprietaries," the most well-known of which were airlines: China Air Transport and Air America. Having anonymous and untraceable aircraft is, of course, useful in clandestine activity, which is, according to the National Security Act of 1947, why there is a CIA. Without the larger proprietaries of the fifties and sixties, legally constituted clandestine organizations maintain a raft of costly shell companies among which aircraft are shuffled in an attempt to make them untraceable by foreign powers. But now the untraceable has been made traceable.

Who's to blame for this setback in the Global War on Terrorism? Well, like most such setbacks, the enemy can't take the credit. Someone on our side - specifically, lawyers -- betrayed the secret, according to Hosenball. "Intel sources say the CIA's own lawyers ... decreed that... the agency must register its aircraft ... with public authorities like the FAA, even though this could provide clues to clandestine activity," he wrote.

Efforts to put the cat back in the bag continue, and may lead to some changes in the rules. The police can get an untraceable license plate for an unmarked car, or they can get one that leads to a false database entry. So can the FBI. Perhaps a similar accommodation can be worked out for the spy agency's airplanes. Or perhaps the FAA could charge extra for an "unlisted number." Many corporations would happily pay for that ability.

But in the meantime: congratulations, taxpayer. You're a fractional owner of a formerly-secret BBJ.



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