The Associated Press has obtained documents indicating that an obscure agency of the United States Navy secretly contracted airplanes used by the CIA in “extraordinary renditions”.

At least 10 American aviation companies, including two known to be involved in chartering planes used in CIA rendition flights, obtained contracts to airlift US Navy cargo.

Tha agency involved is the little-known Navy Engineering Logistics Office:

The office has been around since the mid-1970s, according to a former employee who spoke on condition of anonymity because NELO’s activities are secret. NELO operates under different names: it’s also known as the Navy’s Office of Special Projects and its San Diego location is called the Navy Regional Plant Equipment Office.

None of those names is listed in the U.S. Government Manual, the official compilation of federal departments, agencies and offices. A man who answered the phone at NELO’s Arlington office refused to give his name or the agency’s address, suggesting it may be classified.

In court documents filed in the case of a fired Office of Special Projects whistleblower, government attorneys described the agency’s principal function as “the conduct of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence activities.”

The contracts were not disclosed to the AP, so it remains unclear why the Navy obtained these services.

Whas’s clear is that the planes involved include the Gulfstream IV belonging to the owner of the Boston Red Sox baseball team and chartered to Richmor Aviation Inc. and the Gulfstream V chartered to Premier Executive Transport Services Inc. Both private jets were known to have been used in renditions.

The story emerged as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request about permits issued to the ten companies to land at any US airbase worldwide:

The AP learned of the airplane contracts through a Freedom of Information Act request that focused on a different subject – permits granted to all 10 aviation companies that let them land at any Navy base worldwide.

The permits list planes operated by the companies and a contract number issued by NELO. The numbers provide some details about the contracts, including when they were issued, but do not say when they expire. In the documents the AP reviewed, contracts were issued in 2001 and 2002 and were cited on landing permits issued in 2004. The NELO contract numbers also appear on permits issued in 2003 and 2004 that allowed seven of the companies to buy fuel at military bases worldwide.

The permits list 31 planes under NELO contract other than the two Gulfstreams. They include a small Cessna; three huge Lockheed Hercules cargo planes; a Gulfstream 1159a; a Lear Jet 35A; a DC-3; two Boeing 737s; and a 53-passenger DeHavilland DH-8 photographed by plane spotters in Afghanistan.

Ownership of the planes is shielded behind a maze of paperwork and elusive executives.

James J. Kershaw is listed as president of three of the companies, located in Massachusetts, Tennessee and North Carolina. Two other companies share the same vice president, Colleen Bornt. Extensive public record searches could not locate either of them.

Record searches also failed to turn up information on Leonard T. Bayard, whose firm bought Premier Executive Transport Services’ Gulfstream. The address of Bayard’s firm is the Portland, Ore., office of attorney Scott Caplan.

Asked if his client is a real person, Caplan replied: “No comment.”

Owen Barder is right, by the way — this story should be getting far more attention in the UK.