Background

The Problem: Secrecy, Impunity, Torture

“Extraordinary rendition” refers to the secret transfer of captives by the U.S. government to foreign custody or CIA “black sites.” Over 50 countries throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East participated in the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program. Whether in proxies’ jails or the CIA’s own facilities, captives were held secretly, denied access to families or lawyers, and tortured during their interrogations.

Extraordinary rendition violates national and international laws, as well as the tenets of all religious traditions. Few citizens realized the clandestine program of kidnapping and torture was being carried out in their names, making it a profound violation of democracy and the rule of law. In December 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture confirmed that the CIA systematically tortured detainees, many of them innocent of any connection to terrorism, and lied to the media and government officials about the RDI program. The question is now whether there will be any accountability for these shocking abuses.

The global "spider's web" of extraordinary rendition. Map provided by dick Marty, committee on legal affairs and human rights, council of Europe

The global "spider's web" of extraordinary rendition. Map provided by dick Marty, committee on legal affairs and human rights, council of Europe

North Carolina: A Staging Ground for Extraordinary Rendition

Aero contractors, based at the johnston county airport in smithfield, north Carolina. Photo credit: david biesack

Aero contractors, based at the johnston county airport in smithfield, north Carolina. Photo credit: david biesack

While various U.S. states hosted infrastructure or personnel for the RDI program, North Carolina is in a unique position. The state has a large Special Forces presence, proximity to CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, and many quiet rural airports — factors that led the CIA in 1979 to establish an aviation front company called Aero Contractors at the Johnston County Airport in Smithfield.

After September 11, 2001, the CIA quickly assigned Aero a leading aviation role in RDI. One of the planes operated by Aero (N379P) was a Gulfstream V jet nicknamed the “Guantanamo Express.” For a critical period during the height of the rendition program, Aero also operated a Boeing business jet (N313P) from a hangar it built at the Global TransPark, a highly visible state-run economic development project in Kinston, North Carolina. Even after receiving this report by a UNC School of Law team on North Carolina’s links to torture, elected officials have never disclosed or acknowledged our state’s role to state taxpayers. These human rights violations have been carried out and funded by the unwitting tacit compliance of North Carolina citizens.

Starting in 2001, Aero helped render dozens of detainees to secret detention and torture. Many of the detainees transported to torture by Aero were clearly innocent, were never given due process, and were profoundly damaged. Those who survived still suffer deeply. This includes Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent; Abou ElKassim Britel, an Italian citizen of Moroccan descent; Binyam Mohamed, a UK legal resident of Ethiopian descent; Khaled al-Maqtari, a Saudi national detained in Iraq; and many more. These men were subjected to brutal treatment. They were strung up in painful stress positions for long periods and endured vicious beatings. They suffered prolonged detention in complete darkness, or were bombarded with blasting sounds. They were threatened with execution and torture of their family members. So far, human rights investigators have documented that over 135 persons were subjected to extraordinary rendition. In at least 34 documented cases, North Carolina-based jets, pilots, and crews ferried detainees to torture sites for the CIA, and at least 18 of those cases appear in the executive summary of the Senate Torture Report. The tally is likely much higher, and it is uncertain if Aero is still involved in renditions.

n168d and n196d, photographed at the johnston county airport on September 7th, 2007

n168d and n196d, photographed at the johnston county airport on September 7th, 2007

Moreover, North Carolina’s role in U.S. torture goes beyond Aero Contractors, as other NC-based companies apparently participated in the RDI program. Media accounts link Centurion Aviation, a large contractor at the Fayetteville Regional Airport, to rendition.  Centurion’s precise role is unclear, but N478GS, the Gulfstream jet it operated, crashed near the CIA’s Romanian black site in suspicious circumstances.  Centurion may have been working for the Joint Special Operations Command, headquartered at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville.  In addition, former Blackwater employees have said they helped provide security on CIA rendition flights.  Blackwater, which changed its name to Xe Services in 2009 and then to Academi in 2011, was headquartered in Moyock, NC, during the height of extraordinary rendition.  The New York Times quotes a former top CIA officer as saying, “It became a very brotherly relationship. There was a feeling that Blackwater eventually became an extension of the agency.”  

Moving Forward: Acknowledgement and Accountability

While extraordinary rendition has caused serious damage to those who were kidnapped and tortured, as a state and a nation we are all harmed. The highest U.S. officials ordered soldiers and secret agents into criminal conduct without regard for the cost to those individuals’ personal integrity and psychological well-being, or the risk of undermining community support for their service and sacrifice. Torture makes us less safe. Interrogation experts know that torture generates unreliable intelligence, and that resources are squandered chasing bad leads. Images from Abu Ghraib and the stories of innocent men who were crippled or whose families were threatened only serve to recruit new terrorists. Abusing human beings overseas goes hand-in-hand with heightened disregard for human life in our own communities, prisons, and detention centers. The United States’ resort to torture and secret detention and its leaders’ refusal to confront those violations have robbed us of some of our most precious birthrights. Among those are the rule of law and the goodwill and respect of millions around the world.

left: photos of survivors of extraordinary rendition line the sidewalk after a public vigil in the state capital in 2015. Right: one of the hangars used by aero contractors, located at the johnston county airport in smithfield, nc.

left: photos of survivors of extraordinary rendition line the sidewalk after a public vigil in the state capital in 2015. Right: one of the hangars used by aero contractors, located at the johnston county airport in smithfield, nc.

The issue of torture in North Carolina has yet to be fully investigated and addressed. Citizens of North Carolina have unintentionally facilitated the torture and inhumane treatment of scores of individuals with their tax dollars. Now, Tar Heels are calling for a public inquiry in order to create transparency and make recommendations that may help prevent involvement in future human rights abuses. As momentum has built for an investigation, however, so too has an interest from some officials in covering up torture. Immediately after he became chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in January 2015, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) demanded that all Executive Branch agencies return their copies of the full 6,900 page Senate torture report. Three North Carolina governors, including Gov. Pat McCrory, have refused to acknowledge North Carolinians’ call for acknowledgement and investigation of our state’s role in rendition. Although evidence of torture-related activity at North Carolina’s public airports has been presented in three separate meetings with his staff, the Attorney General of North Carolina, Roy Cooper, has to date refused to make a public statement or call for an investigation.

In the face of government inaction, the people have the opportunity and the duty to act. A non-governmental inquiry, involving North Carolinians from all walks of life, can help keep the Senate torture report in the public eye. North Carolina can set a precedent for other states and entities to stand up against these violations of human rights. We can make history by showing the world that Americans will not allow torture to be carried out in our names and then swept under the rug.