+ Who are the commissioners?
There are currently 10 commissioners whose expertise spans legal, religious, medical and military fields. The Board and staff received feedback from many sources inside and outside NC about commissioners and ultimately they were chosen and appointed by the Board of NCCIT. You can view the biographies of the commissioners here.
+ Why the focus on North Carolina?
During the Bush Administration’s rendition, detention and torture program, two North Carolina airports, crew and planes were used by the CIA to facilitate the rendition of detainees. 34 detainees have been documented as being rendered using North Carolina-based planes and there are likely many more. North Carolinians have a right to know what their government is doing with their tax dollars and public resources and to hold them accountable for any illegal behavior.
+ Why is this important?
The Federal government and State government have refused to investigate or examine the role of NC in this program and there is still much that remains classified. The U.S. is obligated to investigate and accountable those who have engaged in the use of torture or cruel inhumane and degrading treatment and when that is not done, citizens can pursue ways to hold their government accountable. International authority that authorizes North Carolina to investigate, (where appropriate) prosecute, and to provide redress to torture survivors is rooted in two human rights treaties which the United States has signed and ratified: the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As duly ratified treaties of the United States, both treaties impose binding international obligations on the federal government and the 50 states and are applicable to North Carolina through the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution.
+ Isn’t it better to look forward than look backwards?
We have seen the results of this approach -- which President Obama promoted. By not seeking full transparency and accountability for the past use of torture, black sites and rendition, we leave the door open for their return. We can only move forward by looking backward to learn from mistakes, and only accountability will ensure we do not repeat them in the future.
+ What are the Commission's plans?
The Commission will conduct its inquiry in summer and fall 2017, and will hold a public hearing in Raleigh on November 30 and December 1, 2017. It will prepare and issue a report in mid- to late 2018.
+ How are you funded?
Our funding comes from private foundations, individuals, and faith groups. Donations are tax-deductible and are needed in order to complete the Commission's work.
+ What was the CIA Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program?
Soon after September 11, 2001, the U.S. launched a massive global program to capture and interrogate “war on terror” suspects. The CIA played a central role in this program, which was called Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI). Captives were “rendered,” or secretly and extra-judicially transported, at first mainly to the custody of allied security forces such as those in Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Jordan, and later to a series of “black site” prisons run by the CIA. In both settings, detainees were held secretly and indefinitely, without access to lawyers, family, or the Red Cross, and tortured during their interrogations. In 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a redacted summary of a 7,000-page report on the CIA’s black site program. The Senate investigation omitted from consideration the detainees rendered to foreign custody. The roles of other agencies, such as the Defense Department, and of private contractors in the development and implementation of U.S. secret detention and torture policies have not been addressed by our government.
The North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture will investigate North Carolina’s involvement in the U.S. program of rendition, secret detention, and torture.
+ What is Aero Contractors?
As a 2007 investigative report by the News & Observer confirmed, the aviation company Aero Contractors (hereafter called Aero) was founded in 1979 as a successor to Air America, the CIA’s Indochina aviation front company. Aero’s corporate headquarters has always been at the Johnston County Airport, so it is a North Carolina entity, enjoying the benefits of incorporation, and subject to the laws and requirements of North Carolina corporations. Starting shortly after September 11, 2001, the RDI program became a major component of Aero’s work. This was confirmed by the New York Times on May 31, 2005.
Other private actors were apparently involved in the RDI program, including security and military contractors based in North Carolina. This FAQ focuses on Aero Contractors, as its role is the best documented.
+ What evidence do you have that Aero Contractors was involved in torture?
Flight logs from the Federal Aviation Administration and international flight authorities have allowed experts to trace multiple rendition circuits of two Aero-operated aircraft, the Gulfstream V executive jet numbered N379P and the Boeing business jet numbered N313P. The circuits began with departures from the Johnston County Airport or the Kinston Jetport, and ended with returns to those same airports. In between, the aircraft visited locations that matched perfectly with the details of 34 cases of “extraordinary rendition,” or extra-legal abduction and transport for the purpose of indefinite, secret detention and abusive interrogation.
These 34 cases and Aero’s role in them are documented by the Rendition Project, along with many other cases. The Rendition Project (RP) is a collaborative research initiative of professors at the University of Kent and the University of Westminster in the UK. Working with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the human rights organization Reprieve, the RP has based its analyses on a massive amount of primary material, including prisoner testimonies, declassified documents, flight records, company invoices, and court documents.
Europe’s human rights agency, the Council of Europe, played an early role in documenting Aero Contractors’ role in the rendition program. It issued reports in 2006 and 2007 that linked N313P and N379P to the renditions of Khaled el-Masri, Ahmed Agiza, Mohamed Alzery, Binyam Mohamed, and other survivors of U.S.-led or -arranged torture.
- El-Masri was a German citizen who was rendered in 2004 by the CIA aboard the Aero-operated aircraft N313P from Macedonia to Afghanistan and held in the CIA’s “Salt Pit” blacksite for months after the CIA realized they had abducted an innocent man.
- Agiza and Alzery were Egyptian asylum-seekers whom Aero helped the CIA render to torture in Egypt in 2001; see details under #4 below.
- Mohamed was a UK legal resident who was detained and tortured by Pakistani intelligence in 2002; questioned and threatened in Pakistan by FBI and UK intelligence agents; rendered aboard the Aero-operated aircraft N379P to Morocco, where he was brutally tortured for 18 months; rendered aboard the Aero-operated aircraft N313P to the CIA’s “Dark Prison” black site in Afghanistan, where he was interrogated and tortured for four months; and flown to Guantanamo Bay detention center, where he was held for over four years until his release without criminal charges in 2009.
Documentation of North Carolina’s role is provided by the 2012 report from the UNC School of Law, “The North Carolina Connection to Extraordinary Rendition and Torture.” The report includes an appendix describing the research methodology with a list of documentation.
Two books written by investigative journalists contain exhaustive documentation of Aero Contractors’ role in extraordinary rendition. They are Torture Taxi by Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson, and Ghost Plane by Stephen Grey. Grey has won several awards for breaking and documenting the story of the secret CIA rendition system and Aero’s role, including a “Best International Reporting” award from the Overseas Press Club of America. Another book, The Dark Side by award-winning New Yorker investigative reporter Jane Mayer, describes Aero Contractors as “operated by the CIA” and discusses its involvement in the harrowing rendition and torture ordeal of Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen of Egyptian descent.
+ The CIA is a federal agency and its activities were directed by the Bush Administration. You’re complaining about the business activities of a corporation that happens to be based in North Carolina. Isn’t this misdirected?
a) Aero Contractors is just a private company that was asked to carry out a business contract, right? Maybe they didn’t know the flights they conducted were rendition flights or had anything to do with torture.
It is not credible that Aero’s owners and pilots did not understand they were engaged in the covert and abusive transport of detainees. For example:
- In 2001 Aero helped render Egyptian asylum-seekers Ahmed Agiza and Mohamed el-Zery from Sweden to Egypt aboard N379P, which had stopped en route from Johnston County, NC, at Washington Dulles Airport to take on board a CIA “snatch” team. After the handover of the two men by Swedish authorities, they were hooded, handcuffed, and strapped to mattresses in the rear of the plane, and the pilot told the Swedish Security Police there would only be room for two of their officers, not three. In Egypt, the men were brutally tortured by Egyptian security forces, including with electric shocks, death threats, and threats of sexual abuse of female relatives.
- Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Fatima Bouchar were opponents of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi who were detained in Malaysia in 2004 and then transferred to Thailand for several days of interrogation and torture by the CIA. From Thailand, the CIA and MI6, its UK counterpart, rendered Belhadj and Bouchar back to Libya aboard N313P, the Kinston-based Boeing business jet operated by Aero. For this rendition to Libya, the pregnant Bouchar was “forced onto a stretcher and had tape wound around her body from her feet to the top of head, with one of her hands pressed tightly against her womb. As the tape was wound around her face, her right eye was taped open and kept that way for the duration of the 17-hour flight, which she describes as agony. On arrival at the airport in Bangkok, the tape was cut from her body but left on her eyes, her clothes were cut off and someone pressed their finger sharply into her belly button, which she describes as excruciating. She was injected in her arm, and re-taped to a stretcher from her feet to her neck” for the 17-hour journey. On the same flight, Belhadj was handcuffed and blindfolded, and his hands were tied to his legs in such a way that he had to crouch for the entire flight, unable to stand up or lie down. Aero’s pilots must have been aware of the condition in which detainees were transported in their planes.
- In order to camouflage missions to the CIA’s black sites in eastern Europe, Aero Contractors pilots were directly involved in 2003 in filing false flight plans to hide their actual black-site destinations. Filing false flight plans is a violation of the Convention on Civil Aviation (“Chicago Convention”), to which the U.S. is a party.
b) Oversight of CIA programs is a federal responsibility. Why would the State of North Carolina and the Johnston County government have responsibility?
The extraordinary rendition / torture program violated international human rights, federal law, and state law. The responsibility for these acts is not merely a question of CIA oversight, but rather also of criminal responsibility by multiple actors. State and local governments must comply not only with federal law but also with international law. The U.S. government is responsible for the actions of the states when it comes to enforcing international law.
By ratifying the Convention Against Torture, the U.S. authorized and consented to its obligations, and made it the “supreme Law of the Land.” Federal laws have been enacted to “domesticate” CAT to assure its implementation. When it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Senate acknowledged that states were bound under treaties and could take no actions to undermine the treaty. In 2011, the U.S. government stated in its Fourth Periodic report to the UN Committee on Human Rights that perpetrators of torture could be prosecuted under federal or state laws, and pointed out that there is “a range of federal and state laws [that] prohibit conduct constituting torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In fact, because the U.S. ratified these treaties, neither the federal government nor the states can ignore their legal obligations. Whether the federal government prosecutes those responsible for the torture program does not affect the obligations of the state to uphold its responsibilities under international, federal, and state laws. The unlawful acts committed by Aero and its employees, and for which prosecution should occur under state law, include criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, human trafficking, and assault.
+ Weren’t Aero Contractors personnel and county and state officials operating in good faith, trying to help keep the U.S. safe from terrorism?
The U.S. torture program and the impunity it has enjoyed have made the U.S. less safe, not more. Professional military interrogators like Tony Camerino oppose the use of torture because it is counterproductive. As John Schiemann has explained, torture programs inevitably result in the torture of innocent people; torturing the cooperative beyond what they know; and the “confessing” of false and ambiguous information to make the torture stop. Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora and others at Harvard’s Carr Center have analyzed the high strategic costs the U.S. has paid for torture, including fueling anti-U.S. terrorism and the loss of anti-terrorism allies.
Since well before the RDI program, torture has been illegal under U.S. and international law, which is why the CIA carried out its torture program in secret. Torture is also against the tenets of all religious faiths. Faced with systematic human rights abuse by their government, all citizens have a duty to oppose the policy in whatever ways they are able. Those in elected office have more resources than private citizens with which to act against violations.
Concerned North Carolinians began alerting elected officials to the need for investigation in 2005, when the NYT broke the story of Aero’s role in rendition and torture. At a minimum, elected official should have publicly acknowledged the problem, actively pursued a coordinated county-state-federal investigation, and adopted public policies banning the use of state and county facilities for torture-related missions.
+ Did NC state officials literally do nothing?
In response to state legislators on March 20, 2007, then-AG Roy Cooper indicated the North Carolina SBI Director had referred the matter in October 2006 to the FBI’s Charlotte office. In a May 1, 2008, response to U.S. Rep. Mel Watt’s previous inquiry in Judiciary Committee hearings, the FBI indicated the Charlotte FBI office had discussed the allegations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which had forwarded them to the Department of Justice. The FBI stated it was still awaiting USDOJ advice.
There was also HB 1682, the North Carolina No Place for Torture Act, which was introduced by courageous state legislators in 2007, and strengthened after study by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission in 2008. Reintroduced as HB 2417, the bill ultimately died in 2008 for lack of sufficient support in the NC House Appropriations Committee.
To our knowledge, this is the entirety of North Carolina state elected leaders’ response to the problem of torture-related flights emanating from our state’s public airports.
+ Has AERO or any other NC entity been sued for involvement?
Aero Contractors was a co-defendant in the lawsuit brought by Khaled el-Masri against George Tenet et al in 2005:
https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/el-masri-complaint That suit failed because the courts accepted the use of the state secrets doctrine to shut the suit down entirely. It is the only lawsuit in which Aero was named by an RDI survivor/victim as a defendant.
+ How can I get involved?
We will update the activities of the commission on this website. Leading up to its public hearing in fall 2017, commissioners would like to engage with North Carolinians on what to do about our torture legacy. Invite the Commission to send a speaker to a public event in your community, or a dialogue with members of your congregation. Sign up to our email list, write a letter to the editor, and send a contribution. See our Take Action page for more ways you can get involved.