[Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from the executive summary and key findings of a newly released report produced by the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture entitled “Torture Flights: North Carolina’s role in the CIA rendition and torture program”.]
In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government ushered in a large-scale program of secret detention and torture that relied significantly on the State of North Carolina. Six days after the attacks, President George W. Bush signed a covert memorandum that authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to seize, detain, and interrogate suspected terrorists around the world. This report investigates North Carolina’s role in that illegal program.
The program made use of Department of Defense facilities, a network of ten CIA-controlled secret prisons or black sites in six countries, and the facilities of foreign governments. In what was called the Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) program, the CIA abducted and imprisoned at least 119 individuals before the practice was officially ended and repudiated by Executive Order in 2009. Given that detainees were also handed over to foreign governments, and the secrecy surrounding the program, the number of affected individuals is likely far higher.
Within weeks of the RDI program’s authorization, Aero Contractors, Ltd. (Aero), based in Smithfield, NC, began operating the first of two aircraft for extraordinary, or violent and secret, renditions. Between September 2001 and March 2004, Aero-operated aircraft – a Gulfstream V turbojet and Boeing 737 business jet – were used in more than 80% of identified RDI renditions. Over the full length of the program, Aero transported 34 of the known 119 CIA prisoners, plus at least 15 of those sent by the CIA to foreign custody, on 69 identified rendition circuits. These flights, using North Carolina’s public infrastructure and flown by its citizens, implicate North Carolina directly in abduction, forced disappearance, and torture.
Since 2005, North Carolina anti-torture activists from across the political spectrum have protested these actions. Motivated by diverse ethical and religious beliefs as well as a firm commitment to the rule of law, activists from North Carolina Stop Torture Now have joined with the North Carolina Council of Churches and many other allies. Citizens have pressured public officials at all levels of government to investigate the state’s complicity in the CIA’s illegal and immoral program.
The Commission initiated a large-scale investigation into North Carolina’s involvement in torture and rendition. Torture Flights: North Carolina’s role in the CIA rendition and torture program details the results of that investigation and makes recommendations for future action. The report draws on original research and expert testimony provided at public hearings as well as the extensive data compiled by The Rendition Project, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and the Human Rights Policy Lab of the University of North Carolina School of Law, among other sources.
Torture Flights provides the most comprehensive research to date on North Carolina’s complicity in the rendition phase of the RDI program. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence “Torture Report,” a redacted Executive Summary of which was released in 2014 while the full report remains classified, focused on the detention and interrogation of detainees who were held in CIA custody. Torture Flights demonstrates that that program depended upon both North Carolina’s private citizens and public infrastructure.
Among the key findings:
*North Carolina played a larger role in the U.S. torture program than anyone previously realized. For the first, “building” phase of RDI (Sept. 2001 to March 2004), over 80% of identified renditions relied upon planes and pilots based in North Carolina.
* Aero Contractors flew many CIA renditions to torture in foreign custody, which have not previously been studied. The Senate Intelligence Committee “Torture Report,” partially released in 2014, named 119 prisoners who were held and tortured by the CIA at one or more of its own black sites. But it did not cover the dozens of RDI prisoners whom the CIA rendered, often in Aero Contractors planes, for barbaric torture at the hands of foreign proxy forces. Torture Flights lists 15 of those cases in its prisoner database, and calls for a full official inquiry into the fates of those rendered to foreign custody.
* RDI renditions were not just transportation to torture — they were an integral part of the overall experience of torture. The Senate report focused on the D and the I in RDI: detention and interrogation. Torture Flights examines how renditions were deliberately designed as the first cruel steps toward dehumanizing prisoners through psychological and physical violence.
* Directly on our consciences as North Carolinians are 48 men and one woman whose rendition missions were launched from our state. The youngest was 16 at the time of his CIA abduction, and the woman was pregnant. A database on the 49 provides what is known of their fates and flight logs of their renditions. At least four are dead. While a handful have received restitution from other nations, none has gotten an acknowledgement, apology, or redress from the United States.
* By hosting Aero Contractors at public airports, and refusing to act once the “torture taxis” received national attention in 2005, North Carolina officials have in effect endorsed the company’s torture-related activities. North Carolinians began protesting Aero in November 2005. The unbroken public silence of four governors and two state attorneys general, one of whom is now Governor Roy Cooper, has left commentary to the Johnston County Commissioners. They have on several occasions publicly praised Aero, harbored at their airport, and even defended the use of torture.
* Given the national policy of de facto impunity for U.S. torture, North Carolina should have long since opened a criminal investigation into Aero’s substantial role. State and county officials should join forces. They have ample instruments among state laws, in particular those on conspiracy to kidnap, upon which to base an investigation. In collaboration with law enforcement, Governor Cooper can and should deploy the State Bureau of Investigation.
Torture Flights concludes with specific recommendations directed at federal and state officials as well as toward North Carolina citizens, whose engagement has kept the spotlight on Aero’s activities and whose continued attention is needed to ensure accountability. The recommendations seek to:
- increase transparency about the program and accountability for the illegal actions;
- provide acknowledgment, redress and reparations to its victims; and
- prevent the future use of torture.
As the report notes, additional research is also needed on the involvement of other North Carolina private corporations and public airports in extraordinary renditions in order to complete the record of the RDI program. At the broadest level, the goal is to ensure that neither the federal government nor the state of North Carolina engage in or support torture again.