Confronting Rendition to Torture in North Carolina

Despite what our leaders may profess, U.S. directed torture continues and efforts to obtain redress for victims and accountability from perpetrators are met with systematic obstruction. We know we cannot rely on government, at any level, to take the initiative for accountability.

But we must not be bystanders.

Six years have passed since the release of the gruesome photos of torture at Abu Ghraib, and it is well past the deadline President Obama set for closing the prison camps at Guantanamo. Yet this Administration has steadfastly refused to seek accountability for U.S.-sponsored torture—the murderous extent of which is still being revealed—and invokes the “state secrets” privilege to obstruct prosecution when torture victims, some released without charge, seek legal redress.

These issues are never easy to confront. They require us to break through our denial, take in the horror, and hold it in awareness while we organize for action.

In a 2006 report, The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) accused the United States of operating a “clandestine ‘spiderweb’ of disappearances, secret detentions and unlawful inter-state transfers, often encompassing countries notorious for their use of torture. Hundreds of persons have become entrapped in this web—some merely suspected of sympathizing with a presumed terrorist organization.”

In North Carolina, a tenacious grassroots coalition of peace and human rights activists, religious groups, and courageous locals has organized as NC Stop Torture Now (NC-STN). According to the group, “Officials of the Bush Administration used North Carolina as a key part of their secret off-shore torture program.” The “torture taxi” planes were based in Johnston and Lenoir counties. Their pilots and crews work for Aero Contractors, a CIA linked company headquartered at the Johnston County airport in Smithfield, a town of less than 12,000 persons situated in the Coastal Plain of North Carolina about 30 miles east of Raleigh.

NC Stop Torture Now has been campaigning since 2005 at local, state, and federal levels for an end to the practice of extraordinary rendition to torture and for an investigation of Aero Contractors. They act boldly and deftly to educate the public and state officials. They seek acknowledgment and accountability for the crimes, apology and restitution for torture survivors, and assurance that state and national resources will never again be used to secretly disappear people and torture them, whether they are guilty of crimes or not.

The U.N. Convention against Torture, ratified by the 1994, requires in Article III: “No state shall expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” Failure to prosecute violations is considered a breach of international law. North Carolina law requires anyone in charge of a state agency, such as the Global TransPark where Aero maintained a hangar in Kinston, to report possible criminal violations to the State Bureau of Investigation.

NC-STN was pivotal in organizing a public conference, “Weaving a Net of Accountability: Taking on Extraordinary Rendition at the State and Regional Level,” held April 8-9 at Duke University. Speakers came from Ireland, London, New York, Washington, Boston, and from throughout North Carolina.

“It is clear that our public taxpayer-funded airports are systematically being used by the CIA for purposes that may in fact still include extraordinary rendition,” said Christina Cowger, a conference organizer and facilitator with NC-STN. Aero Contractors was founded in 1979 in the wake of the dismantling of Air America, the CIA airline that participated heavily in the Indo-China wars, she said.

“It was actually the St. Louis folks who woke us up to the fact that we had this CIA operation in our backyard,” Cowger acknowledged. A delegation from St. Louis including longtime human rights activist and war-tax resister Bill Ramsey and his friend, Andrew Wimmer, traveled to North Carolina in November 2005.

The group joined with local members of NC-STN and served a peoples’ indictment to Aero Contractors, charging them with multiple counts of violation of U.S. and international laws and treaties banning torture by providing pilots and planes for the CIA’s program of extraordinary rendition. The citizen action resulted in 14 arrests—not of the officials who are complicit in rendition to torture, but of the activists who came to seek accountability.

Wimmer was working then with the St. Louis-based Center for Theology and Social Analysis. His research on extraordinary rendition led to Global TransPark, a public-private consortium built by the state of North Carolina with economic development funds.

According to Cowger, UK journalist Stephen Grey used flight logs from the FAA and Eurocontrol (the FAA’s counterpart in Europe) to piece together the itineraries of the two main rendition planes, the Kinston-based N313P and the smaller Gulfstream, N379P, which was based at the Johnston County airport. Tail numbers have since been changed. A Montana-registered Gulfstream IV aircraft, with tail number N478GS, operated by Centurian Aviation, was based at the Fayetteville Airport, and is suspected of facilitating the extraordinary rendition program, according to Cowger, as an arm of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), based at Fort Bragg.

“The point is really a simple one,” said Robin Kirk, director of the Human Rights Center at Duke University, in introducing Gavin Simpson, lead investigator with the Council of Europe and conference presenter. “We are trying to do something about human rights abuse, extraordinary rendition, and the torture that came along with it that has its feet in our state…to get around the impunity that seems to be reigning right now with regard to human rights issues.”

The Council of Europe serves its 46 member states as “the guardian for human rights, democracy, and respect for the rule of law in Europe,” using as its reference point the European Convention on Human Rights.

Aero Contractors was the aviation “hub” of the CIA’s rendition program, which “flew dozens of people to horrific jails around the globe, using ‘civilian’ aircraft,” according to NC Stop Torture Now. The group has compiled a partial list of twenty-four detainees secretly transported by Aero Contractors for torture by or for the CIA, citing as a primary source the book Ghost Plane by Stephen Grey.

The pickup methodology for the CIA’s torture rendition flights was “alarmingly systematized,” said Simpson, who has followed the gruesome trail of so-called “extraordinary rendition” throughout Europe. “It involved stripping the suspect naked, often roughly beating him around the midriff and the ribs in the process. Men clad in ninja suits, black balaclavas, tight fitting black coats—unidentifiable from one another and without speaking a single word—would then put this person through a process of shackling, handcuffing….” Simpson said that the captors would administer sedatives, often via the rectum, and blindfold, earmuff, goggle, and hood the captives. They would place the prisoners in adult diapers, and then put them in jumpsuits or other rudimentary clothing. Finally they were “bundled onto a rendition aircraft, shackled to the ground or a gurney, sometimes given further sedatives so that they wouldn’t experience the flight, and then flown to a fate and a destination unknown.”

“Aero Contractors personnel on the aircraft were the ones who actually operated the rendition circuits. Without their personal participation, none of this would have been possible. They were the pilots in command. They were the support crew. They were the persons who held the controls of the aircraft and navigated them to landings at the black sites air [fields] with detainees bound and shackled in the back. Aero personnel were part of the systematic cover-up. For example, the pilots in command knowingly deviated from registered flight plans, willfully therefore violating the regulations of international aviation law and assuring that their operations could not be traced contemporaneously and have been mighty hard to track retrospectively,” Simpson said.

Aero Contractors employed about 80 persons toward the start of the Bush war on terror. Now it’s up to about 130 employees. “We are under no illusion that people like these are the authors of the policy. They are the foot soldiers,” Cowger asserted. “These people live and work in Johnston County in comfortable middle class houses.”

In May 2010, the Attorney General of Spain requested that a Spanish judge issue arrest warrants for 13 U.S. citizens who helped kidnap and disappear German citizen Khaled el-Masri as part of the Bush Administration’s program of extraordinary rendition. At least three of the U.S. citizens are pilots employed by Aero Contractors.

Allyson Caison, a Johnston County-based real estate broker, has been involved in NC-STN since its inception. “When in 2005 we got a notice that the folks from St. Louis were coming and were going to tell us what the CIA was doing,” the former PTA president told the assembly, “I went to the meeting to see what was going on.” Caison says she was shocked to find that the people involved with Aero Contractors were “the pillars of our community…very well-enmeshed in society. So in speaking out against them, we are not speaking out against some abstract person; we’re speaking out against our neighbors.”

Confronting these issues is not easy. It takes courage. It takes persistence. It takes fortitude.

But we must not be bystanders.

Chuck Fager, director of Quaker House, in Fayetteville, NC, is active with NC-STN in their persistent lobbying efforts before the Johnston County Board of Commissioners.“They are all Republicans and the ones up for re-election are running unopposed,” he said at the Duke conference. “After 14 months or so, we are establishing a relationship with these commissioners…month after month after month we go back. Building these types of connections is very important.”

Fager and I later talked about how difficult it is to face up to the issue of U.S. directed torture. “All the dots connected in my back yard,” he said. “It’s like waking up one morning and realizing you live next to SS headquarters.”

Recalling the June 2006 Quaker conference on torture held in Greensboro, NC, he admitted that listening was “very hard. It made me shake. I couldn’t sleep very well. I moved to a different level…my ability to keep it [torture] far away has been eroded. The levels of denial are really deep.”

Robin Kirk, in her opening remarks at the conference said, “We have to do this work where we live. We have to do this…to show our neighbors and colleagues and school teachers and grocery clerks and businessmen and soldiers, why human rights matter.” Kirk spent years working in Peru and Colombia documenting human rights abuses, and authored several reports for Human Rights Watch.

In his keynote address, Scott Horton, a contributing editor with Harper’s Magazine, detailed some of the findings of his investigation of the sudden and violent deaths of three prisoners at Camp Delta—the “extra-constitutional” prison camp at Guantanamo Naval Base. In a March 2010 Harper’s Magazine report, Horton wrote of evidence “that suggests the current administration failed to investigate seriously—and may even have continued—a cover-up of the possible homicides of three prisoners at Guantanamo in 2006.”

“When the last prisoner is departed from that area of the American enclave on the island of Cuba, the book on Guantanamo is going to be far from closed,” Horton told the Duke assembly that drew about 120 people throughout the weekend. “Most of the legacy of Guantanamo remains in place, untouched, and there is as yet no real basis to assume there will be any kind of accountability,” he said. “Ideas linked to Guantanamo are being woven into the fabric of our national security state. These transformations are going on in the policy background in Washington with surprisingly little attention.”

And the horrid revelations continue.

Stephen Soldz, a co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, which has made international news with its campaign to challenge the participation of leaders in the American Psychological Association in interrogation and torture, provided the Duke conference with insight into the psychology of denial and accountability. Soldz is president-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and coauthor of a report just released by Physicians for Human Rights. The report, “Experiments in Torture: Evidence of Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program,” he contends, “confirms previous suspicions and provides the first strong evidence that the CIA was indeed engaged in illegal and unethical research on detainees in its custody.”

Steve Watt, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program, spoke of the ongoing legal challenges to the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. Noting the “significant legal impediments” to obtaining judicial remedy, he said “It is all but certain that a fully-fledged trial of a lawsuit brought by rendition survivors is many, many years away.” With a nod to NC-STN activist Peggy Misch, Watt told the Duke conference “NC Stop Torture Now is one of the most innovative and creative grassroots groups working on torture in this country.”

Just prior to the Duke conference, Dr. Edward Horgan, a former Irish Defence Forces officer and co-founder of Shannon Watch, had his 10-year visa revoked by the U.S. State Department. After much pressure in the Irish press and from U.S. allies, including Veterans for Peace, at the last minute Dr. Horgan, who is also the International Secretary of the Irish Peace and Neutrality Alliance, was allowed travel to the U.S.

Ireland has been a neutral state since its inception, Horgan told the assembly. Over one million U.S. troops have passed through Shannon since 2002. “Three plane loads a day, at least, each bringing about 200 troops—so 500 or 600 armed troops pass through Shannon airport every day of the week, every day of the year, in gross violation of international law on neutrality.”

“Clearly torture is a serious crime. But it is connected with the two wars [Afghanistan and Iraq],” Horgan continued. “By torturing somebody you are removing some of their human rights, albeit very seriously and very grossly. By killing somebody you are removing all of their human rights. You are removing their very existence. Killing or causing the deaths, directly or indirectly, of one million people, and killing 200,000 children, or causing their deaths, [in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan] is absolutely a gross crime against humanity, regardless of who does it.”

“Kidnap, rendition and torture of U.S. enemies is now being replaced with extra-judicial killings and assassinations of U.S. enemies. Collateral damage, including the killing of thousands of innocent foreign civilians, is now acceptable to the U.S.,” Horgan said. “Obama has ordered a dramatic increase in the U.S. drone attacks. …These extrajudicial killings are being passed off as being part of the war on terror, a necessary evil. But killing someone, extra-judicially or otherwise, but unjustifiably, is even a more serious crime than torture.”

“I can speak all you want about all the bad things that have happened to myself and others,” Bisher al-Rawi told the assembly, speaking on live video from his home in London. Al-Rawi was imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured at two separate CIA facilities in Afghanistan, then transferred, via Aero Contractors, to Guantanamo in 2003 and released without charges in 2007. “Whether beatings, the pains, or the shivering cold, or people screaming because nobody is giving them the medication, or people screaming because they are being beaten up, whatever, I can go on with all of that. But I think, on top of that, we should look to the future, we should look at how we can actually do something positive to build these lives, these lives that have been destroyed… I take this very close to my heart and I have decided this is really my work in life for the time being, until the time when we no longer have to speak about these things. …I hope that will happen before too long.”

But we must not be bystanders.

CLARE HANRAHAN is a contributing editor to War Crimes Times, an associate member of Veterans For Peace Chapter 099, member of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, and an organizer with WRL Asheville.