Information uncovered by a citizens commission in North Carolina reveals support and resources supplied by state and local governments helped facilitate a Bush-era program of detention and torture.
According to the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT), North Carolina served as a staging ground for “extraordinary rendition” flights. Aircraft owned by a North Carolina-based company flying out of publicly-funded airports in Smithfield and Kinston picked up suspected terrorists in and transported them to CIA “black sights” in other countries. Suspects were illegally detained in these third-party countries without charges. In some cases, prisoners were held in facilities run by the host countries. In other situations, they were held in CIA or U.S. military facilities. Regardless, captives were held secretly, denied access to families or lawyers, and tortured during their interrogations.
University of North Carolina Law School professor Deborah Weissman testified before the committee, highlighting the horrific treatment prisoners endured.
“Their captors sliced off their clothes, put them into diapers, and hooded them. They were restrained, immobilized, prohibited from moving, and, if they did move, they were beaten. If they asked to be able to change positions, their mouths were taped shut,” she said. “What we are doing is working completely outside the law and contributing to some of the most egregious human rights violations you can imagine.”
The state of North Carolina helped make the program possible.
Declassified documents and news reports have confirmed that the CIA front company Aero Contractors, which is headquartered in the state, used North Carolina’s aviation infrastructure and public airports to launch these “torture taxi” flights in support of the United States’ Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program.
A report published by the University of North Carolina School of Law first revealed the intimate connection between the state and the federal rendition program.
According to the report, a former chief pilot for CIA-directed flights during the Vietnam War founded Aero Contractors. From at least 2001 to 2006, Aero operated aircraft in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. The company operated the flights through at least two dummy corporations called Stevens Express Leasing, Inc. (“Stevens”) and Premier Executive Transport Service (“Premier”). According to declassified documents, at least 44 people were transported on planes operated by Aero.
Human Rights Watch provided testimony to the NCCIT, focusing on its 2012 report “Delivered Into Enemy Hands.” The testimony revolved around at least nine opponents of then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who had been living abroad. They were transferred back to Libya and detained.
“Aero Contractors planes were used in at least three of these rendition flights. One of them carried Saleh Hadiyah Abu Abdullah Di’iki, who had been taken into custody by the CIA in Mauritania, and eventually transferred to a CIA black site in Afghanistan before being sent back to Libya. He later described being held for months by the CIA in a rat-infested cell where he was painfully shackled, forced to remain nude, and held in stress positions.”
Most significantly, support from the state of North Carolina and several of its political subdivisions made Areo’s work for the CIA possible.
“For its business, Aero relies on and benefits from North Carolina state and local resources. Its officeholders and employees are real-life residents of Johnston County or North Carolina. North Carolina and its political subdivisions have supported Aero in a number of ways, including by providing county resources to operate its business. North Carolina extended credit to Aero for the construction of a hangar at the Global TransPark Authority in Kinston. Johnston County facilitated Aero’s operations by providing permits for construction work and by conducting site safety inspections of Aero’s premises. Aero was intricately involved in the extraordinary rendition of individuals to overseas facilities and black sites, and as a North Carolina-based corporation, could not have carried out these functions without the support and resources of the state of North Carolina and its political subdivisions.” [emphasis added]
Weismann said state and local support was absolutely essential to Aero’s operation, In essence, North Carolina residents helped make torture possible.
“Aero could not exist but for engaging in contracts and other transactions with the Johnston County airport. It relies on the public airport for permits and inspections, and so, of course, our tax dollars are very much implicated in facilitating these flights and the torture.”
It remains unclear if state or local government officials were aware the company was operating flights for extraordinary rendition at the time.
Since reports became public in 2012, state officials have refused to investigate North Carolina’s involvement in rendition and in some cases have actively tried to suppress information. According to a report by Erica Hellerstein of Indy Week, in 2014, North Carolina Stop Torture Now delivered a letter to then-governor Pat McCrory’s office asking him to launch a probe into the program and calling on Johnston County commissioners to ban Aero from the airport. The commission refused. According to Hellerstein, one commissioner told The News & Observer: “I’m not going to touch that thing, not as long as they are a good job provider.”
North Carolina state Rep. Verla Insko has unsuccessfully tried to launch an investigation into the state’s role in rendition and torture. According to Hellerstein, Insko introduced a bill in 2007 that would have amended state law to identify torture and kidnapping as felonies, give the state jurisdiction to investigate and empower the convening of a grand jury to investigate the program. The bill never made it out of committee.
“Unfortunately, our state government has never summoned the political will to investigate allegations of torture-related rendition flights or to ban them from public North Carolina airports,” Insko said.
The U.S. government almost certainly continues its extraordinary rendition programs today.
State action, or inaction, could make it much more difficult for the federal government to illegally detain and torture people. North Carolina shows that states provide vital support for rendition programs. They don’t have to.
State’s could prohibit material support for torture and deny necessary state personnel and resources to any federal agency engaging in rendition. The Supreme Court has long held the federal government cannot force states or their political subdivisions to enforce federal laws or assist with the implementations of federal programs. Under the well-established anti-commandeering doctrine, states can simply withdraw support. This is exactly the strategy James Madison advised when the federal government engages in “unwarrantable” actions. He recommended a “refusal to cooperate with officers of the union.”
It’s hard to imagine anything more unwarrantable then detaining a person for years without charges or trial, and torturing them.