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.
Further, Torture Flights builds on the Senate’s work by addressing renditions themselves as an integral component of a system to break individuals down through violent interrogations. As the report details, Aero transported at least 49 individuals, who were forcibly seized without any due process, in a manner that itself amounted to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Preparation for “rendition” involved physical and sometimes sexual assault, drugging, and sensory deprivation. Rendition flights were experiences of prolonged pain, dread, and terror. The whereabouts of the individuals flown by Aero, who were citizens of 16 countries and included a 16-year-old student and a pregnant woman, were not disclosed, not even to their families. They were “disappeared” for months if not years, causing agony to them and their loved ones. Even today, the fates of eight of those rendered by Aero remain unknown.
Many of the prisoners were taken to CIA “black sites,” where they experienced beatings, prolonged stress positions, temperature extremes, long-term isolation, various water tortures, mock execution, and sexual abuse. In violation of international law, the CIA transported some prisoners to foreign custody where they were subject to torture and abuse. Kidnapping, torture, and secret detention occurred without respect for victims’ innocence or guilt and absent any legal process for them to contest their abductions.
Survivors of the RDI program and their families continue to suffer from these experiences. Torture and prolonged detention have left lasting physical, emotional, and social injuries. This in turn harms relationships and livelihoods, which then amplifies the psychological damage. To resume meaningful and secure lives, survivors need medical, psychological and social support, guaranteed legal status, and economic opportunity.
This report also carefully considers the moral and legal responsibility of North Carolina for its involvement in CIA-sponsored activities. The federal government has international law obligations under both the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights not only to prevent torture, but also to provide accountability and redress for torture. It did none of these and therefore has failed to meet its international obligations. Given that the federal government has abdicated responsibility, North Carolina can and should fill the gap. Its role as home to Aero obligates it to do so. State and federal laws against conspiracy and corruption are among those instruments that apply to Aero’s activities.
As this report documents, Aero’s central role in the CIA rendition and torture program is beyond dispute. But instead of holding Aero accountable, the State of North Carolina and Johnston County until now have effectively endorsed its activities. This support has taken the form of hosting the company’s headquarters at the Johnston County Airport and providing it with various airport and other county services. Since Aero’s participation in criminal abduction and assault was publicly revealed, the State of North Carolina has made several grants to the county airport, at least one of which was specifically used to fortify the perimeter of only Aero’s corner of the facility.
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.