As I write this, our nation’s flags fly at half-mast and the late Senator John McCain is being honored at a memorial service attended by three former presidents at Washington’s National Cathedral. His relationship with torture was intimate, not only because he was a torture survivor, but also because in the experience of being tortured he came to realize the importance of the prohibition against cruelty to our nation’s character and global role. In his last book, The Restless Wave, written in contemplation of his own death, he addressed the reasons that impelled him so implacably and consistently to oppose the use of torture by the United States. He wrote:
The moral values and integrity of our nation, and the long, difficult, fraught history of our efforts to uphold them at home and abroad, are the test of every American generation. Will we act in this world with respect for our founding conviction that all people have equal dignity in the eyes of God and should be accorded the same respect by the laws and governments of men? That is the most important question history ever asks of us. Answering in the affirmative by our action is the highest form of patriotism….1
When the United States tortured, we did so in direct violation of that “founding conviction.” But the evidence shows that we damaged the nation in other ways as well, and that the harm is not merely relegated to the past but continues to this day. Our use of torture and our failure to hold ourselves accountable for the crimes of torture continue to damage our national character, our laws and the rule of law, the fabric of human rights and international law, our foreign policy, and our national security.
This is the context in which this report by the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture, or NCCIT, must be understood. When those North Carolina citizens who established the Commission acted, they did so motivated by the understanding that the torture of even a few people violates the equal dignity of all, by the desire to step in and stand up when government had demonstrated that it could not be prodded or trusted to investigate its own wrongdoing, and to advance the principle of accountability without which all law is hollow. Above all, they were determined that, to the degree that it was in their power, the state they loved would not be tainted by torture. This is indeed, as Senator McCain said, an example of “the highest form of patriotism.”
This seminal report, Torture Flights: North Carolina’s Role in the CIA Rendition and Torture Program, presents NCCIT’s investigatory findings on the issue of whether individuals or business entities located in the state of North Carolina, and acting out of its territory, participated in the U.S. Government’s CIA-led torture program during the George W. Bush administration. The sobering finding, amply documented in these pages, is that they did. The connection between North Carolina and the government-sponsored torture of the era is clear: aircraft operated by at least one local company, based at North Carolina airfields that were subsidized by North Carolina revenues and subject to a measure of North Carolina regulation, and flown by North Carolina pilots, were engaged in the transport of dozens of captive individuals to multiple foreign sites, some managed by U.S. officials, others by foreign governments, to be tortured.
Were the value Torture Flights to stand only on these findings, the report would be considered a significant achievement. Not only does it document North Carolina’s connection to torture, but it helps illuminate one of the least known aspects of the CIA’s infamous “Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation” program, the rendition element. Now, thanks to this report, we understand better the “torture taxi” system that transported the prisoners and the network of private contractors that were engaged in this activity, both important cogs in the machinery of torture. The report is useful, too, in helping to alert and to demonstrate to state officials across the country how illegal activity at the federal level may come to implicate state actors in potential liability. Indeed, because the commission of torture or conspiring in the commission of torture is a crime in North Carolina (as it is in every state), it would be surprising if North Carolina state authorities would not now launch their own investigation to determine whether or not state laws were broken or whether evidence relevant to open investigations in other countries should not be sought.
But as important as the contents of Torture Flights are, an equally important story is to be found in the story behind the story, that is, the character, grit, and persistence of the North Carolina citizens whose tenacity to uncover how their state was used in the RDI program led to the formation of the NCCIT. When concerned citizens first learned that rendition flights involved in the RDI program operated out of North Carolina, these individuals acted and have not stopped acting: they investigated, protested, cajoled, disrupted, rallied others to their cause, called on local and state authorities to perform their duties, organized, fundraised, and helped launch the NCCIT.
Theodore Roosevelt, that most energetic of American presidents, admired courage, action, and the pursuit of justice, and he expected every citizen to embody these values. This is how he put it: “The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he shall work in politics; his second duty is that he shall do that work in a practical manner; and his third is that it shall be done in accord with the highest principles of honor and justice.”2 Torture Flights and the NCCIT are many things, but they also represent citizen behavior at the highest pitch of civic responsibility, models of grass-roots citizen engagement and action, and an inspiration to all Americans to fulfill their non-delegable public duties.
In the end, what did the NCCIT identify as the task ahead? In the Report’s Conclusion, the authors state: “we must fully account for what we did, identify the people responsible, hold them to account, and through these actions make vivid our vow that it will not happen again.” Just so. One can hardly find a more impressive example of citizens acting in accordance with their civic duties or in pursuit of a more important cause. Teddy Roosevelt and John McCain would approve. We all should.