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Citizen-Led Truth Commission Seeks Justice For Survivors Of North Carolina Torture Flights

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was shackled and blindfolded. Then the men in black stripped him naked and placed him in a diaper.

Although his eyes were covered, Slahi could hear the sound of aircraft engines whirring around him. One of the planes came to shuttle him to an United States air base in Afghanistan for interrogation.

“I was so exhausted, sick, and tired that I couldn’t walk, which compelled the escort to pull me up the steps like a dead body,” Slahi wrote in Guantánamo Diary, a firsthand account of his rendition and subsequent 14-year imprisonment at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.

“I was crying silently and without tears,” he recalled. “For some reason, I gave all my tears at the beginning of the expedition, which was like the boundary between life and death.”

Slahi’s violent apprehension was not unique among other extraordinary rendition operations conducted during the first years of the war on terrorism. Nor was it unusual for terrorism detainees like him to be taxied to torture onboard the same Gulfstream V aircraft—tail number N379P— that Slahi called his “special” plane.

What people were surprised about, both then and now, was that the rendition flights departed from a small airport in rural North Carolina and were conducted by Aero Contractors Limited, a private front company for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Now, sixteen years after Slahi’s rendition, members of a citizen-led truth commission in North Carolina hope that a new report will bring him and other survivors one step closer to holding the perpetrators of their torture accountable.

In September, the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture capped an 18-month investigation with the release of a final report that shines light onto the outsized role that North Carolina played in the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

The Commission’s members include academics, lawyers, human rights advocates, and retired military officers. Drawing on hours of witness and expert testimony, as well as troves of publicly available documents, their report is an educational tool for people of conscience hoping to promote transparency and accountability with the ultimate goal of ending torture.

The report is also a searing indictment against federal, state, and local officials for their role in facilitating Aero’s day-to-day operations and failing to investigate the North Carolina company’s involvement with the torture program.

“This is a very credible, blue ribbon panel of highly esteemed individuals from different walks of life,” said Christina Cowger, a board member for the Commission and a longtime activist against torture.

“When they come forward with a conclusion that North Carolina has endorsed and is complicit in kidnapping, conspiracy to kidnap and torture, that’s a strong statement.”

The ‘Ghost Pilots’ Of Aero

Following the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, Aero “ghost pilots” aided in the rendition of at least 48 men and one woman into the hands of American and foreign officers at secret prisons, or “black sites,” around the world.

Detainees were often held without charge and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, slapping and sleep deprivation. These techniques are recognized as torture, a crime punishable under the U.S. Torture Act and numerous international treaties.

Aero founder Jim Rhyne modeled the company after his former employer, Air America, the CIA’s secret air division whose pilots conducted covert operations during the Vietnam War. Air America pilots sprayed Agent Orange. Three years after Air America disbanded in 1976, Rhyne incorporated Aero to fill an “unmet market need for dependable and discreet airlift.”

Even though at times it has been called the most progressive state in the South, eastern North Carolina’s history of entrenched poverty and segregationist politics gives visitors the feeling that they have stepped into the Deep South. The region has remained a bastion of conservatism with close ties to the military and corporate agriculture, despite notable examples of resistance from residents like recent MacArthur Genius award-winner and civil rights leader, Reverend William Barber.

When the abduction of detainees increased dramatically in 2001, the bucolic southern town of Smithfield afforded Aero Contractors ample cover for the company to meet the CIA’s burgeoning demand for “discreet airlift.”

The Commission estimates that Aero conducted more than 80 percent of identified U.S. renditions between 2001 and 2004, a distinction the Commission maintains would not have been possible without the resources and infrastructure support it received from North Carolina officials.

At the height of the RDI program, Aero utilized two airports in the state to conduct its flights: the Johnston County Regional Airport and the Kinston Regional Jetport.

The report found that local officials facilitated CIA rendition flights by leasing the aviation company space at the Johnston County Regional Airport. Later, the state extended credit to Aero for the construction of a 20,000 square foot hangar at Kinston through a public-private partnership called the North Carolina Global TransPark.

“Even after Aero’s role in the CIA program had come to light,” the Commission describes, “local and state authorities continued to lease space to the company, provide public airport services and facilities for rendition flights, and provide grants to fortify the company’s perimeter at its airport headquarters.”

The North Carolina torture report suggests the company may have also benefited from the state’s close association with military and government contractors, such as Blackwater USA, the private security firm formerly headquartered in Moyock.

Though unconfirmed, the report points to Blackwater’s close association with the CIA, including their assistance with the transfer of detainees overseas and their hiring of former intelligence officers, as possible evidence that the dubious security firm might have participated in extraordinary rendition operations.

Although it has no official legal authority and makes no recommendations for who to charge, the Commission insists federal authorities should investigate Aero’s past activities because of their obligations under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which stipulates that the U.S. government is responsible for torture even by private contractors like Aero.

State and local officials, including governors and members of the Johnston County commissioners in office between 2005 and 2018, were aware of credible concerns about Aero and ignored them. They are complicit in torture, said James Coleman, a member of the Commission and co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law School.

In the absence of a federal investigation, the Commission insists North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein conduct their own inquiries and prosecute eligible Aero “employees, agents and collaborators,” where it is justified under state law. Coleman told Shadowproof that the clearest path to prosecution would be for the attorney general to charge Aero associates under the state’s conspiracy law.

The North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture is not the first attempt by North Carolinians to bring scrutiny upon Aero Contractors. In fact, the Commission owes its existence to the grassroots organizing of North Carolina Stop Torture Now, a group of activists working to shine a light on their state’s ties to the RDI program in order to “stop torture everywhere.”

Despite attending dozens of meetings of the Johnston County commissioners, local officials have continued to evade the group’s requests for an investigation. Some of them have expressed support for Aero’s work.

“It’s not much different from hiring a taxicab,” commissioner Allen Mims told the Washington Post in 2012. “I’d rather that the CIA do it that way than put a terrorist on a Delta flight and endanger the rest of us.”

Meanwhile, Cooper and other state authorities declined to look into the matter, citing a lack of jurisdiction.

‘Torture Chamber In The Sky’

The Commission’s justification for legal action is predicated on the notion that rendition itself is tantamount to torture. The Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.”

As described in the report, rendition should be reevaluated alongside detention and interrogation as a traumatic experience that produces a similar feeling of helplessness that Slahi and other victims likened to dying.

“Mohamedou [Ould Slahi] as an individual is damaged by this and continues to struggle with this,” said Robin Kirk, a co-chair of the Commission. “[The Commission’s report] is an historical document in some ways but not for the people who suffered the torture. For them, it’s still happening.”

During a typical rendition, Aero pilots would depart from Johnston County and pick up a rendition team at Dulles Airport before traveling to the destination country. Rendition is an assault upon the mind and body that is designed to disorient and overpower victims into submission.

First, detainees are apprehended by a special abduction team, masked men who are typically dressed in black would disorient and overpower detainees into submission. Next, detainees are hooded, stripped naked, shackled, beaten, and involuntarily sedated. The mistreatment often continued on the plane, which one survivor equated to a “torture chamber in the sky.”

Fatima Boudchar was five months pregnant when she and her husband were kidnapped and taken to a black site in Thailand in 2004. During her detention, guards in ski masks strapped her down from head-to-toe and hit her in the stomach. Aero later taxied the couple to Tajoura Prison in Libya.

“For the rendition flight to Libya, I was taped to a stretcher again,” Boudchar recounted in a New York Times op-ed. “The tape caught the corner of my eye. It stayed that way, my eye taped open, tears streaming down my face, for more than 14 hours.”

Boudchar gave birth to a four-pound baby boy shortly after her release. She insists that her baby’s low birth weight was a direct result of her torture.

Thirteen of the individuals rendered by Aero remain in captivity at Guantánamo.

For people like Abou El-Kassim Britel who were fortunate to be set free, life after rendition and detention can be a daily struggle. Britel’s wife testified before the Commission in 2017 about the former detainee’s struggle to reintegrate back into society, including his difficulty maintaining steady employment.

“How will we live?” asked Khadija Anna Pighizzini. “I look at him, but I do not recognize him. He gets nervous over a trifle; he cannot go out, but the house is also foreign to him. He suffers—suffers and does not talk about it.”

Some survivors will never receive justice. At least four of the 49 individuals rendered by Aero Contractors are now dead. If measures are not taken quickly, commission members fear that more of them will pass away in the coming years.

In addition to dozens of other recommendations, the commission wants the U.S. government to formally apologize to former detainees and compensate them and their families with reparations for medical care, rehabilitation, access to education, and resettlement, since the suffering is a result of what they endured at the hands of the U.S. government and its international partners.

“The U.S. didn’t do this alone,” said Catherine Read, executive director of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture. “It had many junior partners and many of them in different ways are coming to their own kind of reckoning with what their involvement was.”

A Good Faith Attempt At Spurring Accountability

Canada apologized for its role in the unlawful rendition of Maher Arar in 2007. Soon after, the Swedish government acknowledged the torture inflicted upon Ahmed Agiza and Mohamed El-Zery and promised $500,000 in reparations to each former detainee.

In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen mistakenly rendered aboard Aero’s Boeing Business Jet and tortured for more than four months at the CIA’s “Salt Pit” black site in Afghanistan.

The ruling is still viewed as a landmark victory for torture survivors and a scathing rebuke to the United States and 14 of its European allies, which facilitated the U.S. torture program. The Macedonian government formally apologized to El-Masri this past April following years of denying any involvement in his torture.

In May, Prime Minister Theresa May took the rare step of atoning for Britain’s role in the abduction and torture of Fatima Boudhar and her husband. Boudchar accepted the apology but noted that it took six years of litigation before the British government made amends.

“National police forces and national governments have not dedicated much resource[s] to investigating what is, by all accounts, a global-level crime,” said Dr. Sam Raphael, co-director of The Rendition Project, which claims the world’s largest database of rendition flights and the most comprehensive list of the fate and whereabouts of each victim.

“It’s fallen to non-governmental bodies and groups and advocates and individuals to pick up the slack with their own investigations in the absence of a dedicated law enforcement action,” he added.

In 2014, the U.S. Senate intelligence committee released a heavily redacted executive summary about the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

The authors of the so-called “torture report” concluded that intelligence officers’ use of enhanced interrogation techniques were far more brutal than the CIA originally disclosed to government officials and an ineffective means of obtaining information from suspects.

The Senate committee’s official report is estimated to be ten times the length of the executive summary. If elected officials like North Carolina Senator Richard Burr have their way, the full report may never be released. Since taking control of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2015, Burr demanded the return of copies of the full report from various governmental offices so it would not be vulnerable to FOIA requests.

In contrast, the human rights activists on the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture view their work as a counterpoint to the American government’s subterfuge. Their report represents years of meticulous work by a wide range of people—including survivors, amateur planespotters, human rights lawyers, journalists and researchers—committed to rendering true justice by taking on the monumental task of piecing together the full picture of the RDI program where the American government has refused to do so.

“If you speak to any of the Guantánamo lawyers, particularly those defendants in the 9/11 trial, they’ll describe a kind of Orwellian situation where even the words of their clients are presumed to be classified top secret and can’t be shared at all,” Raphael suggested.

“In the absence of that, we’re trying to carve out this huge shadowy world. Carve out what we can in terms of piecing together the program and the state and whereabouts of those within it.”

For example, journalists with The New York Times first identified Aero as a “major domestic hub of the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret air service” in a 2005 exposé but planespotters in North Carolina and other parts of the globe continued to clear the path by taking pictures of Aero’s departures and arrivals.

Combing through thousands of flight records and cross-indexing them with photos and other documents, researchers like Raphael were able to construct flight circuits in order to gain a clearer understanding of Aero’s importance within the torture program.

The Commission is similar to prior international initiatives for transparency and redress, like the Bertrand Russell Tribunals convened during the 1960s to investigate war crimes perpetrated by American armed forces during the Vietnam War. Members of the Russell Tribunals also lacked legal authority to enforce their findings, but they utilized their intellectual clout to foster legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

In addition to obvious models such as the truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa and Chile, the citizen-led commission in North Carolina is in line with state tradition—notably the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was tasked with investigating the 1979 Klan/Nazi massacre, as well as the successful campaign to compensate victims of forced sterilization under the state’s eugenics program.

In examining North Carolina’s links with extraordinary rendition, however, the commissioners were forced to focus more of their energy on truth-seeking and accountability and less on reconciliation as a result of government officials’ calculated attempts to conceal the RDI program and their refusal to hold torturers to account.

“Reconciliation is really a step that’s only possible when there’s been acknowledgement by perpetrators,” Cowger said.

“This is fundamentally an effort to get the state of North Carolina to accept its responsibility,” she said. “We as citizens are complicit in this but we were never asked if we wanted to be.”

Never Forgetting The People In Cages

After the New York Times exposé blew the whistle on Aero in 2005, faith activists from Missouri traveled to North Carolina to precipitate a local response. One of the Johnston County residents shocked to discover that rendition flights were taking off in their own backyard was a local real estate agent named Allyson Caison, who became further galvanized after realizing that her personal connections to Aero ran deeper than mere geographic proximity.

“Turns out, I knew two of the three principals of Aero Contractors,” Caison testified to the Commission in 2017. “In fact, I made their family gingerbread houses at Christmas and our children were schoolmates. They were prominent, well-respected business people in the county.”

In November 2005, Caison joined about 40 other activists in Smithfield to deliver a “peoples’ indictment” to board members of Aero Contractors. Fourteen people were arrested and the event was covered by the local media, but the protest was met with silence from the Johnston County commissioners.

“I think I was naive in thinking that once we brought it to the attention of our local officials, that they would act on it,” Caison recalled. “Instead, they regarded us with suspicion.”

It became clear to Caison that the struggle would not be won overnight. Rather than retreat, the activists dug in with an ongoing campaign of public education and outreach to convince other North Carolinians to join their struggle.

During the next 13 years, activists with NC Stop Torture Now employed a wide range of tactics—from civil disobedience and peace vigils to legislative lobbying—to keep the issue of torture in the minds of Americans even as it has faded from the national headlines.

“Along with the report itself compiling all of this information, that’s the other take away: a group of citizens can raise hell and make change over time,” Kirk said.

The activism that gave life to the commission is as much an effort to shed light on one specific aspect of the War on Terror as it is a reflection of a broader movement to take back the individual rights and civil liberties that Cowger fears were curtailed under the guise of national security following the September 11 attacks.

For Caison, the movement has personal implications. A few years ago, she was stopped in the grocery store by another Johnston County resident she described as being well-connected in the community who likely knew some of the Aero pilots. To Caison’s surprise, the woman offered praise and support for her activism. The simple exchange reminded Caison that her neighbors’ opinions about torture were not set in stone.

When NC Stop Torture Now first began demonstrating outside of the Johnston County Regional Airport in the middle of the Bush presidency, passersby responded with middle fingers. Over the years, however, the protesters have received more supportive honks and waves.

“That’s partly because of the work of Allyson [Caison] to educate people in that county and because people read about what we were doing and thought about it more,” Cowger said. “But it’s also partly reflective of people starting to question whether the actions of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan through the torture program really were in the best interests of national security or whether in fact some of this was making us less safe.”

President Barack Obama ended the RDI program by executive order in 2009. While Cowger has no reason or evidence to believe that rendition planes are taking off from North Carolina, she and other members of NC Stop Torture Now fear that conditions are ripe for secret human rights violations like rendition and torture to continue, both on the national level and locally in Johnston County.

“One of the current motivators is the lack of accountability could pave the way for a repetition of the same problem,” Cowger said. “Aero Contractors, as far as we know, still has 130 employees and still flies airplanes regularly in an out of that airport. It’s only known customer is the CIA.”

The overwhelming opinion of military intelligence is that American lives are endangered by the use of torture because it has not been found to yield reliable information, while besmirching our international reputation.

Yet, President Trump vehemently invokes the use of torture and retribution as viable military options. His CIA director, Gina Haspel, once led the agency’s black site in Thailand and John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, reaffirmed his disregard for human rights authorities when he recently threatened the International Criminal Court with sanctions if it prosecuted U.S. military personnel accused of committing torture and other war crimes in Afghanistan.

From the beginning, the Commission was designed to be a short-term response for a long-term struggle. Commission members are organizing outreach events at state universities and churches and they also plan to present the report to elected officials. But the Commission will eventually sunset, and it will be up to the public to take the findings and push for accountability.

Members of NC Stop Torture Now hope that people of conscience will read the findings and confront officials about North Carolina’s involvement with the CIA torture program. Cowger and Caison believe once people know the truth they won’t be able turn their minds away from the suffering.

Caison can’t forget.

“I still live where I hear planes going across my rooftop to land at the airport,” Caison said. “I’m not saying that all of those planes are rendition planes. But they serve as a trigger for me to remember the people in the cages.”

Jonathan Michels

Jonathan Michels

Jonathan Michels is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina. Since 2011, he has reported on issues of national importance such as the struggle to remove white supremacist memorials and forced sterilization. The Association of Alternative Newsmedia recently awarded Jonathan third place in the longform news category for his article about the uneasy formation of a syringe exchange in the U.S. South.