At the urging of anti-torture advocates, North Carolina Democratic Congressman David Price is requesting that the CIA disclose information regarding the state’s outsized role in the rendition, detention, and interrogation (RDI) program implemented in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Between 2001 and 2005, the CIA supervised the kidnapping and rendition—or transport—of suspected terrorists to secret prisons throughout the world. Detainees were often held without charge and subjected to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding, slapping, and sleep deprivation, sometimes for as long as 180 hours, as detailed in the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s “torture report.” Those techniques are now widely recognized as torture.

The clandestine operations were among the most brutal aspects of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” and yet few official details have been made public about the rendition flights, and no American officials have been held accountable.

Price—who represents N.C.’s Fourth Congressional District, which covers most of Raleigh, Cary, Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough—sent a letter to CIA Director Gina Haspel on October 5 requesting specific details about the individuals who were transported overseas, along with information regarding Aero Contractors Limited, a suspected CIA front company specializing in “discreet airlift.” Aero is based at the Johnston County Airport in Smithfield, N.C.—just 30 minutes southeast of Raleigh.

Aero pilots are believed to have conducted the majority of U.S. renditions before 2004, transporting an estimated 48 men and one woman—all of them Muslim—into the hands of American and foreign officers for interrogation, according to the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture.

The information requested by Price includes the number of people rendered in total to foreign custody, the number of people rendered aboard aircraft based in N.C., the fate of those prisoners during the RDI program, and details about their current whereabouts.

The letter also targets Aero for increased scrutiny in order to obtain a complete list of rendition missions flown by the aviation company; a list of missions flown by Aero for the purpose of servicing CIA black sites, including those not transporting prisoners; a clearer understanding of whether Aero continues to forcibly transport detainees either within or outside the U.S.; and whether other private N.C. companies are participating as well.

“I hope to receive clear, thorough answers from CIA Director Haspel,” Price explained in an email to the INDY. “[The RDI] program needs more transparency and a better accounting of who has been involved and what taxpayer-funded infrastructure was utilized.”

If Haspel complies with Price’s requests for information, it would provide the American public with its clearest picture yet of the role of rendition within the RDI program along with the full scope of N.C.’s involvement in the torture of detainees. It would also fill in crucial details about CIA-backed renditions of detainees to foreign countries like Egypt and Morocco for interrogation by proxy.

“This [letter] represents the first time that a U.S. congressperson armed with as much information as this citizen inquiry could generate is demanding that the CIA come clean about aspects of the rendition and torture program that have never really been scrutinized by any official body,” says Christina Cowger, an anti-torture activist with North Carolina Stop Torture Now.

The grassroots coalition formed in 2005 after a New York Times exposé revealed Aero’s role as a “major domestic hub of the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret air service.” Any information gleaned as a result of the letter to Haspel would have to be seen, in part, as a victory for N.C. citizens who have spent the last 15 years fighting to focus attention onto Aero’s so-called “ghost pilots.”

“What [the letter] represents is real progress,” Cowger says. “Finally, citizen activity has prompted a congressional request for information. But also, it reveals how much is yet unknown about how the CIA conducted this massive kidnap and gulag program and how it used foreign proxies to shuffle prisoners in and out of those countries into black sites.”

Knowing that Haspel herself is implicated in the very types of activities that the letter seeks to expose, it seems unlikely she will consent to Price’s request.

Before President Donald Trump tapped her to lead the CIA, Haspel supervised a black site in Thailand known as “Cat’s Eye” during the early years of the War on Terror, according to reports by ProPublica. Haspel is believed to have personally overseen the interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri following his suspected rendition on an Aero jet, tail number N379P, in 2002.

Interrogators dressed in black repeatedly slammed Nashiri against a wall, confined him to a small, coffin-like box, and subjected him to waterboarding, a technique that simulates the experience of drowning, according to ProPublica. Nashiri had “lasting scars” from the interrogation in Thailand, ProPublica reported in 2018, including a “phobia of water … anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Later, Haspel reportedly played a role in destroying 92 interrogation videotapes recorded during her tenure at the Thai detention site. The suspected cover-up touched off a U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigation that resulted in a damning, 6,700-page “torture report,” laying bare the lurid details of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program.

Regardless of Haspel’s response, Cowger views Price’s letter as a hopeful step. “We will publicize the letter, we will use the letter to approach Governor [Roy] Cooper, Attorney General [Josh] Stein, and other Democrats and Republicans who have the power to also step forward and say, ‘This is a problem,’” she says.

Price’s letter draws heavily on the work of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture, a citizen-led, non-governmental body spearheaded by Cowger and other anti-torture activists. Pulling from hours of witness testimony as well as meticulous records from amateur plane-spotters and troves of publicly available documents, the commission produced an exhaustive report aiming to fill in details about extraordinary rendition that were noticeably absent from the U.S. Senate investigation.

The report described a typical rendition flight, wherein Aero pilots departed from N.C. to pick up a rendition team at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. before heading to the destination country. There, the abduction team allegedly snatched detainees and then shackled them, stripped them naked, and loaded them onto an Aero-operated plane, which one survivor likened to a “torture chamber in the sky.”

The N.C. commission estimated that Aero conducted an astounding 80 percent of identified CIA renditions between 2001 and 2004, which, as I previously reported for Shadowproof, distinguished N.C. as a major facilitator of extraordinary rendition, because the flights would not have been possible without state and local funding, infrastructure, and other resources.

“Even after Aero’s role in the C.I.A. program had come to light,” the commission noted, “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.”

President Barack Obama terminated the RDI program in 2009, but Aero continues to operate out of Johnston County.

“So [Aero] could still be rendering people,” Cowger says. “They could be engaged in human rights abuses today.”

Attempts to contact Aero for comment were unsuccessful. The email addresses provided on the company’s website were invalid, and there is no listed phone number.

There is little chance of knowing what Aero’s activities are—past or present—without federal or state officials opening an official investigation. Many of them have refused to do so, regardless of their political allegiances.

Corporate records filed with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office show that in September 2019, Aero changed its legal name to Triangle Aviation Solutions Corporation. The business was originally incorporated in Delaware and started operating in N.C. in 1979, according to the files.

Members of N.C. Stop Torture Now made regular appearances before the Johnston County Board of Commissioners and appealed to every N.C. governor going back to Mike Easley, who left office in 2009. The group has yet to receive any official response. Governor Cooper also declined to look into Aero when he served as the state’s attorney general, citing a lack of jurisdiction.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment from the INDY. Laura Brewer, a spokesperson for current Attorney General Stein—also a Democrat—wrote in an email that “Our office is reviewing the materials the [N.C.] Commission provided to us.”

This lack of access to information is not only a hindrance for activists like Cowger looking to raise public awareness about N.C.’s role in CIA rendition; it makes it more difficult for elected officials who might be sympathetic to their cause to investigate the issue as well, said Tommy Ross, a senior associate at D.C. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2005 to 2009, Ross served as Rep. Price’s legislative director.

In an interview conducted earlier this year, Ross recalled how difficult it was to get any information about the classified RDI program on behalf of concerned constituents back in N.C.

“Representative Price was always sympathetic to their concerns,” Ross said. “We just didn’t know a lot. Even if state officials had been asking questions and trying to get information, as surely some of them were, it would have been nearly impossible for them to get anything real.”

Ironically, the N.C. official best positioned to shed light on the secretive program is also probably the least likely to do so. As the chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Richard Burr is tasked with overseeing the activities of the CIA and to demand accountability.

The Republican senator, however, has repeatedly signaled his disinterest in dredging up any more details about the secretive program, which occurred under a Republican administration. In fact, Burr began clawing back copies of the Senate’s full, unredacted torture report from various governmental offices in 2017, The Washington Post reported, in order to shield them from requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

That’s why anti-torture activists in N.C. have traditionally focused more of their energy engaging with Democratic officials who may be more susceptible to pressure. The results have been mixed.

“Democrats who have been willing to make this an issue and keep making it an issue are extremely few,” Cowger says.

On the federal level, Price remains an outlier among N.C. officials who have been willing to touch the issue. Price attended a film screening last year of The Report, a fictionalized account of the tumultuous investigation into the CIA torture program, in which he commended the work of the N.C. commission and announced that he had entered its report into the official Congressional Record. 

Within state government, anti-torture activists found allies in the late North Carolina Representative Paul Luebke, who represented Durham for 25 years, and Representative Verla Insko, whose district covers much of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Just last year, Insko filed a state bill called Ending NC’s Involvement in Torture, which would have granted the state attorney general special authority to investigate Aero as recommended in the N.C. commission’s report. Although the bill failed, Insko told the INDY during the Democratic primary earlier this year that she would be open to submitting future legislation to raise awareness about the issue.

“Most legislators are not educated on [North Carolina’s role in CIA rendition],” Insko said. “If Democrats win the majority back, we will ask someone if they can set up a task force and look at it in a study bill that would help educate legislators.”

Another problem is that seemingly negative issues like torture and covert CIA operations are unlikely to win over voters, particularly during an election year coinciding with a deadly pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 4,200 North Carolinians.

“This is not an immediately pressing issue like healthcare is or education,” Insko said. “You don’t have to educate people on that. They’re living it. They know it.”

Still, other N.C. Democrats may be taking a cue from President Barak Obama, who insisted that Americans “look forward,” not back, on the issue of torture.

“We tortured some folks,” Obama said, glibly, in 2014. But, the president continued, “I think it’s important, when we look back, to recall how afraid people were when the Twin Towers fell. It’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job those folks had.”

Cowger worries that elected officials fail to see any political upside in taking on the issue, only risks. She hopes that Price’s request for information will inspire Cooper, Stein, and other elected officials to take a similar stand.

“[Price’s] letter just might help to show people that it’s possible,” Cowger says. “And if, in November, there’s a change of power in at least one house in the North Carolina General Assembly, then we’re hopeful that there can be legislative action.”

Ross, Price’s former legislative aide, believes that a cultural shift is just as necessary as a political one. Ross grew up in Greensboro, the site of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre that left five antiracist activists dead. He compared the challenges confronting anti-torture advocates to that of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which formed after years of fruitlessly agitating for accountability from city officials.

“We have a moral responsibility to wrestle with the implications of our actions, even if they were taken in good faith, or even if they were taken in ignorance of information that might have made us think differently about them,” Ross said.

This month, more than 40 years after the Greensboro Massacre, the city council issued its first formal apology. Cowger and her colleagues hope they won’t have to wait that long for recognition of this more recent ugly chapter of the state’s history. Reflecting on N.C. Stop Torture Now’s 15-year struggle to demand accountability for the state’s role in the CIA torture program, Cowger lamented how protracted the campaign has been. Rendering justice for torture survivors is one of the primary motivations behind the group’s years-long campaign to bring the issue to light.

Next summer, four torture survivors will finally have the opportunity to present their grievances before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Three of the men—Binyam Mohamed, Abou Elkassim Britel, and Bisher al-Rawi—were rendered to foreign proxies for interrogation onboard a Gulfstream V aircraft presumably operated by Aero, according to the N.C. commission.

Meanwhile, at least 13 other people who were transported by Aero are still believed to be languishing in captivity at the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. The longer officials obfuscate, Cowger warned, the longer justice will be denied.

“It’s not plausible that [officials] can’t do anything,” she says. “It’s a matter of political will.”

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