North Carolina Citizens’ Group Launches Investigation of CIA’s Bush-Era Rendition and Torture Program


Christina Cowger and Allyson Caison of North Carolina Stop Torture Now protesting against Aero Contractors, who flew rendition flights for the CIA’s torture program, in January 2013. Cowger is now part of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture (Photo: Bob Geary).Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


Last month, the Associated Press picked up on an important anti-torture initiative in North Carolina, which, in turn, was picked up by the New York Times. and, in the UK, the Independent. I didn’t have the opportunity to mention it at the time, so I’m doing so now, as I want to play my part in trying to get it to a wider audience.

The Times ran the article under the headline, “Citizens’ Group Aims to Investigate CIA Rendition Program,” explaining how, on Wednesday March 15 in Raleigh, North Carolina, the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture — a group of academics, retired military officers and ministers — announced plans “to hold public hearings in North Carolina to highlight a government program they hope won’t be repeated: the secret CIA interrogation sites where suspected terrorists might be tortured.”

As their website describes it, the NCCIT was “set up to investigate and encourage public debate about the role that North Carolina played in facilitating the US torture program carried out between 2001 [and] 2009. This non-governmental inquiry responds to the lack of recognition by North Carolina’s publicly elected officials and the US government of citizens’ need to know how their tax dollars and state assets were used to support unlawful detention, torture, and rendition.”

As the AP described it, the Commission “has no power to compel testimony, but members plan to collect records and talk to witnesses before describing their findings” at an open hearing in Raleigh on November 30 and December 1, at which, as Dr. Christina Cowger, chair of the inquiry’s board, told me, there will be “testimony from local, national, and international witnesses, including experts on the RDI [rendition, detention and interrogation] program, law, ethics, interrogation, torture, and foreign policy; one or more RDI survivors; and local residents affected by the CIA’s use of North Carolina in the RDI program.” The Independent stated that the inquiry “does not have access to classified information, but new documents may be acquired through the Freedom of Information Act,” and also pointed out that the commission’s full report will be completed in 2018.

As the Independent also noted, Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to to Secretary of State Colin Powell and a retired Army colonel, who is one of ten commissioners for the group (and who I interviewed in 2009), said, “This is a very important effort. We might even shame Washington into some action or discourage the present administration from returning to torture and rendition.” On a conference call, he added that he hoped that this local effort would have “national ramifications.”

The Independent also explained that, at a briefing for reporters when the Commission was launched, Jennifer Daskal, another of the commissioners, who teaches law at American University in Washington, D.C. and is a former official in President Obama’s Justice Department, “explained that the inquiry was ‘important’ due to the ‘relative lack of significant accountability’ for CIA wrongdoing so far and ‘particularly important’ in light of President Donald Trump’s willingness to consider reviving CIA torture.” The executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s torture program was published in December 2014, but no one has been held accountable, even though, as the AP described it, the report concluded that the CIA “understated the brutality of the techniques used on detainees and overstated the value of the information they produced.”

The AP also described how Jennifer Daskal said that the CIA torture program and related programs “have long-term consequences and they don’t just disappear from the American consciousness.” She added, “We’re just a small number of commissioners but I think we reflect a much broader, bipartisan group of individuals across America who are quite concerned about what happened and want to make sure that we don’t ever do so again.”

Moderating the Commission’s launch press conference was the former Arizona Secretary of State, Richard Mahoney, who now directs North Carolina State University’s School of Public and International Affairs. Mahoney made a point of countering the notion that “national security controversies should only concern federal government officials,” as the AP put it. Mahoney said, “I think holding the federal government and its instrumentalities accountable at the local and state level is a critical step in the right direction.”

Other Commissioners include David Crane, a professor at Syracuse University College of Law and founding chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the co-chair, with Jennifer Daskal, is Frank Goldsmith, who has represented Guantánamo prisoners.

As the AP also noted, the Commission “is an outgrowth of a decade of effort by a Raleigh-area group to draw attention to Aero Contractors Limited, a private air carrier tied to the CIA rendition program that is headquartered at the Johnston County airport about 30 miles south of Raleigh.”

As has been reported since 2005, by the New York Times amongst other outlets, Aero Contractors’ pilots “flew rendition flights to CIA interrogation sites for about five years after 9/11,” although “[a] lawsuit by German citizen Khaled el-Masri,” who “was mistakenly kidnapped and tortured at a CIA site in Afghanistan, against Aero Contractors and other companies he blamed for his rendition, was dismissed by a Virginia federal judge in 2006 on the grounds that the case could disclose US state secrets.” El-Masri was finally awards damages for his ordeal — but not in the US. In December 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Macedonia to pay him 60,000 Euros ($80,000) — not enough for what he went through, but an acknowledgement nonetheless, unlike the US’s persistent stonewalling.

As the Independent noted, the Commission estimates that “at least thirty-four individuals were transported by the CIA front company, Aero Contractors, including a number of Britons.” After Aero Contactors’ involvement in the CIA torture program was first revealed, local activists pressed for an official investigation. However, “despite repeated meetings with state officials, including North Carolina’s Attorney General, no action was taken.” Christina Cowger said “they were ‘taking their cue’ from President Obama, who had decided in 2009 not to prosecute Bush officials,” adding that their “lack of cooperation led to the formation” of the Commission.

As the Independent also noted, Christina Cowger stated that the inquiry “may also help resolve some unanswered questions about the rendition program,” explaining that it is “still unknown which prisoners were on some of the flights, for example, and the commission could provide answers.”

The Independent also noted a UK angle, stating that the Commission might “illuminate the part played by foreign states, such as Britain,” because “[s]ome of the detainees rendered by Aero Contractors were British, including Binyam Mohamed, who was flown to Morocco in 2002 and tortured with UK complicity.” The author of the article, Rupert Stone, added, “There have also been rumours that the CIA detained captives on the British territory of Diego Garcia. Lawrence Wilkerson made headlines in 2015 when he told me that CIA prisoners had been held and grilled on the island. But the UK government has not yet conducted a thorough inquiry into rendition. The Carolina commission may shine some much-needed daylight on the UK’s role.”

David Crane said, “Certainly the UK will be brought into this,” and Stone added that “[o]ther nations which held detainees transported by Aero Contractors, such as Morocco and Poland, will also be examined.” he added that the inquiry “may help lift the lid on how many countries participated in the program. It was believed that 54 were involved, but new research shows that 15 more countries, including France and Japan, cooperated.”

Christina Cowger told Rupert Stone that Aero Contractors still operates in North Carolina and has “only increased in size”. Stone added, “It is unclear if the company continues to work for the CIA, but Cowger won’t rule it out.” As she said, “It’s perfectly possible they’re carrying out covert activities.”

Stone also noted that “President Obama did not end rendition when he took office in 2009, and the inquiry may examine his record, too,” adding that “[t]he Trump administration, which appears to have endorsed the practice, may also come under scrutiny.”

He added that the inquiry “is unlikely to result in any criminal investigations, given the history of impunity for CIA torture so far,” but pointed out that David Crane told him that “disclosures of new information could fuel litigation and serve as a ‘catalyst for further action.” Jonathan Freeman, another commissioner and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, said that he hoped the inquiry would create a “transparent process” and effect “a change in policy, even on a subtle level,” but he acknowledged, as Stone put it, that “the going might be tough, especially with Trump in the White House.” As Freeman said, “We’ll be fighting an uphill battle. There’s always resistance to these kinds of things.”

Note: The photo at the top of this article is from a news report about a protest against Aero Contractors in January 2013 by North Carolina Stop Torture Now, whose work led to the creation of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture. Please also listen to Jennifer Daskal discussing the Commission on NPR here.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, in which I’m hoping to provide some helpful coverage for the wonderful efforts of the newly-formed North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture – featuring academics, retired military officers and ministers – to shine a light on the Bush-era torture program, and especially the NC-based Aero Contractors, who flew rendition flights for at least 34 prisoners held at “black sites,” some of whom also ended up at Guantanamo. The Commission is currently conducting research in the run-up to an open hearing in Raleigh on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

  2. Anna says...

    Bless such civil society initiatives, which provide hope. May they succeed in reviving that vital discussion and manage to bring new information to light.
    And thanks Andy for finding and sharing this info.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna. Christina Cowger and Deborah Weissman of North Carolina Stop Torture Now had been in touch with me, and then I saw the AP report and was glad to have the opportunity to try and get it out to some more people. As you note, these are exactly the kind of civil society initiatives that provide hope.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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