United States | Not in Our Town

A group of North Carolinians take a private company to task in the fight against torture

Protestors at the Johnston County Airport in Smithfield, NC, stand in opposition to extraordinary rendition flights operated out of the airport by Aero Contractors. TED RICHARDSON / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST / GETY IMAGES
01 March, 2012

THE JOHNSTON COUNTY AIRPORT sits just off Route 70 in Smithfield, a town of about 13,000 in the centre of North Carolina. The airport is so small that it doesn’t even have a control tower—just a brick office, which bears some resemblance to a small roadside bar, albeit one bristling with all manner of antennae. The small planes that land there—201 per day, on average—do so on just one runway, and cars take their pick from a mere 24 parking spots.

And so it felt a little like an invasion when, early on the sunny afternoon of 19 January, more than 50 North Carolinians drove in and set up on the grass in front of the office with chairs, protest signs and an oversized strip of yellow crime scene tape. It was an older group, with very few members under 50, and they were angry that an airport in their state had served as a node in the global network of secret detention and interrogation operations that the US government has established after 2001.

In the US, discussions of this network—even among liberals—tend to emphasise locations that are not on US soil, whether jailhouse basements in Egypt or Morocco, or makeshift CIA prisons in places like Afghanistan or Romania. But the network also consisted of a substantial infrastructure on American soil.

One of the most significant pieces of this infrastructure was a host of notionally private companies—all funded and controlled by the CIA—that either own airplanes, or service and fly them. These companies, which still exist, are publicly registered and taxed. When they flew CIA agents abroad to kidnap Muslim men and deliver them to prisons beyond the reach of legal oversight, the planes took off by daylight, often at airports that are open to the public, and often in small towns like Smithfield, North Carolina.

The group that gathered in Smithfield on 19 January—called North Carolina Stop Torture Now (NCSTN)—began in 2004 in a series of meetings in the basement of a Unitarian Church in Raleigh, the state capital. At that point, none of the people involved knew that “torture taxis”, as their critics call them, were taking off and landing at an airport just 30 miles to the east. But in the spring of 2005, multiple journalists and human rights organisations revealed that several “extraordinary rendition” flights—extra-legal flights transporting prisoners between jurisdictions, in this case to secret interrogation sites—had originated at the Johnston County Airport, or JNX, as it appeared on flight logs. The planes were stored, serviced and flown by a company called Aero Contractors that was founded in Smithfield by a former CIA pilot in 1979.

The standard procedure for an Aero-operated rendition flight was as follows: an Aero pilot and crew would fly from Smithfield to DC to pick up a team of CIA agents, then head abroad to snatch up a prisoner; drug him with an anal suppository; force him into shackles, a blindfold, noise-canceling headphones and a diaper; then oversee his transfer, typically from one prison to another prison that was further from public scrutiny. Sometimes the team would carry out multiple such transfers on one trip overseas. Then back to DC, then home to Smithfield.

To the anti-torture protestors, this opened a door. If Aero Contractors is, per its defining conceit, a small private company, then it presents a more manageable legal target than, say, the White House or the CIA.

Alysson Caison, a preternaturally cheerful real estate agent who lives in Johnston County, has been involved with NCSTN since its first protest at the airport, in 2005.  When we met at her house last December, she ticked off what the group had done in the years since.

“We’ve delivered citizens’ indictments to Aero,” she said. “We’ve written letters to the state attorney, to the district attorney, to the sheriff. We’ve made phone calls, we’ve marched, we’ve gone to county commissioners’ meetings, airport board meetings. We’ve held vigils on the side of the road, we’ve taken pictures of planes.”

Two years ago, Caison and other NCSTN members finagled a meeting with the policy director in the governor’s office, a man named Al Delia. According to Caison, Delia said that he and the governor agreed with them that torture and extraordinary rendition were wrong—but they did not agree that North Carolina had an obligation to investigate.

Toward the end of the meeting, Caison remembers, Delia asked them why, if rendition was a North Carolina problem, none of its victims had complained to North Carolina. “He stood there, a representative of the state,” Caison told me, “and he said that if that had happened, if they got those complaints, maybe then they’d have to do something.”

And so NCSTN began to make contact with men known beyond a doubt to have been flown by Aero, and to ask whether they’d be willing to submit signed declarations of their experience that specifically mentioned Aero Contractors and North Carolina. This proved difficult: these men were scattered across the globe, and of those who were reachable, some were afraid of weakening other, ongoing legal efforts. Others wanted nothing more to do with the US or its legal system.

In the end, the group was able to secure signed testimony from just two people. One, a Yemeni man named Mohamed Bashmilah, was arrested in Jordan in 2003 and rendered by an Aero flight to Afghanistan, where he was tortured, first at the Bagram Airfield, then at a secret CIA prison. He was held there until 2005, long after the CIA had decided he had no connection to terrorism. The other, an Italian citizen named Abou el-Kassim Britel, was arrested in Lahore in 2002 because Pakistani police believed—incorrectly—that his passport was fake. He was tortured for two months in a Pakistani prison, then flown on an Aero flight to Morocco, where his torture continued for another eight months. In February 2003, he was released without charge, explanation or apology, and before he could return to Italy he was arrested by Moroccan police on suspicion of involvement in bombings that had just taken place in Casablanca. He was still in jail when he signed his testimony, and was only able to return home to his wife last spring.

Both men’s testimonies are appended to a new report titled “The North Carolina Connection to Extraordinary Rendition and Torture.” The report was authored primarily by Deborah Weissman, an NCSTN ally and professor of law at the University of North Carolina. It presents the known information about Aero’s operations in bite-sized chunks designed to be understood by people who might not know much about rendition.

“As a North Carolina-based corporation,” the report concludes, “[Aero] could not have carried out these functions without the support and resources of the state of North Carolina and its political subdivisions.” Therefore, “it is appropriate to establish a Commission of Inquiry to examine the role of a North Carolina business in torture.”

Before heading to JNX on 19 January, NCSTN delivered the report to the governor’s office in Raleigh. Christina Cowger, one of the group’s de facto leaders, carried the report in. She was accompanied by Weissman and a few of her law students; Steven Watt, an ACLU attorney who has represented both Bashmilah and Britel; and David LaMotte, a representative of a liberal Christian group called the North Carolina Council of Churches. An NCSTN contingent accompanied them to the Department of Administration downtown, and cheered as they walked in.

This time—two years after Al Delia asked them why no rendition victims had written him—the contingent was met by the governor’s general counsel, Mark Davis, and, curiously, by David Elliot, a man who works in the state attorney general’s domestic violence victim’s unit. According to Cowger and Weissman, the two men were courteous, and mostly asked questions. Eliot, the domestic violence specialist, stayed longer—and made it clear that he probably wasn’t the best person to be meeting with.

At the airport, a series of NCSTN members and allies delivered short speeches, all delivered in front of a sign that read WHO WOULD JESUS TORTURE? Cowger went first, and almost as soon as she began a plane taxied down the runway, parked as close to the group as possible, and turned its propellers on, almost drowning her out. Another NCSTN member had to compete with another plane that took off and flew in low circles above the office. Watt and Weissman’s remarks met similar fates.

After all the speechmaking was done and the local news crews had taken off, a small group that included Caison, Cowger, Weissman and Watt drove down the road to the county courthouse. The district attorney, Susan Doyle, had turned down their many requests for an appointment. A slightly panicked-looking paralegal told them the DA was out, as were all of the assistant DAs. But she promised to pass the report along. Downstairs, in the sheriff’s office, they were told that the sheriff was in a meeting, indefinitely. Caison and Cowger were eventually let in to explain the report to a sheriff’s deputy who, like the men at the governor’s office, listened very politely.