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Expert Voices

North Carolina Takes Important Steps to Examine its History with U.S. Torture

By Scott Roehm, Director of Global Policy and Advocacy
Published November 30, 2017

Scott Roehm is CVT director of the Washington office

We have learned a lot over the last five years about post-9/11 U.S. government-sanctioned torture, much of it through release of the executive summary of the “torture report,” the Senate Intelligence Committee’s exhaustive oversight study of the CIA’s now defunct rendition, detention and interrogation program. And yet, what we don’t know still dwarfs what we do, and there has been precious little accountability for those who wrote this dark chapter of our history.

The people of North Carolina are uniquely positioned to change that and have seized the opportunity in impressive fashion.

Over the next two days, the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT) is holding public hearings about the state’s involvement in the CIA torture program. Declassified government documents and investigative reporting have confirmed that the CIA used North Carolina’s aviation infrastructure and public airports to facilitate renditions-to-torture—the abduction of suspected terrorists abroad who were then delivered to CIA black cites or third countries where they were brutalized. More specifically, according to the Commission:

“Starting in 2001, Aero [North Carolina-based Aero Contractors] helped render dozens of detainees to secret detention and torture. Many of the detainees transported to torture by Aero were clearly innocent, were never given due process, and were profoundly damaged. Those who survived still suffer deeply. This includes Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent; Abou ElKassim Britel, an Italian citizen of Moroccan descent; Binyam Mohamed, a UK legal resident of Ethiopian descent; Khaled al-Maqtari, a Saudi national detained in Iraq; and many more. These men were subjected to brutal treatment. They were strung up in painful stress positions for long periods and endured vicious beatings. They suffered prolonged detention in complete darkness, or were bombarded with blasting sounds. They were threatened with execution and torture of their family members. So far, human rights investigators have documented that over 135 persons were subjected to extraordinary rendition. In at least 44 documented cases, North Carolina-based jets, pilots, and crews ferried detainees to torture sites for the CIA, and at least 35 of those cases appear in the executive summary of the Senate Torture Report.”  (“The Problem: Secrecy, Impunity, Torture,” NCCIT.org)

A group of dedicated North Carolinians established NCCIT “to do the job that their government refuses to do”—to fully investigate North Carolina’s complicity in U.S. torture and identify steps that must be taken to ensure it cannot be repeated. To that end, Commissioners will spend today and tomorrow hearing from a diverse and influential set of voices—from victims and their families; former interrogators and federal government officials; faith leaders, local resident, and state legislators. (The hearings are being livestreamed here). The Commission will culminate in a report that includes recommendations to elected officials “on measures to address responsibility and prevent further torture, and ways North Carolina can become a leader in accountability for torture.”

NCCIT’s extraordinary work to expose and engage these shameful past practices stands in stark contrast to the ongoing efforts of the state’s senior senator, Richard Burr, to bury the full torture report.

In January 2015, immediately upon becoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Burr told the White House to return to the Committee every copy of the 6,700 page study that had been sent to executive branch agencies a month prior. The Obama administration ignored Sen. Burr’s request, but the Trump administration has since complied (save for copies judges have ordered preserved in litigation and one slated for President Obama’s library that will be inaccessible for at least 12 years). As a result, it is now nearly impossible for executive branch officials to understand fully the failures and mistakes that led to the torture program, or to know what internal reforms would best safeguard against its resurrection.

It is awfully hard to square Senator Burr’s actions with the mission of the committee he chairs: to “provide vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.” They are more easily explainable as an effort to spare the CIA (and other government officials) from additional embarrassment and possible legal scrutiny.

Senator Burr may be ready to turn the page on post-9/11 U.S. torture generally—and North Carolina’s role in it, specifically—but NCCIT is a powerful demonstration that many North Carolinians are not. Perhaps, one hopes, the collective will of his constituents will convince the Senator to chart a different course; to embrace NCCIT as an asset toward fulfilling his oversight responsibility to ensure that the intelligence community never embarks on anything like the CIA torture program again.

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Scott Roehm
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