“A Torture Chamber in the Sky”: Discussing the CIA’s Extraordinary Rendition Program | The Center for Victims of Torture

“A Torture Chamber in the Sky”: Discussing the CIA’s Extraordinary Rendition Program

Thursday, April 18, 2019

“Rendition” isn’t necessarily the first word people associate with the CIA. But it’s a crucial topic of conversation at an upcoming panel hosted by the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Center next week. Experts in torture and extraordinary rendition -- the CIA’s post-9/11 practice of sending prisoners to countries where penalties for abusing them were less strict -- will gather to discuss human rights abuses perpetrated by the CIA after 9/11, and how to push for accountability.

Panelists include Scott Roehm, director of CVT’s Washington office, and Professor Deborah Weissman, the Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law, and co-founder of the North Carolina Citizen’s Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT).

As a preview to the panel, Scott Roehm and Professor Weissman recently engaged in a Q&A on the extraordinary rendition program, North Carolina’s unique role in the program, why it’s still important to understand, and what you can do.

Scott Roehm:  What do you feel is most important for people to understand about the extraordinary rendition program?

Professor Weissman: Extraordinary rendition is a phrase that disguises the kidnap, detention and torture of individuals alleged to be enemies of the United States, including those guilty of nothing other than being misidentified. It was part of the CIA detention and interrogation program where foreign nationals suspected of being involved in terroristic acts committed against the United States were captured without due process or any opportunity to contact an attorney or family. It was an integral part of the torture program and commenced the project to dehumanize its victims. The CIA program with global reach literally “got off the ground” locally in North Carolina. Families who had no idea of where their loved ones had gone were also victims of the kidnappings.

Dr. Kathryn Porterfield, a psychologist who worked with the victims of extraordinary rendition, testified at the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry hearings. She stated, “The experience on the flights was, in some situations, as terrifying, degrading and painful as torture that took place in other locations. It is almost meaningless to delineate between the transport experiences and the detention experiences of many of the individuals with whose stories I am familiar with.” She went on to explain that “because the treatment on the planes involved physical loss of control such as sensory deprivation and destabilization (hooding, eyes and ears, music); physical pain [as a result of] shackling in uncomfortable positions for extended periods, threats made to safety in terms of where individuals were told they were being taken and what awaited them; and bodily assaults such as rectal insertion of unknown objects for seemingly non-medical reasons. These tactics were terrifying, humiliating and severely painful to those with whom I spoke.” She also stated that rendition flights cannot be separated from the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture).  She referred to the planes as “a torture chamber in the sky.”

The fact that there is no official government accounting of those flown to places outside of U.S. control is an ongoing affront to the requirements of accountability, and demonstrates that the U.S. has a de facto policy of tolerating official torture programs.  

Scott Roehm: Why are these issues still important today? 

Professor Weissman: The CIA torture program violated customary international law and treaties that the U.S. has signed and ratified. Our obligations under the Convention Against Torture have been domesticated through the passage of a number of federal statutes. Our federal and North Carolina (NC) state constitutions prohibit the acts that took place and moreover, require transparent investigations, accountability measures, and reparations for the victims. These are legal obligations which we have pledged to uphold, and we have agreed that these obligations apply everywhere and under all circumstances without any exception or justification. We cannot turn away and let these egregious violations fade from accountability efforts. We cannot we expect others to follow international standards if we so brazenly violate them.

As CVT knows, the long-term effects of torture on individuals are profound and victims need rehabilitation. The consequences are disastrous for victims, often irreversible. Without holding perpetrators of torture accountable, we run the risk of ongoing violations and impunity. U.S. moral leadership has been damaged and repair cannot occur without a reckoning of the violations we have committed.

The CIA torture program reflected an official targeting of Muslim populations. Hate crimes against Muslims have increased dramatically since 2001. Islamophobia cannot be divorced from the government’s extraordinary rendition and torture program. The religion of the detainees was a critical factor that motivated those who perpetrated torture and the methods of torture that were used. Indeed, it was more than just a tactic used by some interrogators; it was policy. Conversely, progress toward torture accountability would help to reverse the prejudicial sentiment that has targeted Muslims.

Scott Roehm: Many people have heard about the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program. Very few know about the important role that North Carolina played in facilitating the CIA’s abuses. Can you tell us why that might be?

Professor Deborah Weissman: Efforts were made to shroud the entire CIA torture program in secrecy. It would appear that the government was unwilling to reveal the multiple aspects of the torture program, including the program and protocols of enforcing the disappearances (extraordinary rendition) of persons suspected of association with terrorism, a program with which North Carolina was involved. 

All aspects of the rendition program constituted a form of torture, cruel and degrading treatment in violation of international human rights law as well as federal and state laws. No aspect of the program could have been legally or morally justified, and thus, the government was motivated to hide it. The secrecy extended to the flights operated by Aero Contractors, a nominally private contractor which was and is headquartered in North Carolina and operated clandestinely in support of the torture program.  The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence 2014 report on the torture program excluded the extraordinary rendition flights from its study, exacerbating the lack of transparency about the program. 

State and local officials had no political will to investigate – a bipartisan problem that reflected bipartisan culpability and failure at the national level.

Small groups of citizens been trying to bring the facts of the extraordinary rendition and torture program to light, and have documented North Carolina’s involvement in the torture program. Grassroots efforts helped to establish the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture, a bipartisan effort that included experts from a range of fields and interests, produced a report detailing North Carolina’s involvement and has received local, national and international media attention.

Scott Roehm: What can concerned citizens do to elevate public awareness about what we know and what we still don’t know? And how can they best push for accountability?

Professor Weissman: We hope that citizens will recognize the responsibilities of bystanders who have an obligation to call for and work toward meaningful measures of accountability and repair for the human rights violations by our government. Citizens should write to their elected officials about need for accountability and request that their Senator support the public release of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report and urge their NC colleagues to read report.

The NC Commission report is available on the internet and provides a detailed overview of the CIA rendition program and the ways that clandestine activity was dependent, for example, on North Carolina state taxpayers. Concerned individuals can share the report with their book clubs, and faith-based and other community groups to which they belong. Documentaries have been produced focusing on North Carolina’s involvement in extraordinary rendition, for example, Field of Vision. Other documentaries reveal the challenges in providing legal representation to detainees in Guantánamo. A movie about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on torture will be released later this year. Citizens can host screenings and review the NC Commission report as a way to provide education about the issues and strategize as to ways to engage in citizen accountability efforts.

Organizations which continue to work on the issue of torture need financial support. Donate to these organizations, for example, the Center for Victims of Torture and the NC Commission so that the work can continue and build. 

Scott Roehm: What should the public know about this panel, and why would you encourage them to attend?

Despite the challenges victims and human rights advocates continue to face in efforts to obtain accountability, we continue to invoke human rights laws and norms as a means to repair the damage done to torture victims, to our nation, to our state, and to ourselves as citizens.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous invocation of the importance of the local to human rights implementation is pertinent here:  At an address at a United Nations Ceremony in March of 1958 she stated, “Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home-- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. . . . Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

To that end we hope to create networks of concerned citizens who want to contribute to the efforts to bring an end to the policies and practices of torture and to provide reparations to victims of torture.


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