Reflections from North Carolina: More on the CIA’s Sordid Past

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A torture chamber in the sky. Even after years working at CVT, including extensive efforts to uncover information about the CIA’s post-9/11 rendition, detention and interrogation program, I was largely unaware of the sheer brutality of the rendition part of that program. I had a chance recently to learn in depth about the ruthless actions of the CIA as it moved detainees around the world.

Much is known about the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, in large part due to the declassified, 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report. Much less is known about the extraordinary rendition aspect. A remarkable group of North Carolina residents – spearheaded by activist Christina Cowger, Ph.D. – has long been determined to change that.

After 15 years of sustained advocacy by the citizens’ group North Carolina Stop Torture Now, the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT) hosted public hearings last month to expose crucial information about the CIA’s relatively little-known rendition program – and investigate the extent to which North Carolina was involved.

CVT had multiple connections to the two-day event. Among the witnesses who testified were three CVT National Advisory Council members: David Gushee, Ph.D., Juan Mendez and Alberto Mora. The commission itself comprised ten people, most of whom had a connection to the state of North Carolina, including David Crane, former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leonne and CVT National Advisory Council member. In addition, the NCCIT’s executive director, Catherine Read, was the former head of CVT’s Washington Office.

I attended to represent CVT, lend our support and network with key actors who continue to work with us in the drive for transparency, reform and accountability.

The Torture Chamber in the Sky

A segment of the hearings’ testimony involved an exhaustive description of the rendition program, which allowed CIA operatives to travel to other countries post-9/11 and kidnap people they suspected of terrorist activity. Prisoners were then transported to third countries where they were interrogated and brutally tortured.

It would be naïve to assume that all of these men possessed connections to terrorism, due to the CIA’s imperfect method of intelligence gathering. At that time the U.S. offered rewards that led to the capture of prisoners. So if you had a grudge against your neighbor, you could turn him in to an informant and get paid for it, even without proof.

The connection to North Carolina is that the CIA established and contracted with an airline company based there, called Aero Contractors. Aero flights originated in North Carolina – and thus used North Carolina and public facilities, namely airports – to aid in the kidnapping and transportation of prisoners. After renditions, the planes would drop off the CIA operatives in Washington, D.C. and fly back to North Carolina. 

Using the largest public database for air travel, an organization called The Rendition Project discovered that Aero operated more than 1,000 flights involving more than 200 aircraft. It linked 19 aircraft to more than 110 individual renditions. The actual number is believed to be significantly higher.

The CIA had therefore meticulously devised a systematic program that facilitated the transfer of prisoners around the world for detention and torture. This program was not only damaging to victims – one witness referred to Aero flights as “the torture chamber in the sky” – but also U.S. national security interests. And it was in blatant violation of U.S. and international law.

The “Phobia of Hope”

I was struck by the rendition program’s extraordinary brutality, especially after listening to the sorrowful testimony of one of its victims, Mohamedou Ould Slahi. After being kidnapped and loaded onto planes, Mohamedou and the other prisoners were beaten, hooded, shackled and had tape wrapped around their heads, leaving only a small slit underneath the nose for breathing. They were forced to wear headphones that blasted noise for the duration of their hours-long flights.

The prisoners literally didn’t know where they were, where they were going, or where they’d arrived when the flights touched down. When they’d been transferred to and locked in cells, they didn’t even know what country they were in.

My colleague Kate Porterfield, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, introduced in her testimony a phenomenon she described as the “phobia of hope.” After interviewing prisoners at Guantanamo, she observed a physiological reaction of fear when prisoners were asked to think about the future.

For prisoners who have endured this kind of systematic degradation, Dr. Porterfield said they have a fear of doing anything that may raise the expectation of release. They have every reason to believe that they will live out the remainder of their lives without trial or charge. They really have no hope.

Looking Ahead

In the next six months, the NCCIT intends to compile testimonies and prepare a report on the proceedings of the hearings. There will be opportunities for individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – including CVT – to submit recommendations for the commission to consider.

The final report will also include recommended next steps that the federal government could and should take to ensure a far greater level of transparency, reform and accountability. CVT will submit recommendations on what the state of North Carolina could do in response to its complicity.

For victims like Abou Elkassim Britel, the future isn’t as clear. His wife Khadija gave a powerful testimony at the hearings about how both of their lives were completely destroyed by the program and the wounds of his torture. The lingering physical and psychological effects she described were similar to the wounds CVT clients report daily.

When asked what justice would look like for her and her family, Khadija replied that it would make all the difference if, “my husband could just have faith and trust again, if he could just feel morally that someone understands how he feels.” Economic reparations might help, but for Abou and his family, acknowledging the grotesque immorality of what he and other victims endured is far more important.

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