What Happened in North Carolina: The State’s Role in U.S. Post-9/11 Rendition and Torture

The North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT) released its 83-page final report this week on the state’s role in U.S. post-9/11 rendition and torture. Drawing on public hearings, extensive data, and investigation over 18 months, the citizen-led inquiry has assembled a detailed dossier connecting state infrastructural support for rendition flights to the fate of detainees in their ultimate destinations at CIA “black sites” and foreign prisons.

Here, we outline the biggest takeaways from the report and suggest what comes next.

Key findings

  • Private companies played a significant role in post-9/11 CIA rendition and torture: An essential finding of the NCCIT report is that N.C.-based Aero Contractors, Ltd. “played an absolutely central role in the CIA’s torture program,” by operating two aircraft — N379P and N313P — which conducted over 80 percent of the U.S. government’s renditions between September 2001 and March 2004. The report puts the total number of individuals transported by Aero at 49, with 34 of those among the at least 119 individuals in CIA direct custody, and at least 15 more that the CIA rendered to foreign custody or U.S. military detention. Comprising citizens of 16 countries, these individuals included a 16-year-old student and a pregnant woman, Fatima Boudchar.
  • State-level support of post-9/11 rendition and torture was critical: As the NCCIT report details, the role of state-level collaborators in U.S. post-9/11 rendition and torture is often overlooked. North Carolina’s role is particularly concerning because not only are local and state officials and infrastructure implicated—authorities provided public airports for rendition flights, built a hangar for rendition aircraft, hosted Aero’s headquarters at Johnston County Airport and “made several grants to the county airport, at least one of which was specifically used to fortify the perimeter of only Aero’s corner of the facility”—but they have also refused to investigate these connections at every turn. 
  • Rendition to foreign governments was integral to the CIA program yet not nearly enough is known about its scope and its victims: The NCCIT report emphasizes that while there has been an official inquiry into what happened in CIA “black sites” and who was in them—this was the 6,700-page study by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), the redacted summary of which was released in December 2014—this only scratches the surface of U.S. post-9/11 policies. Gaps persist because that inquiry focused on the federal level and failed to examine the role of states or private companies, and also ignored U.S. rendition to foreign custody for interrogation or detention.
  • Rendition was in and of itself a form of torture: From the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” (e.g., waterboarding) to the humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the official and public account of post-9/11 practices to date focuses on what happened to individuals once in detention. However, the NCCIT report adds a previously overlooked dimension, by detailing both the physical and psychological harm suffered during the process of transportation to CIA “black sites” and/or foreign prisons. In emphasizing that “[p]reparation for ‘rendition’ involved physical and sometimes sexual assault, drugging, and sensory deprivation. Rendition flights were experiences of prolonged pain, dread, and terror,” the NCCIT report widens the debate to additionally focus on what happened in the “torture chamber in the sky.”
  • New details on the harms experienced by victims, including their families and communities: Individuals disappeared to CIA “black sites” or foreign custody on flights originating in North Carolina have yet to have their day in U.S. courts, including when Aero Contractors has been a named defendant. The NCCIT report corrects this erasure of victims’ experience, emphasizing: (1) a range of impacts on victims, including “survivors’ legal, economic, physical and psychological health, family, and social needs;” (2) that these impacts are continuing harms, including a “phobia of hope,” or “a terror of thinking about the future;” (3) that these harms are also felt by family and communities (questions such as “how will we live?” asked by Khadija Anna Pighizzini, wife of survivor Abou Elkassim Britel, powerfully echo this); and (4) that these harms are aggravated by the lack of recognition, apology, and other remedies.
  • The full extent of the U.S. accountability lag: The NCCIT report throws into even sharper relief how the U.S. government—at the federal as well as state level—has fallen far short in redressing wrongs. Outside of the United States, high-profile inquiries in the Council of  Europe and European Parliament have exposed the role that North Carolina-based aircraft played in rendition. The European Court of Human Rights has decided five landmark cases—including two in May of this year—and three more cases have been submitted to African and Inter-American bodies involving individuals on aircraft N379P and N313P. Additionally, in May 2018, the U.K. government reached “a full and final settlement” with, and apologized for the role it played in, the rendition and detention of Aero-rendition victims Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Boudchar. Domestically, however, no federal official or agency has been held to account. And at the state level, according to the NCCIT report “[o]fficial responses to North Carolina citizen advocacy have included public silence and non-responses, dismissals by state officials on grounds of lack of jurisdiction, and the monitoring and arrest of citizen advocates rather than investigation of Aero.”
  • Why a citizen-led process was needed and what it offers: As the first non-governmental and state-level inquiry on the topic of post-9/11 rendition and torture, the NCCIT is clearly novel. Born out of bipartisan anti-torture citizen advocacy—including by North Carolina Stop Torture Now, the North Carolina Council of Churches and many others—the NCCIT demonstrates the potential for truth and accountability to be attained by citizen activism when traditional doors are shut by non-cooperating governments. Testimony provided by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, including his remark—“thank you wholeheartedly, the people of North Carolina, thank you very much for standing to people who cannot stand up for themselves”—shows that victims may also get some closure and value from these non-official inquiries.

What’s next?

The NCCIT report makes a number of important recommendations to federal and state officials as well as North Carolina citizens across three areas: (1) transparency and accountability; (2) acknowledgment, redress, and reparations to victims; and (3) prevention of the future use of torture. Some of the key recommendations include:

  • Investigations and prosecutions at federal and state levels: It is long past the time for a full investigation of CIA post-9/11 rendition to foreign governments including “information regarding the chain of command and structure of the program.” At the state level, the NCCIT report also calls for a “governor-led task force to investigate the role of Aero and other private contractors operating in the State,” (the report identifies Blackwater and Centurion Aviation Services) in addition to other public airports in North Carolina.
  • Victim-centered approaches to ensuring remedies: The NCCIT report calls on federal officials to “[a]cknowledge and apologize for the harms . . . in a way that avoids re-traumatizing survivors and victims’ families” and to provide “reasonable reparations.” At the state and local level, it proposes a range of actions from public acknowledgement and apology to a site “where the story of the RDI [rendition, detention, and interrogation] program, with emphasis on the victims, can be told and education materials made available.” The establishment of a “citizens’ fund to help the victims and their families” is encouraged.
  • Local and state-level enforcement of human rights: Because North Carolina violated a series of international, federal, and state laws prohibiting disappearances and torture, the NCCIT report calls on officials at the federal, state, and local levels to “[p]rovide guidance on the obligations of state and local authorities to assist in carrying out obligations under CAT [Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment] and ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].”

Ultimately, the NCCIT’s account of North Carolina’s responsibility for U.S. post-9/11 rendition and torture is not only about the rendition flights that used the state’s infrastructure and were piloted by its citizens. It’s a cautionary tale on the dangers of non-accountability, finding that “[s]o long as the full scope of this program is kept secret and none of the leadership is held accountable, we will continue to face a grave danger that the United States will once again engage in torture . . . with the possibility of North Carolina again being used as a crucial launching platform.” And it’s a roadmap for thinking about different ways to integrate victims, mobilize citizens, and overcome governmental resistance in the pursuit of truth and justice while also strengthening the call for an official reckoning.

The International Human Rights Clinic supported both the preparatory work of the NCCIT and provided external drafting and research assistance for its report.

Image: A Casa 235 turboprop plane with registration number N168D taxis along a runway at Ruzyne Airport April 8, 2005 in Prague, Czech Republic. According to airport flight records the plane was registered to the firm Aero Contractors, based in North Carolina, and was scheduled to fly from Prague to Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: Photo by Pavel Horejsi/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Jayne Huckerby

Clinical professor of law and the director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke University School of Law. She was an adviser to, and witness for, the NCCIT. Follow her on Twitter (@jaynehuckerby).

Aya Fujimura-Fanselow

Senior lecturing fellow and supervising attorney in the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke University School of Law. Follow her on Twitter (@AyaFanselow).