North Carolina torture taxis

Commemorating the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture

by Ken Sehested

June 26 is the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture. The United Nations
Convention against Torture (CAT), approved in 1984, took effect on 26 June 1987. Since the CAT’s
entry into force, the absolute prohibition against torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or
degrading treatment or punishment has become accepted as a principle of customary
international law. The US ratified the CAT in 1994, but with a boatload of exceptions.

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Most of my fellow North Carolinians would be surprised, maybe shocked, to learn that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operated a “torture taxi” in partnership with a local air service, Aero Contractors. Operating mostly out of a small taxpayer-subsidized Johnston County Airport in Smithfield, a Gulfstream jet would fly to Dulles International Airport, pick up an extraction team, fly to foreign countries, kidnap suspected terrorists, rendering them to secretive “black site” prisons in several regions of the world for “enhanced interrogation” by all manner of inflicted torment.

Right: Photo by Justin Norman-flickr-cc

All told, over 50 countries throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East participated in the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program. Whether in proxies’ jails or the CIA’s own facilities, captives were held secretly, denied access to families or lawyers, and subjected to severe interrogations.[1]

It’s what most folk would call torture. It is illegal in both international and U.S. law, though George W. Bush administration lawyers spun elaborate layers of sophistry to make the practice appear clinical. It is a rendering begging for a mending.

It lasted for at least five years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was among the ways public officials “went to the dark side,” as Vice President Dick Cheney commented, employing “tools we had never before used” according to CIA counsel John Rizzo.[2] Every journey to that dark side heightens the risk of being inescapably trapped in its web: We ourselves are rendered to the very thing we hate.

Left: US soldiers waterboarding insurgent during Philippine-America War 1899-1902.

We know of this dark history from two sources. The 2014 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s rendition program outlines an especially gruesome period in our nation’s history. It reveals how the U.S. orchestrated and implemented a clandestine network of interrogation and torture.

That massive, 6,700-page report, five years in the making, is still classified, though a much shorter executive summary was made public.

Proponents of the program claimed, as some do today, that this effectively made us safer. Multiple credible sources say otherwise.

According to former CIA director John Brennan, some “useful information” was gained “but there was also a lot that was bogus.” One former top agency office estimated that “ninety per cent of the information was unreliable.”[3] According to the chief of one of the CIA’s secret prisons, the information gleaned from torture resulted in “the production of mediocre or, I dare say, useless intelligence.”[4]

Aero Contractors’ role in sourcing the rendition program surfaced in 2005 in the New York Times.[5] Among the readers were residents in Johnston County. Thus began a grassroots effort, NC Stop Torture Now, to raise public attention to the airport’s infamous role in exporting torture.[6]

Vigorous efforts were made to get county, state, and federal officials to acknowledge the truth and provide public accountability, thus far without success. We know, for instance, that rather than taking steps to investigate Aero, North Carolina officials have taken measures to support the company.[7]

Right: Abuses by US military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq, came to light in April 2004-Photo-AP Photo.

Building on these grassroots organizing, the NC Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT) was formed in 2017, with a distinguished list of scholars, jurists, and human rights advocates. After an investigation and public hearings, in 2018 the NCCIT published its findings in a report, “Torture Flights: From North Carolina’s Role in the CIA Rendition and Torture Program.” It confirms that Aero Contractors was responsible for rendering at least 49 individuals for interrogation, either to foreign custody or at CIA black sites.

I urge you to read at least the two-page executive summary of that report.

In December 2014, following the release of the Senate’s torture report’s executive summary, Rep. Senator John McCain (himself a victim of torture) offered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, saying, “I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies.”[8]

Our story from North Carolina, as part of the larger story of our nation’s temptation to fight terror with terror—which, as one writer noted, is like hitting a dandelion with a golf club—is instructive and calls for a choice from citizens and public office holders alike. In the coming days many will be singing “America! America! God shed his grace on thee.” When doing so, remember that the second verse says “America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw.”

Grace cannot be segregated from mending. We live with a severe tear in our nation’s moral fabric. Repair begins with truth telling, humbling as it may be. Only then can we develop reweaving strategies.

Above: French artist Alain Carrier donated this art to Amnesty International.

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©ken sehested @ This article is a slightly longer version of an article commissioned by the North Carolina Council of Churches "NC No Torture" program.


[1] North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture

[2] Mark Danner, “How Dick Cheney Became the Most Powerful Vice President in History," The Nation

[3] Jane Mayer, “The Black Sites: A rare look inside the CIA’s secret interrogation program,” The New Yorker, 5 August 2007

[4] Quoted in a declassified portion of the “,” p. 144

Right: Torture of accused heretics during the Catholic Church's Inquisition.

[5] “C.I.A. Expanding Terror Battle Under Guise of Charter Flights,” Scott Shane, Stephen Grey, & Margot Williams

[6] The North Carolina Council of Churches has played a significant, though mostly behind-the-scenes role, in supporting the work of NC No Torture and the NC Commission of Inquiry on Torture. For more see “NC No Torture Releases Christian Study"

[7] "Torture Flights: North Carolina’s Role in the CIA Rendition and Torture Program," Executive Summary, p. 7

[8] Jim Nintzel, “McCain: ‘I Know the Use of Torture Compromises That Which Distinguishes Us From Our Enemies,” Tucson Weekly