Torture Flights in Our Backyard
On December 31, 2003, El-Masri, who was 40 at the time, boarded a bus from Ulm, Germany to Skopje, Macedonia, where he intended to take a brief vacation. The drive proceeded as expected until the bus crossed into Macedonia. Without explanation, Macedonian law enforcement officials boarded the bus and escorted him off. They confiscated his passport and transported him to a hotel in Skopje, where he was detained and interrogated.
“I was guarded at all times, the curtains were always drawn. I was threatened with guns and I was not allowed to contact anyone,” El-Masri stated in a 2005 lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union brought against CIA Director George Tenet on El-Masri’s behalf. “At the hotel, I was repeatedly questioned about my activities in Ulm, my associates, my mosque, meetings with people that had never occurred or associations with people I had never met. I answered all of their questions truthfully, emphatically denying their accusations.”
After 23 days, a team of Macedonian men drove him to the airport, where members of the CIA assumed custody of him.
“I was severely beaten by people’s fists and what felt like a thick stick. Someone sliced the clothes off my body, and when I would not remove my underwear, I was beaten again until someone forcibly removed them from me,” El-Masri said. “I was thrown on the floor, my hands were pulled behind me, and someone’s boot was placed on my back. Then I felt something firm being forced inside my anus. I was put in a belt with chains that attached to my wrists and ankles, earmuffs were placed over my ears, eye pads over my eyes, and then I was blindfolded and hooded.”
The team led El-Masri onto a waiting plane.
When the plane landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, the men drove El-Masri to a secret CIA detention and interrogation black site called the Salt Pit.
“That first night I was interrogated by six or eight men…. I would remain in solitary confinement for more than four months,” he said. “My requests to meet with a representative of the German government, a lawyer or to be brought before a court were repeatedly ignored.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, the CIA analyzed El-Masri’s passport and concluded that it was genuine — they had captured the wrong person. El-Masri was to be immediately released.
“I was warned that as a condition of my release, I was never to mention what had happened to me,” El-Masri recalled.
On May 28, El-Masri was driven to the airport. He was told to change into the clothes he had worn on the tourist bus to Macedonia. Then he was blindfolded, handcuffed and led onto the plane where he was chained to his seat. After the flight, he was placed in the backseat of a vehicle that drove through mountains for several hours. When it stopped, El-Masri received his belongings and passport. The driver ordered him to walk down a path without looking back.
“I believed I would be shot in the back and left to die, but when I turned the bend, there were armed men who took my passport,” El-Masri said.
Around the corner, an armed man asked him why he was in Albania. Then he drove El-Masri to a nearby airport from which he was flown back to Germany.
“Only when the plane took off did I believe I was actually returning to Germany,” El-Masri said. “When I returned I had long hair and a beard, and had lost 40 pounds. My wife and children had left our house in Ulm, believing I had left them and was not coming back.”
In 2006, the U.S. District Court dismissed the American Civil Liberties Union’s case against the CIA on the grounds that it would expose state secrets. Subsequently, the Supreme Court refused to hear his case.
This does not sound like a chain of events that began in Smithfield, North Carolina—a small town located less than an hour southeast of Duke. But when El-Masri’s story became public in 2005, the members of that community were faced with the news that their own neighbors could be involved in a top-secret CIA program called extraordinary rendition.
April 11, I drove 40 minutes from Duke’s West Campus to Johnston County Airport. Many North Carolinians have never heard of this small airport because it does not offer commuter flights—just aircraft maintenance, refueling and runway space for various private clients. The main part of Johnston County Airport consists of the terminal—a small, three-room building—and a series of runways. That day, I was particularly interested in visiting a client called Aero Contractors, the company that transported Khaled El-Masri from Macedonia to Afghanistan in January 2004.
The entrance to the Aero Contractors’ area appeared as unwelcoming as I had expected: a towering gate covered with threats against unlawful entrance and a card-access entry point. As I pulled back to drive away, a sympathetic elderly lady with delicately coiffed hair rolled down the window of her white GMC.
“What’s over here?” I asked through the window as she pulled in towards the gate.
“Oh, just different companies. The main terminal is over there,” she replied in a grandmotherly tone.
This mix of mystery and innocence would come to characterize my entire Smithfield visit. Did she know what I was really curious about? Did she work for Aero Contractors? Did she even know what they did?
At the request of the Central Intelligence Agency, retired pilot Jim Rhyne, who flew CIA missions in the Vietnam War era, started Aero Contractors in 1979. Early on, Aero was primarily responsible for transporting foreign dignitaries visiting the United States. But according to a University of North Carolina School of Law analysis of flight records and aircraft registrations—as well as interviews conducted with former CIA officers, declassified agency documents and numerous other materials—Aero operated aircraft for the CIA’s top-secret extraordinary rendition program between 2001 and 2006.
Extraordinary rendition means transferring a suspected criminal from one country to another for interrogation, without going through the judicial process. Often, the detainee would be taken to a country where loose laws allow torture as part of the interrogation process. Under Article 3 of the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a signatory, it is illegal to surrender a detainee to a country where torture is likely.
Extraordinary rendition comes from the concept of rendition, which simply means moving a suspect from one jurisdiction to another—not necessarily to be interrogated. Throughout history, the United States has debated the value and morality of rendition as various cases arose. The earliest instances involved foreign fugitives who were captured in the United States and whether they should be returned to their native countries if the justice system there was excessively harsh. Later cases questioned the legality of kidnapping and returning American criminals who had escaped abroad.
While former President Bill Clinton was in office, the concept of rendition developed radically and began to be called “extraordinary,” according to the ACLU. Intelligence agencies began abducting terrorist suspects from one foreign country and transporting them to another for information gathering, often using techniques that do not comply with international law.
In a 2005 New Yorker magazine article, Michael Scheuer, a former CIA counterterrorism expert, explained that by the mid-1990s, his investigative team had designed a mission to dismantle key al-Qaeda cells, but because the Central Intelligence Agency does not operate courts or jails, there would be nowhere to take captured suspects. For reasons of national security and because any evidence obtained through torture would be inadmissible, the cases were unfit for regular U.S. courts. Scheuer remarked, “we had to come up with a third party,” and later told Congress, “it is basically finding someone else to do your dirty work.”
Egypt, it turns out, was the perfect host. At the time, it was a U.S. ally with a reputation for harsh treatment of criminals. Moreover, then-President Hosni Mubarak’s primary opponents were radical Islamists linked to al-Qaeda. Egypt acquiesced to the arrangement, forming a secret pact with the United States. The process worked as follows: Egypt issued a formal arrest warrant for a suspected terrorist. The U.S. would coordinate intelligence efforts, alongside local law enforcement, in whatever country the suspect resided. Upon capture, the suspect would be flown to Egypt for interrogation. A former CIA renditions program analyst told The New Yorker that American CIA personnel could give Egyptians the questions they wanted to ask the detainee in the morning and get answers by the evening. U.S. personnel, however, were never permitted to be in the same room as the suspect.
The program worked: terrorist suspects were captured, and the United States had a place to put them. Soon, the Clinton administration established third-party relationships with Jordan, Morocco and Syria, as well.
Less than a decade later, the system evolved again. In response to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Justice Department officials argued in a document called the Yoo-Delahunty memo, which was released to the American Civil Liberties Union December 2009, that the government should disregard the Geneva Conventions’ regulations on detainee treatment, such as violence against hostages.
Former President George W. Bush accepted the Justice Department’s conclusion, affirming in an official statement that he had “authority under the Constitution,” and it was “consistent with military necessity,” to deny protections of the Geneva Conventions to al-Qaeda combatants captured during the war in Afghanistan. With newfound leeway, the CIA began operating its own detainment and interrogation centers in third countries, known as black sites. By holding terrorist suspects there without charges and by obtaining their confessions through torture, intelligence officers eliminated the possibility of convicting them in U.S. courts or even using them as witnesses. But by releasing them, the CIA would potentially endanger the public and expose itself to domestic and international criminal charges.
Jamie Gorelick, the former deputy attorney general and a member of the 9/11 Commission, explained to The New Yorker in 2005, “in criminal justice, you either prosecute the suspects or let them go. But if you’ve treated them in ways that won’t allow you to prosecute them you’re in this no man’s land.”
To date, more than 54 foreign governments spanning five continents have participated in CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition programs by either contributing intelligence or housing black sites, according to a 2013 Open Society report.
Back to Johnston County Airport. Aero Contractors fits into this puzzle because—according to declassified CIA documents, public airport records, court filings, witness testimony and NGO investigative reports—they flew the airplanes that took terrorist suspects from the United States to torture sites abroad.
According to the 2012 report from the University of North Carolina Law School, the missions ran as such: first, a few Aero employees would fly from Johnston County Airport to a domestic airport, often Washington-Dulles just outside Washington, D.C. There, the team of CIA detainment and interrogation experts boarded. Next, the plane flew to the country where the terrorist suspect was located. The rendition experts prepared the detainee for travel by “a standardized procedure intended to put the individual in a state of total immobility and sensory deprivation.” During flight, the suspect would remain deprived of sight, sound and the ability to move or communicate. When the plane landed, he would remain in the dark until he had arrived at the black site.
Why did Aero Contractors choose Smithfield, N.C. as its headquarters? Stephen Grey, the author of a book called Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Rendition and Torture Program, explained that they choose Johnston County Airport because of its proximity to Fort Bragg, which was particularly advantageous in Aero’s early days when the planes often transported Special Forces operatives and other military officials. Additionally, Smithfield is remote and rural, with a population of just under 13,000. The Johnston County Airport is too small to have a tower, meaning there is no observation or record-keeping about Aero’s flights.
“We’ve been doing business with the government for a long time, and one of the reasons is, we don’t talk about it,” Aero assistant manager Robert Blowers told The New York Times in 2005.
Despite these efforts for secrecy, one wonders how this corporation could keep a low profile within such a small community. N.C. Stop Torture Now, a local advocacy organization, seeks to expose and condemn the work of Aero Contractors. They update a website and hold frequent demonstrations, but I suspected that their outrage might not necessarily characterize the sentiment of the overall Smithfield population. I went to the airport that day in search of an average citizen’s perspective.
After a few minutes in the airport, a gentleman named William Curtis sat down next to me. Curtis spent 27 years in the military and then 10 years with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He now supports a flight service for rescue dogs. Curtis explained that he had never worked with Aero Contractors nor did he know about their operations, but when I told him about my project, his eyes lit up and he offered to brew some coffee.
“People don’t understand the private airline market,” he said, emphasizing the total independence of every company that contracts with Johnston County Airport. “It would be a shame to connect the facility to what gets transported through there.”
He went on to explain that local airports sustain the North Carolina economy. Many, such as Johnston County Airport, were built in the aftermath of World War II, when land was far cheaper than it is today. If Johnston County Airport were shut down, the government could find another place equally useful out of which to conduct its operations, he said, adding that the local economy would never recover.
His comments made me wonder if, as a Smithfield local, he had heard rumors of torture and black sites and whether he believed them. I also puzzled over North Carolina’s connection to this much larger web. How does a highly-classified CIA program, brainstormed and directed from agency offices in the Washington, D.C. area, affect the tiny, remote community where it is executed?
As I drove down Interstate 95 toward the Smithfield town center, I passed a lot of churches and fast food restaurants, along with a series of billboards displaying the Barrel Monster, an icon who uses kitschy phrases and cheesy gestures to remind visitors that the shops of Smithfield need their business.
Downtown Smithfield consists of four main streets lined mostly with bail bonds establishments, private attorneys’ offices and a few coffee shops. The streets were quiet on this weekday afternoon. And so, I was soon to discover, were the people.
In terms of their relationship with this issue, a manager at the Smithfield land zoning office explained, “If you would ask nine out of 10 people [about the connection between Aero Contractors and extraordinary rendition] they wouldn’t know about it unless they happened to read it in the papers.”
“And after that?” I asked.
“They really don’t mind.”
Others expressed more pronounced skepticism about the Smithfield connection to extraordinary rendition. When I asked the owner of a local café what he knew about the anti-torture protests at the airport, he laughed.
“I’m sorry, I was just laughing at how you said that—torture,” he said. “I know a lot of people who work over there, and if even half of what the [N.C. Stop Torture Now] protesters said were true, my friends wouldn’t work there. I don’t have all the facts and it’s just my opinion, but I don’t have a problem with [Aero Contractors] being here.”
That day, I talked to receptionists, shop workers and personnel at the Development Corps, Land Use Center and Town Hall.
“I really don’t know much,” “maybe you should talk to the folks at the airport” and “I’ve seen it on the news, but I don’t have an opinion” were the common responses.
I left Smithfield under the impression that most residents remain generally apathetic toward the issue.
One week later, I attended N.C. Stop Torture Now’s monthly meeting. Given some of the commentary I’d heard in Smithfield—one shop owner described the organization as “a couple angry people on the side of the road”—I expected a cluster of radical, emotional activists.
But as the eight of them conversed in the basement of a Unitarian Universalist church in Raleigh, N.C., I was struck by the depth and breadth of their research-driven agenda. They discussed the United Nations’ request for the United States to honestly report interrogation practices in the upcoming fourth periodic review of compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They anticipated press coverage of the Constitution Project’s report on post-9/11 extraordinary rendition. They devised press and logistical arrangements for a clean-up of the highway that runs alongside Johnston County Airport. They began planning a conference in Charlotte, drafted correspondence to a torture victim in Italy and brainstormed an op-ed to address recent decisions made by Senator Richard Burr, Republican-N.C.
The activities of this organization are substantive and multi-disciplinary; they act locally but think internationally. They aim, overall, to expose and to end the practice of torture.
After the meeting, I spoke individually with a few members. Curtis’ words were still fresh in my mind: Why act here against Johnston County Airport? The Smithfield population generally did not seem to believe the news stories about torture and black sites, nor did they care much about them even if they were true.
Chuck Fager, an N.C. Stop Torture Now member and longtime peace activist, explained that the organization does engage with the issue at the national and international levels. By advocating the release of research reports and lobbying local, state and federal legislative officials, as well as judicial officials, they apply pressure on actual decision-making bodies. Why the local activism and publicity component? To keep people aware. He explained that the “torture agenda” functions in two ways: either people forget about it, or people rationalize it and then forget. Fager explains that he and N.C. Stop Torture Now are working against this forgetting.
“It might take 20 years,” Fager said. “It will take long work and a lot of patience and determination. But we cannot let this be forgotten.”