North Carolina state and local officials should prosecute participants in a CIA program that ferried terrorism suspects to secret sites where they were tortured, an advocacy group seeking to stir action over the former U.S. policy is demanding.
Prosecution is one of dozens of recommendations to be released Thursday by the private, 11-member North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture. The academics, lawyers, retired military officers and clergy who make up the self-appointed group held a public teach-in in Raleigh last year.
Such non-governmental inquiry commissions have no official power, though others succeeded in bringing attention to American military atrocities in Vietnam and war crimes in Bangladesh during that country's 1971 civil war.
The anti-torture activists now say they want government admissions and compensation for those tortured. State and county legal authorities also should prosecute the pilots and others involved in transporting prisoners since Washington won't under “laws that criminalize kidnapping, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and conspiracies to commit such unlawful acts,” the group said.
In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaida terrorists on the United States, CIA interrogators employed tactics like simulated drownings and mock executions that are now widely viewed as torture. A 2014 report from the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded the agency understated the brutality of the techniques, while overstating the value of information obtained by using them.
The group's focus on North Carolina springs from the reported involvement in the CIA program of Aero Contractors Limited. The private air carrier, whose website says it originated due to a “market need for dependable and discreet airlift,” operates out of a county airport about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Raleigh and 80.5 kilometers (50 miles) east of Fort Bragg, home to the Army's anti-terrorist Delta Force and other Special Operations units.
Flights operated by Aero Contractors delivered at least 49 people to secret CIA sites from Thailand to Poland or to foreign intelligence services for interrogation and possible torture, said the group's report, which relied on the work of an academic at London's University of Westminster who studies the CIA program.
“Instead of holding Aero accountable, the State of North Carolina and Johnston County until now have effectively endorsed its activities. This support has taken the form of hosting the company's headquarters at the Johnston County Airport and providing it with various airport and other county services,” the report said.
The CIA, Aero Contractors president Dolph Overton IV and other company officials did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment on the commission's statements.
Neither North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein nor Gov. Roy Cooper, who served as attorney general for 16 years before Stein took over last year, have given any indication they wanted to explore the state's ties to the CIA detention and interrogation program shuttered by President Barack Obama in 2009. Nor have any local prosecutors.
Spokesmen for Cooper did not respond when asked why he hasn't investigated or discussed North Carolina's connections to the CIA program. “Based on our understanding of the situation, this appears to be a federal matter,” Stein spokeswoman Laura Brewer said in an email. Cooper and Stein are Democrats.
Commission members and their supporters will pressure federal, state and local officials to acknowledge that the CIA program involved illegal acts that needlessly harmed innocent people, former Guantanamo Bay defense lawyer and commission co-chair Frank Goldsmith said in an interview Wednesday.
“We want the government to come clean about it, both the federal government and the state government,” said Goldsmith, of Asheville.
The Guantanamo military prison held more than 700 men swept up by U.S. agencies and allies in an attempt to capture terrorists. By this summer, all but 40 had been released by Presidents George W. Bush, Obama and Donald Trump, nearly all without trials. Fifteen men were designated as “high-value detainees,” including five facing trial for planning and aiding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the U.S.
Those numbers indicate that rather than keeping Americans safe as its defenders contend, the CIA program caused hundreds of people to be unjustly imprisoned and pointlessly abused, said Goldsmith, who earned security clearances while defending five Guantanamo detainees.
“Most of these men had nothing to do with terrorism, they had nothing to do with 9/11,” he said. Cooper, Stein and other politicians haven't taken action because they “realized it probably was politically unpopular because of this deep-seated belief, widespread belief, that these people really were guilty of something or they would not have been picked up.”