The solid citizens of Johnston County, N.C. – in a fateful quirk of geography – for several years have faced an unusual dilemma: What to do about the local company whose airplanes and personnel helped the Central Intelligence Agency carry out an interrogation program featuring human rights abuses that amounted to torture.
By extension, the same dilemma has confronted other North Carolinians, officials and ordinary residents alike. That’s what happens when the U.S. government picks your conveniently accessible state as a base of operations for what became known among critics as torture taxis.
The taxis had their heyday in the years following the 9/11 attacks, when American forces sought to kill or capture anyone who seemed to fit the mold of radical Islamic terrorist.
Planes based at the Johnston County Airport near Smithfield and operated by Aero Contractors were essential cogs in the CIA’s Rendition, Interrogation and Detention program, in which terrorist suspects – captured in battle zones, or perhaps simply snatched off the street – were flown to sites where they could be held incommunicado and questioned. Brutally.
Sometimes the interrogations occurred at secret CIA “black sites” now known to have been located in countries such as Afghanistan, Poland and Thailand. Sometimes the suspects were “rendered” to security forces in places where vicious mistreatment of prisoners was the norm – with those forces then doing the CIA’s dirty work. At least 44 such cases have been documented that involved aircraft and crews operating out of North Carolina. When someone fell into this hellish trap, there was no due process, no regard for credible claims of innocence or mistaken identity.
Even though Aero Contractors has tried to keep its profile low, activists who formed the group North Carolina Stop Torture Now have traced its involvement in the rendition flights, apparently lasting through 2006 or so. The company’s CIA ties thus have hardly been a secret. And even while the harsh Guantanamo prison for so-called “enemy combatants” remains open, it’s reasonable to assume that the worst interrogation abuses have been curbed, in line with ground rules issued under President Obama.
Yet, many issues surrounding the rendition program remain unsettled, including whether and how to hold Americans accountable for actions that appear to have violated international standards against torture that our country is supposedly committed to upholding, and also how to counter the perception that torture can be an effective way to gather worthwhile intelligence.
On November 30 and December 1, those issues were spotlighted at hearings in Raleigh before a commission put together by Stop Torture Now. It didn’t escape notice that the White House’s current occupant has voiced his enthusiasm for waterboarding and other painful interrogation techniques. So this was hardly an irrelevant descent into ancient history.
It took one of the anti-torture group’s founders to zero in on a key challenge – one that resonates especially with those of us who view torturous interrogations as contrary to Christian teachings about human dignity and protection of the vulnerable.
Allyson Caison, who recalled her interactions at Johnston County school and community events with Aero Contractor employees, said she was motivated by her faith to protest the company’s activities. But while she has found some support in the area’s churches, those in rural Johnston – that part of the county still largely untouched by the Triangle’s growth wave – have been cool to the Stop Torture Now message.
At those churches, Caison said, “the Bible is often wrapped in the American flag.” In other words, patriotism – or what some people think of as patriotism – colors some church-goers’ views of what their faith requires.
Here, perhaps, lays the great insight offered by the N.C. Commission of Inquiry on Torture http://www.nccit.org/  as its hearings unfolded with a powerful line-up of presenters: The use of torture – even amidst what has come to be known as the war on terror, even when Americans know that they face serious risks in the conflict with ISIS, the stubbornly resilient Taliban and their sympathizers – is anything but patriotic. Indeed, it is profoundly unpatriotic because of the damage it does to America’s moral standing and to the rule of law.
We can stipulate that in those dark times after September 11, 2001, with the tragic images still fresh and the dead still being mourned, the nation was both awash with righteous fury and frightened of what other catastrophes might loom. There was a sense at the government’s highest levels that whatever tactics were necessary to protect us from mass murder were the tactics to be used. If that meant abusing a detainee to within an inch of his life so he’d spill al-Qaeda’s latest plans, then the marching orders were to get on with it.
But as former intelligence officials made clear at the hearings, the premise that torture is an effective way of deriving useful information is flawed at its core. People under extreme duress will basically say anything to stop the pain — whether accurate or not.
Far more reliable is information gleaned by the interrogator who convinces the suspect to trust him; who treats the suspect, whatever he might have done, like a human being rather than someone to be broken with cruelty.
Nor is the choice between “torture and tea and crumpets,” as one presenter put it. Suspects don’t have to be coddled. But an interrogator skillful enough to get a suspect to confide in him – unlikely if his tactics hinge on fear, loathing and pain – has the better chance of obtaining the kind of information he’s seeking, if it’s there to be had.
This amounts to an ultra-pragmatic reason not to torture amid the search for intelligence. Of course, there also are reasons rooted in morality and faith.
Scheduled to address the commission was David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia and a leading human rights advocate. Gushee couldn’t attend because of a death in the family, but his remarks were read by the Rev. Steve Hickle of Raleigh, immediate past president of the N.C. Council of Churches.
Gushee’s critique of torture – a critique that seemed entirely applicable to the CIA’s rendition program – had five prongs:
- People are made in God’s image and thus should not be physically violated.
- Torture mistreats the vulnerable and violates standards of justice.
- When torture is authorized, it wrongly places too much trust in the goodness, the blamelessness, of those using it. Instead, we should remember that we’re all sinners to one degree or another.
- The use of torture dehumanizes everyone involved. It poses a temptation to be sadistic, especially within the context of a war.
- Torture erodes the character of a nation that employs it.
Christians, Gushee said via his text, must stand firm for moral values that also happen to be embedded in national and international law.
The relevant principles are reflected in the 1987 U.N. Convention Against Torture. The United States is a signatory, pledged to abide by its terms, which include making sure that acts of torture are regarded as criminal offenses.
If the stories of people caught up in the rendition program are to be believed, what they endured would meet the torture criteria. So are those personnel who carried out the program, whether government employees or contractors, to be held responsible for breaking the law?
The accountability factor
The Obama administration, confronted with that decision, opted not to try to punish people who presumably had acted in what they thought was the nation’s best interest even if in hindsight we can see that they were terribly misguided. North Carolina’s authorities, whether at the state or local level, have been similarly reluctant to pursue any charges.
The thinking among some members of the Commission of Inquiry on Torture is that a failure to seek punishment for manifest legal violations shirks accountability and clears the way for such violations in the future.
A contrary view, however, was articulated by a witness at the hearings. Glenn Carle, a former CIA senior analyst who was assigned to interrogate a top al-Qaeda suspect – and who objected to the use of brutality – advised against such prosecutions amid today’s climate of political polarization and what he called tribalism that blurs the search for truth, given that “we believe the statements of our tribal leaders.” He evoked Lincoln’s policy of magnanimity toward defeated Confederates.
“The goal is to have the American people agree that torture is fundamentally unacceptable,” Carle said. “We should work to convince even supporters of torture that it’s un-American and destructive of our system of government.”
Even if political realities make prosecutions unlikely, the more Americans learn about the abuses inflicted in their name – and the futility of those abuses in gathering worthwhile intelligence against terrorists who seek to do us harm – the less likely that our authorities will resort again to the kind of appalling methods employed by the CIA and its rendition accomplices.
North Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has powerful leverage to promote fuller public understanding. Yet Burr has chosen to shield the complete report prepared by that committee into the CIA’s interrogation practices. In doing so, he has allowed partisan considerations to override the larger public interest in a full accounting of abuses condoned under President George W. Bush.
The Council of Churches has long been on record with its opposition to torturous methods of interrogation. As the Commission of Inquiry prepares findings to be issued sometime within the coming year, it should be confident that North Carolina’s progressive faith community encourages its work. With the law and the Council’s understanding of our moral obligations so closely in sync, that support cannot be in doubt.
Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches .