I recently ran across a brief article in one of the daily newspapers here in North Carolina that described an effort by some of this state's legislators to begin an investigation of Aero Contractors and its involvement in the US government's rendition program. As most readers know, this program involves kidnapping, detaining and transporting individuals considered the enemy to prisons around the world where they are then tortured and kept incommunicado for months and years. The legislative effort is but one result of the efforts of a group known as North Carolina Stop Torture Now. What follows is the transcript of an email interview with Raleigh, NC resident and long-time peace and justice activist Christina Cowger, who serves as the group's coordinator.
Ron Jacobs: Hello. Let me start by asking you to introduce yourself and the group? How long have you been around? Are you connected to any church or larger group?
Christina Cowger: North Carolina Stop Torture Now (NC STN) began work in the fall of 2005. That was when activists from St. Louis brought the issue of extraordinary rendition to our attention. With them, we carried out an action of non-violent civil disobedience -- trespassing -- at the headquarters of Aero Contractors in Smithfield, NC.
Without Aero Contractors and similar CIA front companies, rendition literally wouldn't "get off the ground." Aero uses publicly funded airport facilities in North Carolina as a launching pad to help the CIA kidnap and torture people in various parts of the world. Once we realized this, we couldn't ignore it. NC STN is a grassroots coalition of educators, peace and human rights activists, people of faith, students, and working people. We're not particularly affiliated with any church or other group. Active in our ranks are people from the ACLU, Amnesty International, Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the Catholic Worker movement, CodePink, the Green Party, the North Carolina Council of Churches, Peace Action, Quaker House, Unitarian Universalist congregations, and various other faith groups.
We started in the Triangle area, and have built connections to people in eastern and western North Carolina. Community activists working on the anti-Aero campaign include members of Coastal Carolina Peace (Carteret County), the Piedmont Centre for Peace and Justice (Winston-Salem), and
Wilmington Peace Meetup. Anti-torture students are active at Eastern Carolina University and UNC-Asheville. We're also communicating with anti-torture activists in Massachusetts, the Bay Area, Oregon, and Washington, DC.
RJ: What compelled your group to take on the issue of torture in Guantanamo and other prisons around the world set up for that purpose?
CC: The story of Khaled El-Masri, perhaps the best-known victim of rendition, certainly galvanized a lot of us into action. Those familiar with the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Central America know that the use of disappearance, torture, and clandestine prisons is nothing new in U.S. covert operations. But it's also clear that since 9/11, the CIA has carried out a massive escalation in kidnapping and detention, completely outside the norms of national and international law.
We see this as one of the Bush Administration's most heinous abuses of power, although certainly not the only one. It appalls us and many others that a national "debate" about torture could even arise. To paraphrase journalist Mark Danner, even if it could be shown that torture was effective, it's immoral, and that's reason enough to fight against it. Further, CIA-sponsored torture fuels the hatred of people all over the world for the U.S. and its allies, which increases instability and makes everyone less safe.
What's wrong with rendition is not just that most of the victims are tortured, although that's bad enough. Rendition means "disappearing" people and detaining them indefinitely, outside the rule of law.
RJ: Can you provide the readers with an outline of how you understand the renditions process to work?
CC: Briefly, since 9/11 the rendition program was transformed into a large-scale campaign to detain and interrogate those targeted in the U.S. "war on terror" -- clandestinely and outside U.S. and international law. Stephen Grey's book Ghost Plane provides a meticulously documented account of rendition and its antecedents under Clinton.
A typical rendition begins with a Gulfstream executive jet taking off from the Johnston County Airport in Smithfield, North Carolina. It is serviced and piloted by a crew from Aero Contractors, which has a long history with the CIA. The plane might stop near Washington, D.C., to take on a CIA "snatch" team. The next stop would be in Europe to refuel, and then on to a city in Europe or the Middle East, where the CIA team kidnaps the suspect directly, or accepts custody of him from local police agents. Dressed and masked in black, the CIA team beats, strips, searches, and binds the prisoner, drugs him with an anal suppository, and then flies him with Aero Contractors' help to a foreign jail.
Many of these detainees have been thrown into notorious jails in Syria, Egypt, Uzbekistan, and Morocco, where conditions are inhumane and torture is brutal. Some have ended up in prisons run directly by the CIA -- the so-called "black sites" -- in eastern Europe or Afghanistan. Many have been rendered from prison to prison by Aero Contractors. In all cases, there is no due process, no habeas corpus, no communication with family for months and even years.
RJ: To your knowledge, is the United States still involved in renditions and torture?
CC: President Bush claimed in his September 6, 2006, speech that the "black sites" had been emptied, and their inmates rendered to Guantanamo. As Stephen Grey points out, this begs the question of what happened to the hundreds of detainees who entered the rendition system and remain missing.
The Military Commissions Act, passed by a gutless Congress before the 2006 fall elections, gave Bush a significant victory. Under the MCA, if you are declared an enemy combatant, you lose your habeas corpus rights. This is true whether or not you are a U.S. citizen, although it will no doubt be applied mainly to non-citizens. Given this victory, we guess that Bush and the CIA feel emboldened to continue the extraordinary rendition program. Of course, it is difficult to confirm this directly.
RJ: What is the role of private business in this process? Who pays them? What role does the CIA play, if any? The reason I ask that is because this all reminds me of the Air America saga in Vietnam and Laos and Southern Air Transport in Nicaragua -- both front corporations for the CIA.
CC: In fact, Aero Contractors was founded by a former chief pilot of Air America, Jim Rhyne, in the late 1970s. According to Stephen Grey in Ghost Plane (p 125-126), Aero pilots have flown "both declared and undeclared missions for the drug war in Colombia, helped supply the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, and had taken weapons and food to the UNITA rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, in Angola."
A network of private front companies helps the CIA maintain flexibility and deniability in the "war on terror." Besides Aero, there are Premier Executive Transport Services in Dedham, MA; Devon Holding and Leasing; and a variety of other company names. As Grey explains, the point of
having these civilian fronts is "to have a 'cutout' -- a trail that would lead an investigator to a brass plate by a lawyer's office entrance, but no farther."
In Portland, Oregon, a retired political science professor named Michael Munk has challenged one of these fronts, Bayard Foreign Marketing. At his urging, the Oregon Bar Association is investigating whether an attorney named Scott Caplan is guilty of professional misconduct for representing a fake client, "Leonard Bayard" -- a person who does not actually exist the. One of the Gulfstream jet used in renditions was owned by "Bayard."
I should mention that, in addition to shell companies, other better-known companies also profit from rendition. For example, Boeing has a subsidiary called Jeppesen International Trip Planning that plans the rendition flights for the CIA. Activists in San Jose, where Jeppesen is headquartered, have been protesting: Act Against Torture and South Bay Mobilization -- tel: (408)998-8504.
RJ: What can you tell us about the attempt by some North Carolina state legislators to get that state's Bureau of Investigation to investigate Aero Contractors? What caused these legislators to take an interest in this issue?
CC: In addition to generating media coverage to help expose Aero and rendition, we went to North Carolina's Governor Mike Easley (D) early on. We met with his Chief of Staff and provided extensive background information. One of our main points was that North Carolina taxpayers are in essence hosting a "torture taxi." In addition to its corporate HQ at the Johnston County Airport, Aero is also a tenant at the Global TransPark (GTP) in Kinston, where it houses a Boeing 737 tied to many rendition flights. The GTP is a publicly supported economic development project.
Governor Easley put the matter to an old friend and legal advisor, Andy Vanore, who told us he advised the Governor to do exactly nothing. Mr. Vanore's reasoning was, literally, that President Bush and North Carolina's Republican Senators all said the U.S. does not torture. Sure enough, Governor Easley took Mr. Vanore's advice, and did nothing.
We met with the GTPA board as a whole, and with their vice-chair, Gene Conti. They also declined to take action. We then took our case to several state legislators, and they became concerned that Aero might stain the state's reputation. In October 2006, 12 state representatives sent a letter to NC SBI Director Robin Pendergraft, asking that she investigate Aero for suspected conspiracy to kidnap and torture. Ms. Pendergraft responded tersely that she lacked jurisdiction -- the case was a matter for the FBI.
In January 2007, 22 state senators and representatives wrote to NC Attorney General Roy Cooper, Ms. Pendergraft's boss. They rebutted Ms. Pendergraft's claim that the state cannot investigate, giving examples to the contrary. Our state SBI recently investigated a lottery commissioner who ended up answering to the federal crime of mail fraud, and acted on a tip to investigate North Carolina peddlers of child pornography who were sentenced under federal laws prohibiting distribution via the Internet. While it is likely that Mr. Cooper will also decline to investigate Aero, as this would mean crossing swords with the CIA, it is also clear that the refusal would be selective and political.
We expect that more leaders of our state's political, religious, and legal communities will become concerned and speak out against North Carolina hosting a "torture taxi."
RJ: What is Aero's suspected role? How did people discover this role? What kind of charges can be brought against them should the investigation find anything?
CC: Aero's role is to maintain and equip the planes, and supply the pilots and flight crews for the rendition flights. Their role was uncovered by journalists using information from planespotters -- people who hang out near airports with binoculars, writing down planes' tail numbers, and then publish this information on the Web. Also, the Federal Aviation Administration provides data on the movements of airplanes on aviation web sites.
Steven Edelstein, an attorney familiar with the Aero case, has pointed out that, under North Carolina law, an agreement to commit an unlawful act is a conspiracy. If a person who is part of the agreement flies a plane or orders another to fly a plane within the jurisdiction of the State of North Carolina, then that person may be guilty of a conspiracy to commit a felony or a misdemeanor. It is not necessary that the unlawful act (e.g., the kidnapping) take place within the State of North Carolina.
The unlawful crimes are numerous. First-degree kidnapping, felonious restraint, and false imprisonment are a few of the substantive offenses. In addition, there are a myriad of assault violations.
North Carolina law also requires anyone in charge of a state agency, such as the Global TransPark where Aero maintains a hangar in Kinston, to report possible criminal violations to the State Bureau of
RJ: What do you hope to see as the outcome of this action against Aero?
CC: We know that shutting down Aero will require sustained effort. Many of North Carolina's political leaders are oblivious to the moral issues surrounding rendition. But we hope they may eventually respond to sustained pressure, and to negative local and national publicity.
It's also clear that Aero is only one piece of an extensive torture network that includes many private contractors and perhaps portions of our military apparatus. It's probably not an accident that Aero is located so close to Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville, NC. We are in the process of researching other Carolina torture connections, and plan to issue a report this year.
Our task is really to arouse widespread public opposition to extra-legal and abusive treatment of prisoners, including torture. We are just part of a broader national movement to rein in rendition. As a movement, we need to uproot the torture network, and build support for human rights at home and abroad.
Local efforts to expose and shut down the front companies like Aero would be helped by hearings in the U.S. House and Senate. Some members, such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), have indicated possible interest in holding hearings on rendition. We need to ensure that such hearings occur, that they are extensive and public, and that the private contractor issue is fully aired. We encourage everyone to contact Sen. Leahy (Judiciary Committee office, phone 202-224-7703) and Rep. Nadler (phone 202-225-5635) with this request.
RJ: I assume that Aero is but one of several companies involved in this process. Is your group familiar with some of the other companies involved? If so, can you let the readers know in the hope that we can shine a spotlight on these companies?
CC: The web addresses for Bay Area anti-Jeppesen activists are given above. To support anti-Bayard efforts in the Portland, Oregon, area, email us at email@example.com and we can put you in touch. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee is a national organization, and their activists are also working specifically on the CIA front called Premier Executive Transport Services in Dedham, MA (www.bordc.org).
RJ: Anything else to add?
CC: North Carolina Stop Torture Now has a website. No matter where you live, you can add your voice to the call for North Carolina authorities to investigate
Aero Contractors by signing this online petition.
RJ: Thanks. Your work is certainly appreciated.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso 1997). His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, should be out in early 2007.
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