Monday, February 27, 2012

Fayetteville NC Observer

Published: 12:00 AM, Sun Feb 26, 2012

Op-ed: Fager - [U.S.] Officials silent on torture

By Chuck Fager

The Iraq war is over, right? And Afghanistan is winding down.

Well, mostly. But a big unfinished piece of their business recently crossed the North Carolina media horizon. It was like a gray cloud marring the sunny vista of homecoming.

The unfinished business was North Carolina's legacy of torture.

The cloud centered about 40 miles north of here, over a company called Aero Contractors, in Johnston County. But its shadow reached to Cumberland County, too.

On Jan. 19, a faculty-student team from the UNC law school released a damning 75-page report on Aero's years-long involvement in the sordid saga of "extraordinary rendition."

That's doublespeak for torture flights.

Aero's torture connections were not exactly unknown; the New York Times had disclosed the basics in 2005. But the new report pulled together stacks of new evidence from national and international sources.

The report showed that planes from Aero regularly took off from Johnston County's airport. Then they picked up CIA snatch teams, who filled them with blindfolded, chained and drugged detainees. These captives were then carried to torture sites in Europe, Africa and Asia.

After torture and imprisonment, often for years, almost all of Aero's unwilling passengers were ultimately released. Their lives and families were shattered, for nothing.

The report included signed affidavits from two men who were taken to torture in Aero's planes. The statements are dry but harrowing. After years of torture and imprisonment, neither was ever charged with terrorism. There are many more like them.

The UNC team delivered the report first to top staff members of Gov. Bev Perdue and state Attorney General Roy Cooper, calling on them to investigate these amply supported charges.

Then they took it to a press conference at the Johnston County Airport. Aero Contractors is still operating there.

Business must be good: their facilities have expanded, with new, higher fences. Behind them the hundred-plus employees repeat a single mantra: "No comment."

At both places the report's backers emphasized that an investigation is urgently needed above all because torture is a crime.

Not "should be"; it is. It's long been a crime under N.C. law, under federal law. And international law, too.

Law and order. Hardly a new or radical idea.

Neither are the calls for an investigation of Aero. They've been raised by protests at Aero for over six years. But previously, few in the media noticed.

Even now, state officials were studiously noncommital with the UNC team. Beyond a polite welcome, it appears their response to the new report is to ignore it and pretend it never happened.

The chairman of the Johnston County commissioners also shrugged it off, saying Aero was just running a flying taxicab service.

Right: "taxis to the Dark Side, if you will," to quote a former vice president much involved with the whole shameful project.

Fortunately, media around the state did better. The UNC report made news in Raleigh, Charlotte and Winston-Salem and on several TV news shows. It even ran in Johnston County's hometown paper.

The UNC report, and the call for a state probe, also made the big time, as the subject of a major piece in the Washington Post.

Appearing in the Post made Carolina's torture connections an international story. And with each news article, the answering silence at the top in Raleigh grows louder, and more embarrassing for those who are concerned with the state's good name.

Nothing dramatic is likely to come from this spate of exposure soon. Yet report by report, brick by brick, a trail to accountability for Carolina's torture connections is being blazed and paved.

That trail may be long; heck, it's long already. And there may be twists in it - including turns toward Fort Bragg, where the infamous "torture migration" of 2002 went from here to Guantanamo and beyond.

But similar paths have been blazed in several other countries where official torture sullied a heritage of law and justice. And many of those finally reached their goal.

Turning points in these struggles typically involved high officials who broke through the wall of silence and denial and demanded the truth be found, exposed, and acted on.

Let's hope Gov. Perdue and Attorney General Cooper find the fortitude to join that distinguished company.

UNC and the media have done their part. Now it's the state's turn.

Chuck Fager is Director of Quaker House in Fayetteville.

NOTE: The UNC Law report is online here.