Johnston County's Airplane to Hell
Most of those who take 70 or 95 through Johnston County wouldn’t remember what they passed by the next day. Not many would expect the area southeast of Raleigh to house an airport, and nobody, save for a few dozen locals, would know that airport regularly hosted C.I.A. officers and the suspected terrorists they were interrogating. Those same traits that make the county so ordinary rendered it the perfect backdrop for the C.I.A.’s extraordinary rendition practices that were largely revamped in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Two planes owned by front company Aero Contractors routinely transported terrorism suspects to interrogation sites around the world, sometimes even torturing them onboard the aircraft kept at Johnston County Regional.
While some residents knew vaguely of C.I.A. activity at the terminal as early as 1996, it wasn’t until 2005 that the rendition missions out of Johnston County Regional were formally uncovered in the press by way of a report in the New York Times. The story writes, “When the Central Intelligence Agency wants to grab a suspected member of Al Qaeda overseas and deliver him to interrogators in another country, an Aero Contractors plane often does the job.” Aero’s Gulfstream plane was nicknamed the “Guantanamo Express” due to how often it landed at the detention camp in Cuba; its other plane, a Boeing 737, flew routinely out of Kinston Regional Jetport in eastern North Carolina. Together, the two planes landed over 800 times in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa from 2001 to 2004.
Employees of Aero Contractors were well-known in the Johnston County community. Local realtor Allyson Caison, featured at length in The Guardian’s piece on the operation earlier this month, said of the Aero principals, “Their children and mine were schoolmates. I baked their gingerbread houses for Christmas.”
Following the Times report, protests consisting largely of local community members descended upon the airport. Organized by Christina Cowger, who now heads North Carolina Stop Torture Now, the demonstrators in attendance held up “Torture Taxi” banners, and some were arrested for trespassing. Cowger’s organization and others have continued to stage protests over the years; NC Stop Torture Now met in Raleigh on Tuesday to protest President Trump’s upcoming order to keep Guantanamo in operation.
The grassroots campaign has made some progress over the years, despite it facing the near-impossible uphill battle of holding accountable an agency that answers solely to the president. Senator Burr has showed signs of taking the group’s side, even voting to declassify part of the aforementioned Senate Intelligence Committee report in April the year it was released. In addition, an executive director at Aero disclosed in a 2007 closed meeting that the company was selling its hangar at the Kinston airport due to the negative publicity it was receiving from advocacy groups.
Still, Burr more recently expressed intentions to destroy any existing copies of the full report, requesting his predecessor on the committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, to order a recall of any copies still in possession of Obama administration staff. Feinstein condemned Burr’s apparent overreach in a statement issued in June, writing, “No senator - chairman or not - has the authority to erase history.”
In December, the volunteer-organized North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture concluded its public hearings on the state’s role in the C.I.A.’s long-running torture program. The commission offered testimonies from experts at the United Nations, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Human Rights Watch, among others. Also speaking were Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Guantanamo Bay detainee for 14 years rendered by Aero Contractors, and the wife of Abou el-Kassim Britel, an Italian national taken to Morocco and tortured by the C.I.A. Invitations to attend the public hearings saw no response from Aero Contractors, the governor, or the attorney general.
Despite the lack of response from the state, Cowger remains positive about her quest to hold the participants in the C.I.A.’s sordid affair accountable. Reflecting on the hearings, she said, “The commission demonstrates by its very being that we are not helpless.”