Point of view

Burr admirably votes for transparency on CIA torture report

May 1, 2014 

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC

Two years ago I criticized Sen. Richard Burr for blustering about the enforcement of government secrecy standards instead of working to limit the information that Washington keeps secret. Now it’s time to give credit where it’s due.

On April 3, Burr voted to release the summary of a Senate investigation that determined that the CIA fought the war on terrorism partly by snatching suspects and subjecting them to “brutal” treatment. “The way in which the CIA operated and managed the program complicated, and in some cases hindered the national security missions of other Executive Branch agencies,” according to an excerpt leaked to McClatchy News Service.

It’s all the more commendable that Burr took the difficult stand for transparency given that he pointedly disagrees with these findings and disputes that it was appropriate to prepare this report, which was compiled by Democrats on the Intelligence Committee. Indeed, Burr vouches “that the CIA’s detention program saved lives.”

But with his vote, Burr said he wanted to give the American people the opportunity to make their own judgments. Now it’s up to us to do so. The summary will be released as soon as the administration declassifies it and, in addition to its nationwide importance, part of it will have local significance.

Some flights originating from the Johnston County airport and the Global TransPark in Kinston appear to have been chartered by the CIA to shuttle terrorism suspects clandestinely to their interrogations. A firm named Aero Contractors conducted the flights in question.


The case of a German citizen named Khaled el-Masri is a well-documented instance that likely involved Aero. A January 2004 Aero flight might have transported el-Masri from Eastern Europe to an American site in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit. Eight years later, the European Court of Human Rights judged that el-Masri had been “severely beaten, sodomized, shackled and hooded, and subjected to total sensory deprivation” by a “CIA rendition team” immediately prior to being forced onto this flight.

El-Masri’s plight has attracted special attention because, two years after it happened, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Merkel told the media that this was a case of mistaken identity.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s summary document, even at 480 pages, will not answer all of the allegations about the CIA’s involvement in torture, much less all of the questions about Aero’s particular role as an enabler. Indeed, Burr thinks the public will dismiss it as baseless. But, thanks to this transparency, we’ll be able to draw our own conclusions, and it is at least possible that the investigation will shed some light on activities quietly taking place from Eastern North Carolina.

Just as importantly, others closer to home might follow the transparency example Burr has set by releasing details about state and local relationships with Aero. Tidbits are already known. The News & Observer reported in March 2007, for instance, that Aero received a $60,000 credit from the Global TransPark, a state-owned institution, for building a hangar at the facility. At the time, that sum was good for more than 50 years of rent. Aero vacated the TransPark but continues its work from the Johnston County airport, and that arrangement is almost totally opaque.

Eric Juth, a local documentary filmmaker, ran squarely into this problem while shooting a new short movie called “The Ghosts of Johnston County.” Juth’s film examines the contribution of Johnston County’s airport to operations by Aero and the CIA, but it also became a testament to the official wall of silence surrounding this relationship. Almost no one from the airport or from county government acknowledged invitations to address their policies toward Aero on film.

Allen Mims Jr., a Johnston County commissioner, was a courageous exception to this rule. “I think Aero is a good corporate citizen,” Mims told Juth. “They’ve been out at our airport for over 20-25 years, and they’ve helped that airport grow.”

This perspective poses basic questions for North Carolina. If the evidence keeps accumulating about the CIA’s being involved in torture and Aero’s supporting it, we need to ask ourselves very honestly whether subsidizing this business and profiting from it sets a leadership example we would want others to follow. This is doubly true if such activities “complicate” or “hinder” national security, as this investigation charges.

Every bit of transparency helps as North Carolina weighs this balance. Burr has done a great public service by adding to this transparency and encouraging us to draw our own conclusions. Officials making state and local decisions related to Aero owe us the same openness. Burr is right that this debate is too important to avoid.

Matthew Leatherman (@MattLeatherman) is a freelance contributor on state-level international affairs.

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