In the years directly following the attacks of Sept. 11, North Carolina served as a literal launching pad for the United States’ policies of “enhanced interrogation” and torture. While this may sound conspiratorial or like a subplot from of a Hollywood script, it has the misfortune to be true.
From 2001-2009, dozens of flights and North Carolina-based crews took off from our state’s public airports – dispatched to kidnap suspected terrorists abroad and transport them to CIA “black site” prisons in Asia and Eastern Europe where, beyond public or legal oversight and scrutiny, they were illegally detained and tortured. This “torture taxi” program was carried out by a CIA front company called Aero Contractors using our state’s aviation resources and public airports in Smithfield and Kinston. These are facts that will forever stain our state’s history.
Despite confirmation of this program in recently declassified government documents and coverage from several media outlets, including this one, there has never been a formal investigation into the extent to which North Carolina state resources and tax dollars were used to facilitate and support the U.S. torture program. North Carolina’s elected officials have, almost universally, failed to even recognize its existence. I am proud to say that because of concerned citizens, this is changing.
While it might make us more comfortable to “turn the page” and try to dismiss the United States’ use of torture as an issue in the past, we cannot rule out the possibility of its return given the troubling indicators coming from the new administration in Washington.
White House Cabinet members, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, both stated their opposition to resuming torture in confirmation hearings, but given President Trump’s own pronouncements and his recent appointment of Gina Haspel as Deputy Director of the CIA, a woman who previously ran one of the “black site” prisons in Thailand, where torture was used, we cannot have confidence that we have learned from these mistakes.
President Trump has repeatedly asserted that he “absolutely” believes torture works and would help in our fight against ISIS. He has correctly identified that “we’re not playing on an even field” with ISIS, who among other gruesome crimes, behead people publicly, but the question we need to ask, especially as U.S. troops might soon be deployed in greater number to fight ISIS, is whether we want to be on a level playing field. As a U.S. Army officer during the Vietnam era, I was tasked with instructing our troops on the law of war. Torture is illegal, under both international and U.S. law, as the Army’s official Field Manual recognizes. I have dedicated my life to upholding the rule of law, and want to ensure that our country and state do not play a role in resorting, in any degree, to the tactics and barbarism of our enemies.
President Trump’s position on torture puts him at odds not only with the law, but also with military interrogators themselves. These professionals have almost universally declared that torture does not elicit useful or reliable intelligence, and its use puts our country and troops at more – not less – risk.
North Carolina could once again serve as a launching pad to carry out these illegal and immoral tactics, so concerned citizens of the state, including veterans like me, are doing what we can to stop this happening. In response, The North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT) was officially launched this week.
NCCIT is a non-partisan, non-government entity working to expose the truth about torture and the damage it inflicted at the local, state and national levels. I am thrilled to be among the group of 10 commissioners that NCCIT has selected to investigate and collect testimony to understand North Carolina’s role in supporting the torture program and ultimately make recommendations for local, state, and federal officials to prevent our state’s resources and infrastructure again being used for programs that are in blatant violation of international norms and laws.
The United States emerged and has maintained its place as a global leader by striving to maintain a moral high ground – not by stooping to the savagery of our foes. If President Trump truly wants to “Make America Great Again,” he should embrace policies that help America regain our moral and legal footing. North Carolinians and this important commission will be watching more closely this time to ensure that our public resources and aviation infrastructure are not used to support the abuse of human rights.
Frank Goldsmith is a North Carolina-based lawyer and mediator and co-chair of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture. He has represented detainees imprisoned at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.