Clayton News-Star

Following Senate report, Johnston leaders tout reported CIA contractor as ‘good corporate citizen’

From left, Christian Stalberg, Barbara Zelter and Robert Moore listen during a 2012 news conference organized by Stop Torture Now at the Johnston County Airport.
From left, Christian Stalberg, Barbara Zelter and Robert Moore listen during a 2012 news conference organized by Stop Torture Now at the Johnston County Airport.

Johnston County leaders say they have no reason and no authority to probe a Smithfield-based company long linked to the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program.

A Raleigh-based anti-torture group says a recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report names 17 detainees transported by Aero Contractors, a company that leases space at the Johnston County Airport and at the Global TransPark in Kinston. Based on flight logs and other data, the group, North Carolina Stop Torture Now, says Aero Contractors transported another 14 detainees not named in the report.

Tony Braswell, chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners, said he doesn’t know much about what Aero Contractors does. He said he does know, however, that the company has always been a “good corporate citizen.”

“That’s all we know, and we don’t know if they committed any crimes in Afghanistan or Pakistan,” Braswell said. “Our job is to deal with schools and provide clean drinking water and have a budget for the sheriff.”

But Christina Cowger, coordinator of North Carolina Stop Torture Now, said the Senate report confirms that Aero Contractors was vital to the CIA’s capture and interrogation of terror suspects using techniques that some consider torture. Now, she said, it’s time for elected officials to ask more questions.

“It's our view that local and state officials have a duty to speak out, even if from a technical or legal position they have little power,” Cowger said. “I hope that it moves them on a conscientious basis to say, ‘Maybe we do need to do something about this.’ ”

Johnston County leaders have heard a similar call from Stop Torture Now before. In recent years, the group has appeared before commissioners regularly, often asking the board to investigate the company, which human rights organizations and journalists say secretly transported terror detainees for the CIA.

And commissioners have often given the same response they offered after the committee report: That’s not our job.

The Senate committee’s report, released in part earlier this month, says the CIA used inaccurate information to justify often “brutal” torture techniques that weren’t helpful in getting information from detainees. Republicans and members of the Bush administration have been quick to deny and question claims in the report. The CIA’s director, Josh Brennan, has defended the agency’s interrogation practices.

Aero Contractors, Johnston County and North Carolina aren’t mentioned in the 525-page report.

Johnston County Commissioner Allen Mims, who has supported Aero Contractors in the past, said the Senate committee report doesn’t change his stance on the company. He said Aero Contractors has paid its taxes and was helpful in getting grant money for upgrades at the airport.

“I feel pretty certain what they are doing at the airport is legal,” Mims said. “What they do somewhere else, I don’t know.”

Mims said the county doesn’t have authority to investigate how a federal agency such as the CIA uses local contractors.

“I know I’m a big-time county commissioner, but I can’t trump the president,” Mims quipped.

Cowger, of the anti-torture group, said local and state officials have played “hot potato” for years, steering questions and complaints to other boards or agencies. She is hopeful, though, that the possible release of the full Senate committee report will lead to more answers.

“We want to see the details of how contractors like Aero Contractors, how local governments and other services were recruited by the CIA for inclusion in this large-scale conspiracy,” she said.

“North Carolina needs to go through a self-examination on how we got involved in this.”

North Carolina Stop Torture Now rallied at the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh last week, asking Gov. Pat McCrory to question what role the state played in the CIA’s missions. In the past, the group has rallied at the Johnston County Airport, where director Ray Blackmon said Aero Contractors has leased space since the late 1970s.

Blackmon said he knows Aero does government-contract flying. “Whether or not it’s related or allegedly connected to the CIA, I don’t know that,” he said.

And like the commissioners, Blackmon said the Senate report doesn’t change his perception of Aero, a company he said always pays its rent.

“For me, it’s old news,” Blackmon said. “Nothing has changed in terms of our relationship with Aero.”