State Politics

New commission to look into North Carolina’s role in torture program

From left, Christian Stalberg, Barbara Zelter and Robert Moore listen during a press conference organized by Stop Torture Now Thursday, January 19, 2012, at the Johnston County airport. Zelter holds a photo of a detainee who is one of the cases detailed in a lengthy report from the UNC law school outlining what a team of lawyers and law students there believe are violations of state and federal laws by the employees of Aero Contractors, Ltd.
From left, Christian Stalberg, Barbara Zelter and Robert Moore listen during a press conference organized by Stop Torture Now Thursday, January 19, 2012, at the Johnston County airport. Zelter holds a photo of a detainee who is one of the cases detailed in a lengthy report from the UNC law school outlining what a team of lawyers and law students there believe are violations of state and federal laws by the employees of Aero Contractors, Ltd. tlong@newsobserver.com

Christina Cowger has been on a mission for much of the past decade, trying to get more information and shed a brighter light on possible connections between the CIA’s interrogation program and North Carolina.

Now the coordinator of N.C. Stop Torture Now, a grassroots coalition of similarly interested people, hopes to delve deeper and raise awareness through a newly formed commission.

The N.C. Commission of Inquiry on Torture, comprised of former military officers, academics, community leaders and others, was set up recently to investigate and stimulate public debate about the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition operations.”

In 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States began a program through which terrorism suspects were whisked off to secret detention facilities, or CIA black sites, and sometimes tortured.

Details of the program were revealed in a summary report outlining some of the findings of a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence probe into the CIA torture practices. The report was issued in December 2014 after a five-year investigation into the CIA’s terrorist detention and interrogation program between 2001 and 2006.

In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, members of the newly-formed commission described the probe they have planned into North Carolina connections and their hopes for the local investigation to have a national impact.

Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, said torture “produces confessions” but it “does not work” as a method for gaining information that can be used in military and other strategies.

The United States’ use of torture, Wilkerson added, puts the military in a riskier position with other countries that might justify torture of Americans as “reciprocity.”

“Torture rebounds on us,” Wilkerson said. “America needs, always, to occupy the high ground.”

Part of the commission’s interest in North Carolina is linked to reports that Aero Contractors, a private aviation company based at Johnston County Airport outside Smithfield, picked up and transported some of the suspected terrorists to the secret CIA-run prisons in Eastern Europe and Asia.

In addition to collecting records and interviewing people who might have information about the program’s reach in North Carolina, the commission plans to hold public hearings later this year.

Wilkerson said he hoped the report would help “disabuse” a common notion among some of the more politically conservative people he meets who don’t question the use of torture. The commission members also said they were concerned about talk from the Trump administration about the possible restoration of such programs.

“I think if you put this to the American people … most of them can be persuaded to back off this idea,” Wilkerson said.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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