Christina Cowger never expected to be so keenly interested in a CIA torture program used after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But the plant pathologist at N.C. State University has been in relentless pursuit of as much information as she can get about North Carolina’s role in the use of “torture taxis,” or flights used to transport suspected terrorists detained in secret to CIA “black sites,” where some of the detainees were tortured.
With the aid of Cowger and others, a panel of experts known as the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture will hold public hearings on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at the Raleigh Convention Center.
Though he won’t be in Raleigh, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of “Guantanamo Diary,” a memoir published in 20 countries, will testify remotely. In his international bestseller, Slahi describes a world tour of torture and humiliation that began in his native Mauritania more than 15 years ago and continued through Jordan and Afghanistan before he was imprisoned under U.S. detention in Guantánamo, Cuba, in August 2002 as prisoner number 760.
The sessions begin at 9 a.m. and are expected to focus on the CIA program’s involvement with Aero Contractors, a company based in Johnston County that is connected to at least 34 flights that went through the airport near Smithfield or the Global Transpark in Kinston.
That information was included in a 2014 summary report that included some of the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which investigated the CIA’s terrorist detention and interrogation program between 2001 and 2006.
Cowger and others have tried unsuccessfully to get the full report declassified and released to the public, so they are doing their own investigation.
The torture commission describes itself on its website as forming “a blue-ribbon panel of policy experts, academics, and community leaders to do the job their government refuses to do: investigate North Carolina’s involvement in the U.S. torture program, prevent it from happening again, and make North Carolina a leader against torture.”
“This is nothing I ever planned on doing for 15 years,” Cowger said. “When you first realize that right here, about a half hour from my home, the CIA is using infrastructure for its torture program, it gradually assumes a moral horror that is kind of hard to get rid of. …This is a major departure from democracy and the rule of law and North Carolina’s kind of deeply involved.”
In addition to Slahi, others scheduled to speak either remotely or in person are:
▪ Juan Mendez, a professor of human rights law at American University who directs the Anti-Torture Initiative and a former United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture.
▪ Alberto Mora, former general counsel of the Navy who fought against torture protocols. He is a senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.
▪ U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas, counsel to two Guantanamo detainees.
▪ Imam Abdullah Antepli, the chief representative of Muslim affairs at Duke University, is to speak about the Muslim perspective on torture and its impact on Muslim communities.
▪ Jayne Huckerby, a Duke University law professor and director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke’s law school, is to testify about the application of international law regarding torture and North Carolina's resulting obligations.
▪ Michael Struett, an N.C. State University professor in the school of public and international affairs, is scheduled to speak about the role of state and local governments in ensuring that federal government officials do not violate people's basic human rights. He plans to focus on how North Carolina has a role to play based on examples of accountability efforts in South Africa and Latin America and beyond.
In announcing the creation of the torture commission earlier this year, Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell and a commission member, 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.”
Testimony received at the public hearings this week will be included in a report with findings and recommendations to be issued in 2018. The public hearings will be live-streamed at nccit.org.