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Torture Taxi Headquarters

Christina Cowger,
North Carolina Stop Torture Now
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February 12, 2009

At, it says, “President Obama is committed to creating the most open and accessible administration in American history.” Except, it turns out, when the subject is how the previous administration flew kidnapped detainees to be tortured.

The President and his new Attorney General have chosen to stand by the Bush administration position of “state secrets” in the ACLU’s rendition case against Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen DataPlan for its role in the extraordinary rendition program, claiming that torture and rendition victims should not be granted their day in court.

As is amply documented, Jeppesen DataPlan played travel agent for the “torture taxis” in which the CIA transported dozens, perhaps hundreds of detainees. The taxis’ destinations included countries like Egypt and Morocco, where torture during interrogation has been routine and brutal. And they included CIA “black sites” in Romania, Poland, and Afghanistan.

The extraordinary rendition program begs the question — who provided the “taxis” — the pilots, planes, and maintenance? In a number of cases, Aero Contractors of Smithfield, North Carolina. Headquartered at the Johnston County Airport, just 30 minutes from Raleigh, Aero Contractors is a nominally private company that was founded in 1980 by Jim Rhyne, a CIA pilot. Rhyne set up Aero specifically to fly the type of shady CIA missions previously flown by Air America, the CIA front airline of the 1950s-70s.

Starting in 2001, Jeppesen and Aero Contractors apparently worked hand-in-hand to ferry kidnapped people to secret indefinite detention and torture. After each mission, the planes returned to their bases at taxpayer-funded airports in Smithfield and Kinston, North Carolina. Some of those kidnapped have disappeared, some have been released without charges, and some linger at Guantánamo. The facts are not in dispute.

Starting in 2005, North Carolina Stop Torture Now, the ACLU of North Carolina, and other allies have sought an investigation of Aero’s key role in kidnapping and torture. We’ve met with staff of the North Carolina governor and attorney general, worked with state legislators to get anti-torture legislation (PDF) introduced, and pleaded with our Federal delegation to get the investigation launched.

As a result, 22 courageous state representatives and senators wrote a letter in January 2007 (PDF) asking the North Carolina Attorney General to investigate Aero. But the State of North Carolina refused to investigate, seek new legislation clearly defining enforced disappearance for torture as criminal conduct, or prosecute Aero for conspiracy to kidnap.

When the State instead passed the buck to the FBI, U.S. Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) followed up in April 2008 (PDF), questioning FBI Director Mueller in an oversight hearing about progress with the Aero investigation. The FBI later responded that it had asked Bush’s DOJ for guidance, and had received none. In July 2008, U.S. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) wrote to the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, calling for investigation of Aero Contractors and other private rendition contractors.

Despite these efforts, no investigation has yet been launched, and not a single torture victim has had his day in court. Aero continues to fly rendition-linked planes in and out of several North Carolina airports. A bit farther down the road, a shadowy company called Centurion Aviation is expanding rapidly next to Fort Bragg — and also continues to fly overseas missions in planes linked to extraordinary rendition by European investigators.

The Obama Administration’s considered endorsement of the State Secrets Doctrine on February 9 apparently signals it will be reluctant to let sunshine fall on private rendition contractors. What do they have to hide? Has a deal been cut so everyone from the torture-memo lawyers down to the torture-taxi pilots can evade justice?

Let down by our President, we still want accountability for torture and extraordinary rendition. We support the vital work of the ACLU, Reprieve, and the Center for Constitutional Rights in seeking justice for the victims of these cruel and counterproductive policies. Tar Heels won’t rest until Aero Contractors and Centurion Aviation are investigated, the results are made public, and the “torture taxi” business is shut down. And the threads from that investigation should be unraveled back not only to the travel agents, but to the intellectual authors of these horrific flights.

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