Last week, Quaker House attended public hearings about flights and airplanes that were used to transport prisoners to black sites around the world where they were tortured, mainly from September 2001 to September 2006. These hearings were about airfields and a flight company based in North Carolina, but the testimony has implications for each of us in the United States and the rest of the world. All information in this post comes from testimony heard at the public hearings conducted by the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture on November 30 and December 1, 2017.

By way of context, flights originating in North Carolina flew to Washington DC to pick up a CIA team, flew to a location where a target individual was detained for loading (see below), flew to a black site (sometimes with a stop or transfer in between), flew the CIA transfer team to a rest and relaxation location, returned the team to Washington DC, and then returned to one of two public airfields in North Carolina. Sixty different circuits involving 19 aircraft have been identified by the Rendition Project.

This method of rendition is torture. The process of extraordinary rendition (the secret movement of a prisoner to another country), particularly as practiced between 2001 and 2006, was an intended integrated part of the overall torture process. Victims of the torture program all tell the same story about their rendition experience, indicating there was a standard operating procedure. They were taken to a room and blindfolded and their life and families threatened. The people in that room were dressed all in black and masked. Every piece of clothing was cut off of them, a suppository was violently inserted into the rectum, and they were diapered. They were put in pants and shirts that came to mid-calf and mid-forearm, shackled hand and foot and to their waists, material was stuffed in their ears and muffled over top, and they were forced onto a plane. They were injected with a drug, placed on something like a backboard on the floor of the plane and strapped down, and forced to remain in the same position for the multiple hours of the flight. If they tried to adjust their positions due to pain or make any sound, they were kicked and punched. If they tried to say anything, their mouths were taped shut. Some victims reported having their whole body bound by tape. They did not know where they were going, what had happened to their families, or why this was happening to them. They agonized over these concerns and over the distress their families must be feeling at their sudden unexplained disappearance.

The Senate Report on Torture focuses on what happened to these individuals after they reached black sites. But, it is clear, both from the standardized procedure and the terror and pain it inflicted, that the torture systematically began from the moment of capture. This characterization of the transfer experience has been confirmed by the victims. Many victims were transferred more than once and the procedure was the same each time—inducing fear and anxiety the moment they were told they would be transferred again. The integrated infliction of terror and pain is important because the flights that picked these people up and during which this torture was inflicted originated in the United States, the planes were operated by American civilians, and flight plans and logistics were prepared by American companies (for example, Aero Contractors provided planes and flight crews and Jeppesen Dataplan, which is a subsidiary of Boeing, as well as DynCorp (later became CSC) prepared flight plans).

Effects of torture are not limited to the victims. Torture dehumanizes all those involved in its infliction and corrupts society in increasingly larger segments. The torture program did not involve just CIA operatives. As noted above, civilian planes and flight crews were used to help maintain secrecy. Military personnel were assigned. More distressingly, psychoanalyst Steven Soldz and Guantanamo Bay defense counsel Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas described how health professionals have been implicated. The Salim v. Mitchell case was settled in August 2017 against two psychiatrists who were contracted by the CIA to design torture methods. At Guantanamo Bay, when medical personnel assessed victims, they did not allow the patients to talk about what happened to them. Memories of detainees were considered classified information and, therefore, a medical professional must have top secret clearance to hear about detainees’ experiences other than the most basic information. Regarding military personnel, David Gushee’s report to the Commission observed that the systematic implementation of torture “created an ethos of permission to abuse prisoners that trickled down and out to other sectors and actors.”

Torture isolates us. Former General Counsel of the Navy Alberto Mora told the Commission that the United Kingdom initiated high-level discussions with the United States in an attempt to reign in the US torture program. When it became apparent that records from these talks could not be absolutely protected from subpoena by European and international courts, the United States ended the talks. He also described other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, refusing to participate in joint military operations with US forces because of fear of liability for war crimes. He said, “Other countries would not follow the United States into the swamp of torture because they could not legally and did not want to morally.”

A program of torture can happen again. Neither the United States, nor its states, has prosecuted any individuals for torture. We have not made reparations. We have not strengthened our laws to make it easier to prosecute actors who aided and abetted the CIA torture program. Verla Insko, a North Carolina State Representative, testified that North Carolina House Bills 1682 and 2417 to give the state jurisdiction on cases like Aero Contractors and Johnston Regional Airport did not even make it to a vote. For the most part, as a people, we have turned a blind eye, hoping to forget, without ever truly acknowledging how an approval of torture happened. Mora warned that, if a national security crisis were to happen in our current political climate, torture could gain political support again all too easily. When Representative Insko was asked by the Commission for recommendations, she simply said, “Elect different people.”

But, to elect different people, we must change the nature of our conversations and media portrayals. Repeatedly, the witnesses before the Commission testified that torture has been shown to not work in eliciting reliable information (military intelligence officer Steve Kleinman described how fear and pain shuts down memory retrieval). Many of the witnesses stressed to the Commission that, regardless of whether torture works, it is immoral and it is illegal by the treaties we helped draft, we signed, and we ratified. This is how we should be talking about torture: It is illegal. It is immoral. It does not work. It damages us as a nation. It dehumanizes all who are connected to it.

We have a responsibility to each other. Finally, as the executive director of Quaker House, I must plead for us to remember that the policies that we endorse or to which we silently acquiesce can have horrific impacts on our children, family members, neighbors, friends, and society. When torture became an acceptable policy of the United States, people were put into terrible moral dilemmas. In their professional roles, individuals had to decide either to obey a superior officer or take on all the immediate risks and consequences of defying an order. Military service members are not supposed to obey an illegal order. But, every bit of their training is designed to make them immediately compliant to orders–for safety of life and completion of mission–and the group pressure is immense. If we vicariously demand individuals to comply with an order to assist or ignore torture, as guards, medical personnel, aircraft crew members, translators, or what have you, we have condemned them to an awful fate. We have put them in conflict with the essence of what it means to be human and to have a moral center. Our responsibility is to say loudly and clearly that torture is not acceptable and that it will not ever again be a policy of the United States.

“Although the connections are not always obvious, personal change is inseparable from social and political change.”

~ Harriet Lerner, psychologist

~Kindra Bradley, Quaker House Executive Director