OFFICIALLY REGISTERED AS business charter jets, two aircraft based at North Carolina’s rural Johnston County Airport—a Gulfstream V and a Boeing 737 with the original tail numbers N379P and N313P—secretly conducted some ghastly “business.”

They were U.S. “torture taxis” in the years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Playing a key role in the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition,” detention, and interrogation program, the two aircraft flew at least 34 separate “rendition circuits” that resulted in the kidnapping, imprisonment, and torture of at least 49 individuals, according to the U.K.-based Rendition Project, a coalition of academics, human rights investigators, legal teams, and investigative journalists who waded through reams of data, including falsified and redacted flight plans and other reports, to uncover the truth about the CIA program and its victims.

A typical flight circuit, according to The Rendition Project, went like this:

  • A jet would take off from Johnston County Airport, about 30 miles south of Raleigh, and fly to Washington, D.C., to pick up the CIA “snatch team.”
  • It would then fly across the Atlantic and stop for refueling somewhere in Europe.
  • The next stop would be the pick-up location, often in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but also in Egypt, Gambia, Morocco, Malawi, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Djibouti, Macedonia, and elsewhere.
  • Dummy flight plans would often be filed to obscure the true drop-off destinations, which included the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba, CIA “black sites” in Poland, Romania, Afghanistan, and Lithuania—and one in Thailand that was run by now CIA director Gina Haspel.
  • After delivering the prisoner, the plane would fly to a “rest and relaxation” location to refuel and to allow the CIA team to recover before being flown back to Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C.
  • The final leg took the plane and flight crew home to Johnston County.
For more than a decade, a group of citizens in North Carolina have been tracking the inconvenient truth about how their state was complicit in torture. The knowledge that their tax dollars supported torture infrastructure, and that government officials were steadfastly turning a blind eye to the need for transparency and accountability, prompted action. In the early days, these citizen groups engaged in “plane spotting,” assiduously tracking and reporting tail numbers. Last year, they launched the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT) to get at the truth.

The commission against torture is following the lead of previous truth commissions, including its own state’s Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission and another focused on the 1898 Wilmington race riot—both of whose members and staff provided advice. The independent, nongovernmental torture commission held public hearings in November and December to investigate and encourage public debate about the role North Carolina played in facilitating the U.S. torture program between 2001 and 2006.

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