RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A citizens' group announced plans Wednesday to hold public hearings in North Carolina to highlight a government program they hope won't be repeated: the secret CIA interrogation sites where suspected terrorists might be tortured.
The group of academics, retired military officers and ministers aims to investigate and focus attention on the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program started after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The initially secret anti-terrorism program saw suspects captured and sometimes kidnapped, then transferred to locations in countries where they were interrogated and often tortured outside the reach of U.S. law.
The North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture has no power to compel testimony, but members plan to collect records and talk to witnesses before describing their findings in November.
The project could shame federal officials into demanding accountability for what opponents call a torture program and also could prevent the Trump administration from restoring secret foreign prisons and harsh interrogation, said Lawrence Wilkerson, a former top aide to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and a retired Army colonel.
"I do hope this local effort has national ramifications," he said on a conference call.
Another member, former Arizona Secretary of State Richard Mahoney, who now directs North Carolina State University's School of Public and International Affairs, said the group rejects naysayers who believe national security controversies should only concern federal government officials.
"I think holding the federal government and its instrumentalities accountable at the local and state level is a critical step in the right direction," Mahoney said.
Others involved in the commission's work include David Crane, the former chief prosecutor of the United Nations court for war crimes committed during Sierra Leone's civil war in the 1990s, and Jennifer Daskal, a former U.S. Justice Department attorney who worked on national security and who now teaches law at American University in Washington.
The effort is an outgrowth of a decade of effort by a Raleigh-area group to draw attention to Aero Contractors Limited, a private air carrier tied to the CIA rendition program that is headquartered at the Johnston County airport about 30 miles south of Raleigh.
The New York Times, a University of North Carolina law professor and others have reported that the company's pilots flew rendition flights to CIA interrogation sites for about five years after 9/11. A lawsuit by German citizen Khaled el-Masri, who said he was mistakenly kidnapped and tortured at a CIA site in Afghanistan, against Aero Contractors and other companies he blamed for his rendition, was dismissed by a Virginia federal judge in 2006 on the grounds that the case could disclose U.S. state secrets.
Aero Contractors did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
An unclassified report on the CIA's coercive tactics released by the U.S. Senate's Intelligence Committee in 2014 said the spy agency for years understated the brutality of the techniques used on detainees and overstated the value of the information they produced.
President George W. Bush ordered the "black site" prisons emptied in 2006 and remaining detainees sent to the U.S. Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba.
The CIA rendition and related "programs have long-term consequences and they don't just disappear from the American consciousness," Daskal said. "We're just a small number of commissioners but I think we reflect a much broader, bipartisan group of individuals across America who are quite concerned about what happened and want to make sure that we don't ever do so again."
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