New Film “Discreet Airlift” Documents the Struggle to Hold U.S. Officials Accountable for Torture

In North Carolina, a group of citizens are examining their neighbors' roles in the excesses of the War on Terror.

Emerging from the tumultuous years of the Bush administration, President Barack Obama famously pledged that he would “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” with regards to possible criminal actions carried out by the preceding administration. The Bush years saw the opening of the “global war on terrorism,” a borderless, opaque conflict in which the U.S. government became a proponent of wars of aggression, extrajudicial killing, indefinite detention, and torture. Obama’s fateful decision to not seek criminal accountability for the acts of that period — as well as his failure to shut down some of its most notorious landmarks, like the prison at Guantánamo Bay — has allowed many of those responsible for post-9/11 human rights abuses to remain in or return to public service. Among those who have found themselves “falling upwards” despite their involvement in likely criminal acts is Gina Haspel, a CIA official heavily implicated in detainee torture who was confirmed last month as the director of the intelligence agency.

With no apparent consequences for official criminality, some citizens are trying to take accountability into their own hands.

With no apparent consequences for official criminality, some citizens are trying to take accountability into their own hands. As part of this effort, a citizen-led group called the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture is working to investigate the role that public and private institutions in its state played in helping facilitate extraordinary rendition — essentially a kidnapping program to clandestinely move detainees to more friendly jurisdictions — and torture carried out by the U.S. government. The commission is the focus of Johanna Hamilton’s “Discreet Airlift,” a new film from Field of Vision. The film follows activists in North Carolina attempting to raise awareness about the involvement of local officials and private companies in post-9/11 torture, including Aero Contractors, a CIA-connected company that conducted rendition flights on behalf of the agency.

The North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture comprises a group of academics, former government officials, legal experts, and local community leaders whose goal is to fill the gap in accountability created by the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute individuals involved in torture and other abuses. (Disclosure: My brother Humza Hussain works as a legal intern for the commission.) A number of hearings conducted by the commission have been held in anticipation of a final report to be issued in September of this year. North Carolina is a particular focal point for investigating post-9/11 abuses, given its hosting of several military bases, including Fort Bragg and the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune.

The themes of a failure to get accountability and citizen-led efforts toward a corrective come through in the film, thanks to a look at the local concerns of North Carolinians who examine their own community’s relationship to a decidedly international issue. Along with experts and former government officials, an activist named Allyson Caison is profiled in the “Discreet Airlift.” A local real estate agent, Caison discovered that some of her neighbors had been involved in Aero Contractors rendition practices. In the film, Caison drives by the homes of individuals known to be connected to the rendition program, some of whom had been friends and acquaintances. “These are well-respected people, and they are all very well-insulated,” Caison says. “They protect each other, and they are prominent.”

The U.S. government has come under significant international criticism for its refusal to prosecute those involved in post-9/11 criminality. In addition to the blow to U.S. global prestige stemming from abuses committed at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram airbase, and CIA black sites, the United Nations in 2014 criticized the U.S. for its “reluctance to work with international authorities on the issue of accountability for human rights violations.” This reluctance, the U.N. added, “has made it easier for other nations to shirk their responsibilities.”

“The political authorities are absolutely without guts. They don’t have any courage. They do not want to deal with this.”

A 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture helped shine a light on some of the abuses that resulted from the agency’s rendition program, but the Obama administration’s failure to press charges despite publicly admitting U.S. involvement in torture left the door wide open for such policies to re-emerge in the future. Fear of such potential developments crystalized over the past several years. President Donald Trump made the revival of torture an explicit promise during his campaign, and his nomination of Haspel as CIA director serves as an indication of how Trump is at ease with current government officials who were involved in the mistreatment of detainees in the years following 9/11.

With the United States reportedly considering sending more prisoners to Guantánamo Bay and with covert counterterrorism operations expanding across several continents, the impetus for providing some measure of public accountability seems more urgent than ever. While its findings are not legally binding, the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture report is expected to be one of the most important citizen-led attempts to account for war on terror policies that resulted in human rights abuses and violations of international law.

The stakes come across bluntly in the film. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and a member of the North Carolina commission, describes on film the “war crimes” the U.S. must reckon with: “We had black sites, we had secret prisons, where unconscionable things were done.”

“The political authorities are absolutely without guts. They don’t have any courage,” Wilkerson says. “They do not want to deal with this.”

Join The Conversation