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November 23, 2005

CIA's 'Torture Taxi' in the Spotlight


by Mike Ferner

Ft. Benning, Ga. - Sitting in a Georgia motel Saturday night, Kathy Kelly talked through a bad phone connection and a worse head cold to recount the previous day's activities, when she and 13 others were arrested at an airstrip outside Raleigh, N.C.

The tiny Johnston County Airport is home to Aero Contractors Corp., a firm described by the New York Times as "a major domestic hub of the Central Intelligence Agency's secret air service," which shuttles prisoners abroad for interrogation and suspected torture. The Times reports Aero was founded in 1979 by the chief pilot for Air America, a CIA "front" in Vietnam.

In addition to Kelly, those arrested Friday included residents of a Raleigh Catholic Worker house and members of Stop Torture Now, a project of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis in St. Louis, Mo. Protesters walked onto company property and lowered the flags to half-mast before being arrested.

Local supporters included members of the North Carolina Council of Churches, Amnesty International, and the War Resisters League. They participated by dressing like Guantanamo prisoners in orange jumpsuits, holding a banner that said "Aero Contractor CIA Torture Taxi," and delivering a four-count "indictment" [.pdf] to current and former heads of the CIA and company officials for violating U.S. and international laws against torture.

Kelly, a leader in the movement to stop the U.S. war on Iraq, said she got arrested because of a growing concern over the government "becoming increasingly blatant about its role in torture. People need to stand up before it becomes more risky."

Asked what she meant by that, she replied, "At this point here in the U.S., we don't face any of the risks of people who stood up against the Salvadoran death squads. We are perhaps inconvenienced, but there are no massacres, our family members aren't being killed. That's why we need to stand up now."

What worries her most, she explained, are not reports of torture coming out of U.S.-run prisons in Iraq or secret sites around the world. "The U.S. has always excepted itself from international norms of human decency … but now some are starting to say, 'It's OK. We're the U.S. We have to do anything to make sure we're never attacked again.' It's disturbing to see how tolerant we've become."

"You hear people say, 'Well, Saddam was a lot worse than the CIA so we have to do it in order to keep people like Saddam from hurting people.' That is really faulty thinking," the Nobel Peace Prize nominee added. "We are using some of the exact same torture cells Saddam used! When we apprehend Iraqis, they might be good guys, but by the time they leave after three days, they're bad guys, is how one soldier explained it. And look at the woman bomber arrested in Jordan. She had three brothers killed in Iraq, and the person she married was held three days and tortured. If we think terrifying people is a way to build security, we're misguiding ourselves in a terrible way. Real protection lies in building just and fair relationships."

While Kelly and the others were being arrested Friday morning, copies of the "indictment" were delivered to members of the Johnston County Council and the Johnston County Airport Commission asking that officials take action to revoke Aero Contractors' lease for engaging in illegal activities at the public airfield.

After her arrest at the Johnston County Airport on Friday, Kelly traveled to Ft. Benning, Ga., to join over 15,000 people gathered for the annual protest against the Army's School of the Americas, which critics say trains Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics, including torture. She and the 13 people arrested outside Raleigh were released on $500 bond and given dates in January to appear in court in Johnston County.


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Mike Ferner is a member of Veterans for Peace from Toledo, Ohio. He returned from a second trip to Iraq earlier this year.

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