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. 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 new film “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.