These days, Aero’s jets are seldom seen in public, and the controversy over the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program — in which captured terrorist suspects were secretly transported to another country for interrogation — has vanished from the headlines in most of the country.
But not so here, where Aero’s operations have spawned a dogged opposition movement in its otherwise conservative, fiercely patriotic back yard. The protests continue to gather steam after six years, despite counter-demonstrations and occasional threats, and amid uncertainty over whether Aero is still involved in what critics alleged was a “torture taxi” business.
“I don’t want to live in a country that acts this way,” said Julia Elsee, 87, who bundled up in a pink scarf for a protest at the Johnston County Airport on a recent chilly afternoon.
The most controversial interrogation and detention practices ended in 2006, and further limits were imposed by the Obama administration, which has prioritized killing suspected terrorists over capturing them. Yet, 10 years after the first “high-value” detainee was hooded and forced into a CIA plane, Aero’s presence remains for opponents a powerful symbol: a rare, visible reminder of what they view as a uniquely shameful chapter in America’s history.
Such views are far from universal here. Many in this central North Carolina community of 13,000 say they’re proud of the contributions that Aero may have made to the fight against al-Qaeda. Local politicians are only too happy to count Aero, with its fleet of planes and a workforce that protesters estimate to number as many as 150 employees, as part of the tax base in a community that can no longer rely on tobacco.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree,” Allen Mims Jr., chairman of Johnston County’s Board of Commissioners, told Aero opponents who asked at a recent hearing for a county probe into the company’s practices.
The protesters, who want to see the company investigated, censured and possibly shut down, likewise have made little headway in gaining public support from the state’s Democratic administration, or from most of the state’s congressional representatives, or from the Obama administration, which has banned waterboarding but declined to broadly investigate the CIA’s interrogation program.
To the disappointment of human rights groups, the White House has said it will continue to permit extraordinary renditions under certain conditions.