Smithfield, N.C. — The small airport that houses what some here call Smithfield’s “dirty secret” lies just beyond the town’s outskirts, where tobacco warehouses and car dealerships give way to pine forests and then, abruptly, an imposing 10-foot-high fence.
Inside, in a metal hangar with its own security, is the headquarters of Aero Contractors Ltd., a private aviation company whose ties to the CIA have long inspired local speculation and gossip. Newspaper investigations and books have linked the firm’s planes to secret abductions, waterboardings and more, usually eliciting the same mute response from the occupant of Hangar No. 3.
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.
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.