Is there a "torture taxi" in your backyard?

This weekend, about 100 protesters descended on the sleepy North Carolina town of Smithfield -- a place that looks sleepy, but which plays a big role in one of the more unseemly sides of U.S. foreign policy.

As exposed last May in The New York Times, Smithfield is home of what looks like a fly-by-night rural airstrip, but which is actually home of a key "shell company" run by the CIA: Aero Contractors. Among its cloak-and-dagger operations, Aero shuttles in terror suspects captured around the world -- and then, as part of the U.S.'s widely-condemned policy of "extraordinary rendition" -- ships them back out for interrogation to countries that accept torture.

The 100 protesters demanded that local officials rethink their relationship to such violations of human rights:

Protesters want Johnston County officials to investigate a company it claims has housed planes used by the CIA to covertly shuttle terrorism suspects to countries where they're possibly tortured.

Some of the protesters posted signs pointing to the airport, located about 30 miles southeast of Raleigh, that read, "This Way To CIA Torture Flights." Others, wearing orange jumpsuits with hoods over their heads, re-enacted scenes from American-run prison camps such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

[Organizer Patrick] O'Neill and other protesters slipped past a barbed-wire fence and draped the company's sign with a cloth that read: "CIA TORTURE TAXI."

Aero had a predictable, if humorous, response:

Company officials have denied the charges, which were reported earlier this year by CBS' "60 Minutes" and the New York Times.

Interestingly, this exact same weekend, a Tennessee-based air company was also coming under scrutiny, as the U.S. media picked up a Spanish newspaper story linking the operation, located near Memphis, to "extraordinary rendition." From the Memphis Commercial Appeal:

A Cordova [TN] company is at the center of a diplomatic row over whether its planes have been used to secretly transport terrorism suspects for interrogation by foreign security services in a practice called extraordinary rendition.

Stevens Express Leasing, which Federal Aviation Administration records show owns four airplanes, was identified by the Spanish newspaper Diario de Mallorca as the owner of planes associated with CIA operations regularly landing on the island of Majorca, Spain.

A Central Intelligence Agency spokeswoman said last week that she could not address questions concerning Stevens. "All we've been saying all day is 'no comment,'" she said [...]

Several countries have objected to the American practice of sending suspects to countries that permit torture, and human rights groups and the European Union are investigating reports that the U.S. operates detention facilities overseas where anonymous suspects are held beyond the reach of lawyers.

The piece gives the ins and outs of how Stevens was first chartered in Maryland and then moved to Tennessee, the shady characters involved (including a current N.C. Superior Court judge), and other evidence pointing to its CIA role. It ends with this interesting piece of information:

Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., was surprised to hear that the company he has been reading about had an office about a mile outside his district. He also said he hopes the U.S. is not involved in torture.

"There should be a common set of rules that we follow and, if we're knowingly shipping people to be tortured somewhere, it's not a good thing. It's not who we are."

The feds are shuttling terrorists a mile outside Ford's district, and they forgot to tell him?

It seems we have another great project for investigative muckrakers in the blogosphere: Where are the rest of the CIA's "torture taxis?" Do you have one in your backyard?