Candidate Donald Trump vowed to reinstate a policy of torture. During the first days of his presidency, a draft executive order indicated that he intended to do just that.
But senators from both parties objected, citing the 2015 McCain-Feinstein Amendment, which affirmed the illegality of waterboarding and other so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Seventy-eight senators had voted for the bill. “The president can sign whatever executive orders he likes,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “But the law is the law.” The stiff resistance forced President Trump to scrap his plan. Temporarily.
Trump’s new choice to head the CIA, Gina Haspel, was deeply involved in the torture program — a program that violated the law, brought shame to our nation and undermined U.S. national security. She headed a “black site” prison in Thailand where at least one detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was repeatedly and brutally tortured. She also held senior operational positions within CIA that governed the rendition and interrogation program, which was rife with mismanagement and abuse.
In Thailand, here’s what some of the CIA observers on-site had to say about what they saw:
“Want to caution the medical officer that this is almost certainly not a place he’s ever been before in his medical career. It is visually and psychologically very uncomfortable.” “Several on the team profoundly affected … some to the point of tears and choking up.”
Nashiri was later transferred to Poland. We don’t know what Haspel’s involvement was with what happened there, but the prison was hellish and depraved beyond belief. Constant nudity, cold cells and cold water dousings, total darkness at all times, sleep deprivation by being shackled above the head and made to stand for 72 hours at a time. Rectal feedings. At one point, Nashiri was threatened with a pistol, another time with a revved-up cordless drill.
Haspel also sent a memo approving the destruction of 92 videotapes showing CIA officers’ torture of detainees — critical evidence of her own involvement in torture — because they were so viscerally shocking, and in spite of federal court orders and agency instructions to the contrary. The CIA chief of interrogation in Poland, when he received the interrogation plan on al-Nashiri in early 2003, wrote his superiors that “he would no longer be associated in any way with the interrogation program, due to serious reservations he had, and would retire. ‘This is a train wreck waiting to happen, and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.’”
It is critical to know and understand what Haspel’s role was, worldwide. One nickname for her at the agency was “Bloody Gina.” The records of her torture role remain classified. Al-Nashiri is a forever prisoner at Guantanamo, and he’s a physical and mental wreck. Torture has likely and irremediably tainted his military commission trial. His condition is Exhibit A that enhanced interrogation caused severe and permanent damage — the statutory definition of torture.
As more than 100 retired generals and admirals explained in a Senate letter, “Senators should demand full declassification of all pertinent information of Haspel’s involvement and possible supervision of the torture program. If she was as deeply involved as the public record suggests, they should reject her nomination.”
No one is questioning Haspel’s competence. The issue is judgment and fitness. Otherwise-admirable service cannot negate or excuse complicity in a program that was both a moral abomination and a national security fiasco. The use of torture increased risks to U.S. troops, alienated allies, turned Muslim communities against us and played into the propaganda of terrorist groups.
It is beyond ironic that no one who was involved with torture, either at the Office of Legal Counsel or CIA, has been held to account for it. Many have been promoted, others have been decorated and one has been granted a lifetime federal judgeship. The single exception, who didn’t torture anyone, is former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who served two years in a federal slammer for blowing the whistle on the secret torture program’s existence.
We expect 18- and 19-year-old infantrymen and women, most without more than a high school education, to be able to make the moral calculus to resist an unlawful order to commit war crimes. They can be charged and punished if they make the wrong choice. The people who approved torture were of mature age and experience; many held advanced degrees.
Senate confirmation of Haspel would be a major step backward. Opposition to torture must be unconditional. Absent new and unlikely exonerating information, senators should, in the name of national security and the rule of law, reject this nomination.
David Irvine is a Salt Lake City attorney, a former Army strategic intelligence officer and a retired Army brigadier general.