Gina Haspel was sworn in as the director of the CIA on Monday.
The decision follows a contentious hearing process: Haspel was the director of a CIA black site in Thailand where at least one prisoner was waterboarded and subjected to other forms of torture (or “enhanced interrogation,” as the program’s defenders prefer to call it) including sleep deprivation, stress positions, being stripped naked, and confined to a box meant to look like a coffin. The prisoner in question, Abu Zubaydah, was tortured for six days before CIA personnel in Thailand decided that he didn’t possess the information they wanted. However, CIA headquarters continued to believe he was withholding intelligence, and so his torment continued for at least two more days.
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump made it very clear that he disagreed with the Obama administration’s decision to stop using the worst of the torture techniques implemented under the Bush administration. He claimed that “torture works,” and that he was ready to bring back waterboarding and “much worse.” Trump’s assessment flies in the face of most expert opinions about interrogation. His decision to appoint someone who has already shown herself willing to torture prisoners sets the stage for a huge step backward in America’s treatment of prisoners, and its position in the world.
But it’s a step that wouldn’t be possible without the failures of the two administrations that preceded Trump.
Obviously, the Bush administration set us on this path. Several months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-president Bush signed a memo saying that Article 3 of the Geneva conventions, prohibiting “mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture,” do not apply to anyone captured and believed to be a member of al Qaeda or the Taliban. Not long after, Abu Zubaydah became the first CIA detainee in Bush’s global war on terror, and his torture began. He was waterboarded at least 83 times. Abu Zubaydah’s torture sessions were videotaped, as were interrogations of other detainees. There were 92 such videotapes at the site Haspel was overseeing. In 2005, the Senate considered launching an independent investigation into the CIA’s interrogation techniques. By then, Haspel was back at CIA headquarters in DC, where based on orders from her superior she drafted the final cable to the site in Thailand telling CIA personnel there to destroy the videotapes of the interrogations.
Obama stated clearly on the record that he viewed waterboarding as torture. Furthermore, he stated that anyone involved in the Bush-era tortures “blatantly broken the law” and would be prosecuted accordingly. Instead, though, the Justice Department closed their torture investigations without charging anyone. As a justification, Obama expressed a desire to “look forward, not backward.” In other words, he would discontinue some of the worst abuses of the Bush administration’s interrogation programs, but no one would face any real accountability. He viewed the release of the Senate intelligence committee as sufficient in atoning for the crimes of the past. But, since no one involved in those tortures faced criminal charges, they remained eligible for advancement.
At this point, we have strayed so far from seeking justice for the victims of torture that we are actually rewarding its perpetrators. That makes the world more dangerous for all of us. The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights has said that America’s unwillingness to prosecute anyone for torture weakens norms against torture around the world. CIA officials, Haspel included, have said that a major reason they wanted to destroy tapes of torture sessions was to protect the personnel in the videos from reprisals. More broadly, the Geneva Conventions that the Bush administration flouted rely upon the principle of reciprocity: we agree not to torture our adversaries in the hopes that any of our people who are captured abroad will also not be tortured. It isn’t a perfect system by any means, but its promotion by groups like the International Committee for the Red Cross has helped to lessen suffering around the world.
Haspel was described by superiors as a “good soldier” who “followed orders.” The history of the 20th century is full of the atrocities good soldiers following orders committed. Haspel’s confirmation was made possible by the abuses of the Bush administration, the mistakes of the Obama team, and the ongoing complicity of every Senator who voted for her, Republican and Democratic. And it is an affront to everyone in the US and around the world who cares about justice.