Donald Trump’s nominee to become the next director of the CIA has ignited great moral anguish not only in the US, but around the world.
Gina Haspel, who has worked at the CIA since the 1980s, stands accused of running a notorious CIA facility in Thailand where a Saudi terrorist suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was subjected to waterboarding and other forms of “enhanced interrogation techniques” – which experts at Freedom from Torture would have no trouble recognizing as torture. She then reportedly ordered the destruction of videotapes of these torture sessions, which smacks of a cover-up.
At the very least, there are serious questions for Haspel to answer in a court of law. The Berlin-based European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights has called on German prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant for her under universal jurisdiction laws against torture, and the international criminal court is also considering evidence against her. But the chances of her facing international justice are slim. Instead, Haspel stands to be granted command of the entire CIA, the most powerful intelligence agency in the world.
This lamentable state of affairs could have been avoided had Barack Obama complied with the United States’ obligations under the UN convention against torture to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the CIA’s torture programme. He refused to do so, as part of a misguided theory that the best way to stop future torture by the CIA was to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards”.
Obama should have realized that his laws to stop torture were vulnerable to repeal after he left office. On the campaign trail, Trump threatened to bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse” – and now, with a flick of his pen, he could reverse Obama’s executive order banning torture. Within days of his inauguration, Trump was reportedly contemplating an order of his own to review the US army field manual that, under an important anti-torture amendment secured by Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein, controls what interrogation methods are permitted under US law.
Without the cautionary power of punishment for transgressions under his predecessor, Obama’s torture prevention strategy was always flawed. Rules alone are not enough, as our clients who were tortured in countries that ban torture will attest. Survivors Speak OUT, the survivor-led activist network that we support emphasized that torture will never end so long as bureaucracies continue to reward perpetrators with petty favor, pay rises and promotion.
Haspel’s ascent through the CIA hierarchy is a perfect example of this insight from torture survivors. Instead of facing a criminal investigation and the risk of sanction for her alleged role in overseeing torture, she has been showered with accolades. Even under the Obama administration she was placed in charge of the CIA’s clandestine operations, although this promotion became temporary after senators intervened.
Now Haspel’s future is with US senators again. If they confirm her appointment after a hearing on 9 May it would be a major blow to Americans who care about the rule of law and human rights and are concerned about increasing illiberal tendencies in their country. But this is not just a US political issue; there would be international fallout too.
Nothing Haspel tells the Senate can guarantee that the CIA would not return to torture on her watch. She has already promised to follow the law, but America’s laws against torture have been manipulated before with her seeming acquiescence. In the event of another 9/11-style attack, does anybody really believe that she would hold the line against torture if the president demanded it? Would she stand ready to punish any perpetrators within her agency?
We understand from our clinical work with survivors that some of the CIA’s global intelligence partners practice torture shamelessly. Torturers in states such as Afghanistan and Iraq might assume that Haspel will turn a blind eye to their excesses or agree to do her dirty work for her. Either way, her appointment as director of the CIA risks undermining the torture ban in other countries and shattering still more lives.
There would also be consequences for US allies in the west, especially the UK. Haspel has deep connections with the British intelligence community. She has been stationed in London twice in the last 10 years, and it is curious that the 2004 rendering to Libya of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his pregnant wife Fatima Boudchar is the only specific case referenced by Senator McCain in his written questions to Haspel. This was a joint CIA-MI6 operation, and allegations of British complicity in the abuse that followed are still being investigated in a civil claim. There are legitimate concerns that any blue water between the UK and the US over torture would be muddied if Haspel is placed at the helm of the CIA.
In the absence of criminal trials, the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation into the CIA detention and interrogation programm was the closest we ever got to a systematic accounting for torture in the agency’s “black sites.” A green light from senators for Haspel’s leadership of the CIA would be to stamp on this achievement.
Across the world, this would be seen as absolution for past lapses in America’s observance of the absolute torture ban. Worse still, the combination of President Trump’s zealous support for torture and Haspel’s reputation for allegedly overseeing it may cause untold human damage, especially if terrorists strike again on US soil and pressure mounts for more torture, in the misplaced hope that this would keep Americans safe.