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A torturer as CIA boss? Never

Homer Venters, MD on March 14, 2018

*Originally and exclusively published in the NY Daily News.
Not for re-use or redistribution in any other media.

President Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel to serve as CIA director sends a destructive message to the world at the worst possible time. Haspel supervised the use of torture, then took part in destroying evidence of that crime. Her nomination is a clear signal to every human rights violator from Myanmar to Syria that the United States doesn’t take these vital protections seriously and that there will be no serious accountability for violations under Trump.

Sixteen years ago, Haspel headed a black site in Thailand where CIA detainees were secretly tortured. These practices were not only fruitless from an intelligence collection standpoint; they marked one of the most brutal, shameful and damaging chapters in American history.

Long-recognized forms of torture used on detainees included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, freezing and shackling so extreme it caused swelling and skin infections.

Interrogators waterboarded one detainee, Abu Zubaydah, at least 83 times and smashed his head against walls before deciding that his failure to provide useful information proved he had none to give.

Another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was also waterboarded and subjected to other torture; an independent Physicians for Human Rights clinician described him as one of the most severely traumatized individuals she has ever evaluated.

It is true that, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the United States was afraid more bloodshed would follow. This is not, however, an excuse to disregard core national values. Indeed, regimes all around the world that torture their people use precisely this national security justification.

Haspel not only failed to stop any of these immoral and illegal practices; she sought legal cover for them to continue.

Three years later, when the CIA program was coming under increasing internal and external scrutiny, Haspel helped destroy videotapes of some of the horrific “interrogations.”

Though Trump insisted early last year that torture “absolutely” works, claiming “we have to fight fire with fire,” torture is manifestly illegal. And Haspel’s efforts to conceal evidence of criminal conduct undercut any claim that she was following lawful orders.

The CIA torture program and subsequent coverup inflicted profound harm on human beings. The institutions that participated in it undermined national security and violated the legal and moral obligations of the United States.

It is a disservice to the many qualified women and men who could lead the CIA to promote a torturer to this prestigious office. At a bare minimum, as the Senate exercises its vital role of advice and consent on her nomination, senators must demand declassification of records illuminating Haspel’s role in this illegal program.

I have just returned from conducting evaluations of Rohingya women, men and children who survived horrific acts of violence by the military of Myanmar, also known as Burma. Many of them bore the physical scars of gunshots, machete wounds and burns, often inflicted together with unspeakable acts of sexual violence.

Torture, and impunity for torture, are signs of the erosion of the rule of law. They pave the way for executions and other extreme violations. The ability of the United States to demand accountability for such abuses will be greatly hampered if it glosses over its own torture history and promotes perpetrators to positions of authority, rather than censuring them.

The nomination of Haspel came on the same day that current CIA chief Mike Pompeo was nominated to become secretary of state. Pompeo has hailed Americans who engaged in torture as “patriots.”

Under Trump, we have seen an erosion of one of the most fundamental purposes of the State Department: to advance human rights around the world. We can expect more of the same under a Secretary Pompeo, and this should be of great concern.

Violating human rights and destroying evidence are just the kinds of crimes that Syria and Myanmar must be held accountable for. How can the United States make those arguments with a straight face in the United Nations and other forums if Haspel is confirmed?

For every picture of a dead child in Syria’s eastern Ghouta or horror story of a Rohingya rape survivor, the United States must now either hold itself to a higher standard, or decide that it will not be an example to the world.

As the former general counsel of the U.S. Navy, Alberto Mora, summed up: “When we tortured, we rendered incoherent a core element of our foreign policy: the protection of human dignity through the rule of law.”

For rurther reporting, please see our publishable PHR press release.