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Confronting America the Torturer

Despite Gina Haspel's promises, we are in real danger of further excursions into the dark side.

Later this month on June 26, the United Nation’s will observe a Day for Victims of Torture.

Before 2002, America would have heralded this day, joining in the remembrance and using the resultant global solidarity to advance even further the goal of stopping torture wherever it might occur. No longer. America is now one of the world’s chief, unrepentant, unapologetic, still-polling-positive-on…torturers.

Since President George W. Bush—under relentless pressure from Dick Cheney, his Machiavellian vice president—withdrew America from the Geneva Conventions in 2002, ostensibly so he could deal with al-Qaeda and Afghanistan’s Taliban, the United States has operated “on the dark side.” Recently reaffirming that position, President Donald Trump nominated and the Senate approved torture’s disciple and supervisory practitioner Gina Haspel to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

How did we get here?

After the tragic deaths on September 11, 2001, America went slightly berserk. Though both international and U.S. domestic law held that no condition, no matter how extreme, could justify the heinous crime of torture, America turned to it anyway. Initially—and perhaps understandably if not legally or ethically—we turned to torture under the misguided belief that it might save lives. After all, we had just suffered an attack worse than that on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

But as early as February 2002, we began to torture for another reason: to “verify” Iraqi complicity in the 9/11 attacks so we could go to war with Iraq (I went into greater detail on this for TAC in May). This rationale was more in line with practices in countries such as Egypt and Syria, where torture was—and still is—aimed at extracting confessions, not the truth.  

The al-Qaeda-Iraq complicity did not exist. But we tortured to produce evidence for war anyway via our lackeys in Egypt. Among those we tortured was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who said afterwards he would have confessed to anything to stop the pain. Acting swiftly on Libi’s “evidence,” Colin Powell made a historic statement at the United Nations that linked al-Qaeda to Iraq.

We all know the rest of the story.

Could there be a more poignant and disturbing example of torture not working? Or, perhaps better said, of torture’s dangerous consequences even beyond its moral and ethical repugnancy and illegality?  

Let’s mark this day with a tribute to all those in the world who are opposed to torture, from Johannesburg to Auckland, from Vladivostok to Portland. Large majorities in almost all other nations are anti-torture, knowing it to be a tyrant’s tool to suppress dissent and manufacture false confessions.

Let’s tip our hats to those who man the centers for victims of torture the world over and to those who offer succor to such victims wherever they are found and who oppose torture wherever it might be practiced.  

I’ve joined 10 other commissioners—law professors, health professionals, human rights experts, and faith leaders—in a non-governmental torture truth-telling project called the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture. Why North Carolina? It’s home to a key CIA operation, a private Smithfield-based contractor that operated aircraft that flew dozens of captives to be tortured at CIA black sites.  

We’ve had the privilege of hearing excellent testimony from experts on both sides of the aisle, including seasoned military interrogators. They tell us torture has multiplied hatred for the U.S. abroad and degraded our democracy at home, without benefitting us in the fight against terrorism. Trained interrogators wouldn’t use torture. They know reliable intelligence is gained from rapport-building and staying within professional guidelines.

But the North Carolina project must serve as an example beyond that state’s borders. Other places and institutions need to gather the truth about our torture record, confront the damage it has done, and help set us on a different path.

With Haspel in charge at the CIA and our president making no secret of his enthusiasm for waterboarding and “a lot worse,” we are in real danger of further excursions into the dark side of secret detention and torture. In December, reports surfaced that the Trump administration is considering setting up a global private spy network and a new rendition program. Lessons from the first rendition and torture program have apparently not been learned.

President Obama made one of the most serious mistakes of his young administration when he listened to the “experts” who counseled him against prosecuting the torturers. He should have known better. Looking forward instead of backward might be a peculiarly American trait, but in the case of torture it was wrong, misguided, and dangerous. It sent a signal: torture and go unharmed. Haspel’s appointment to head the CIA only magnifies this mistake.

The only way we can ward off this danger is to squarely confront our past and as a nation acknowledge the harm we have caused—to those whom we tortured and to ourselves.

Lawrence Wilkerson is Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He was chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell from 2002-05.