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Torture On Trial In US Senate, As UK Government Unreservedly Apologizes For Role In Libyan Rendition – OpEd


In the last few days, two very different approaches to torture have been on display in the US and the UK.

On Wednesday, the US Senate conducted confirmation hearings for Gina Haspel, Donald Trump’s nomination as the next Director of the CIA, who has attracted widespread criticism since her nomination was announced back in March, for two particularly valid reasons: firstly, because, towards the end of 2002, she was in charge of the CIA’s first post-9/11 “black site” in Thailand, where several “high-value detainees” were held and tortured, and secondly because, in 2005, she was involved in the destruction of videotapes documenting the torture of prisoners, even though a court had ordered the tapes to be preserved.

At the time of her nomination, we signed up to a letter from a number of rights groups opposing her nomination, and also published an article on our website, entitled, The Torture Trail of Gina Haspel Makes Her Unsuitable to be Director of the CIA.

In the run-up to the nomination hearings, on May 7, we were appalled to see Donald Trump tweeting his support for her, stating, “My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists. Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!”

Gina Haspel, of course, has “come under fire” not “because she was too tough on Terrorists,” but because she was involved in torture — and Trump’s tweet showed exactly why her nomination shouldn’t proceed, because he evidently equates being “tough on Terrorists” with engaging in torture, even though torture is illegal and its use in the “war on terror” was, as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report showed (in the redacted version of the executive summary released in December 2014), horribly brutal, and also produced no information that could not have been obtained through other means (in other words, through non-abusive rapport-building).

On Wednesday in Congress, however, Gina Haspel did nothing to reassure critics that she is fit to lead the CIA. As the Washington Post stated in an editorial, “Gina Haspel fails the test,” “After a 33-year career at the agency, she may be, in many respects, the most qualified person ever nominated to the post, as one Republican senator contended,” but she also has “a dark chapter in her past” — the supervision of the “black site,” and “her subsequent involvement in the destruction of videotapes of that shameful episode.”

The Post’s editorial also stated:

As Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, made clear from the outset, Ms. Haspel needs to clearly repudiate that record. She must confirm that techniques such as waterboarding — now banned by law — were and are unacceptable, and she must make clear that she herself will never again accept orders to carry out acts that so clearly violate American moral standards, even if they are ordered by the president and certified by administration lawyers as legal.

Ms. Haspel did not meet that test. She volunteered that the CIA would not on her watch engage in interrogations; she said she supported the “stricter moral standard” the country had adopted after debating the interrogation program. Pressed by Mr. Warner and several other senators, she eventually said she “would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal.” What she would not say is that the torture she oversaw was immoral, or that it should not have been done, or that she regretted her own role in it — which, according to senators, included advocating for the program internally.

Gina Haspel’s refusal to condemn the torture program appalled many lawmakers too. As Sen. Kamala Harris explained after the hearing, “Earlier today I asked CIA director nominee Gina Haspel if she believed enhanced interrogation tactics like waterboarding were immoral. It was a yes or no question. She refused to answer.”

More significantly, Sen. John McCain, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a statement explaining why he would not be backing Gina Haspel’s nomination:

Today, Gina Haspel testified before the Senate and to the country about her qualifications to lead the CIA. This occasion provided an opportunity to provide details about her experience in the CIA, explain her involvement in the so-called enhanced interrogation program during the Bush Administration, and account for the mistakes the country made in torturing detainees held in U.S. custody after the September 11th attacks. Unfortunately, the testimony the American people heard from Ms. Haspel today failed to address these concerns.

Like many Americans, I understand the urgency that drove the decision to resort to so-called enhanced interrogation methods after our country was attacked. I know that those who used enhanced interrogation methods and those who approved them wanted to protect Americans from harm. I appreciate their dilemma and the strain of their duty. But as I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.

I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense. However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.

In addition, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee when the CIA torture report was produced, also indicated that she would not support Haspel’s nomination. She wrote, “The torture program was illegal at the time based on international treaties the US is signatory to, including the Convention Against Torture and Geneva Convention, but no one has ever been held accountable. Gina Haspel was intimately involved and should not lead the agency.”

The UK apologizes

In the UK, meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May issued an unreserved apology on Thursday to Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, Libyans who were kidnapped and rendered to torture in Libya by the CIA after a tip-off from Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, in 2004. As the Guardian explained, Belhaj was subsequently “tortured and sentenced to death” under Col. Gaddafi, whose regime he had opposed, but “was released six years later.” The newspaper also noted that “Boudchar was four and a half months pregnant when she was abducted. She was released shortly before giving birth.”

The couple had fought for an apology from the UK government “for more than six years after papers came to light during the Libyan revolution that revealed the role played by British intelligence officers in their kidnapping,” as the Guardian also explained.

In the House of Commons, watched by Fatima Boudchar and her 13-year-old son Abderrahim, who had traveled to London for the event, the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, read out Theresa May’s letter, in which she stated, “It is clear that you were both subjected to appalling treatment and that you suffered greatly, not least the affront to the dignity of Ms. Boudchar who was pregnant at the time. The UK government believes your accounts. Neither of you should have been treated in this way. The UK government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering. The UK government shared information about you to its international partners. We should have done more to reduce the risk that you would be mistreated. We accept that this was a failing on our part.”

She also wrote, “On behalf of Her Majesty’s government I apologise unreservedly. We are profoundly sorry for the ordeal that you both suffered and our role in it. The UK government has learned many lessons from this period.”

In Istanbul, where Belhaj received a copy of the letter, he said, “The wording of the apology was heartfelt. There was a feeling of concern, an admission of the shortcomings, an expression of unreserved apology, lessons learned, admission of failings and an expression of disappointment towards the international partners that I was handed over to.” Belhaj always made a point of only seeking £1 in damages from the British government, although, when Jeremy Wright read out Theresa May’s letter, he also announced that Boudchar would receive £500,000 compensation for the UK’s role in her kidnapping and rendition.

Sapna Malik, from the law firm Leigh Day, which represented Belhaj and Boudchar, said, “Today’s candid apology from the government helps restore the humanity and dignity so brutally denied to my clients during their ordeal, and is warmly welcomed.”

Cori Crider, who represented the Belhaj family on behalf of the human rights organization Reprieve, called the extent of the government’s apology “unprecedented.” She said, “It’s broader and deeper and more sincere than any apology we have seen from the war on terror.”

We hope that Gina Haspel is paying attention, and also the US lawmakers who are currently weighing up whether or not to approve the nomination, as CIA Director, of someone who has not issued any kind of apology for her involvement in the crime of torture that continues to damage America’s reputation around the world, and also, we believe, to infect its very soul.

I wrote the above article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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