As President-elect Trump rolls out key cabinet appointments, a worry for Americans and international allies alike is whether America plans to return to the failed policies of the past on interrogation and torture of suspected enemies.
Just yesterday, asked about resuming waterboarding, Vice President-elect Pence warned us that “we’re going to have a president again who will never say what we’ll never do.”
As a candidate, Trump promised to bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Now, three of his picks and this statement by Vice President-elect Pence line up alarmingly with this threat. Top posts that set policy on torture and interrogation have been nominated: Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KA) as CIA Director, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as Attorney General, and Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor.
While some judgment must be reserved, and several other roles with influence over torture and interrogation policies remain open, there are worrisome indications in the public statements and records of these three individuals.
Rep. Pompeo has spoken out against President Obama’s efforts at ending the United States’ interrogation program and trying to close Guantanamo Bay.
Sen. Sessions stood in opposition to 78 of his Senate colleagues who supported an amendment introduced by Sen. John McCain to a National Defense Authorization Act reaffirming the prohibition against torture of enemy combatants.
Ret. LTG Flynn refused to denounce numerous statements made by President Trump that were in blatant opposition to the Geneva Conventions, like the killing of suspected terrorists’ families, saying that he “would have to see what the circumstances of that situation were.”
How could it come to torture again? Sadly, President Obama’s administration bears some responsibility for setting the stage for a disastrous resumption of torture. His government never really turned the page on this dark chapter in America’s history.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) concluded that “the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees,” and “the CIA’s justification for the use of its enhanced interrogation techniques rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness.” Yet not a single government official paid a price. And our nation’s security, our relations with our allies, and our ability to discourage torture in other countries have suffered body blows. U.S. torture remains a central recruitment tool for terrorists. Torture by other governments is on the rise.
Amid these ominous clouds, there are bright spots. Citizens are actively taking a stand. In North Carolina, for example, a non-partisan, blue-ribbon Commission of Inquiry on Torture has been launched to investigate that state’s role in supporting the U.S. torture program by hosting CIA rendition aviation at public airports and providing muscle for the CIA’s black-site torture prisons.
North Carolinians have a track record stretching back more than a decade of calling attention to the CIA-affiliated aircraft, coming and going on errands that turned out to be the kidnapping for secret, grievous abuse of men who were often guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because elected officials have largely ignored them, these North Carolina citizens are now proactively working to ensure that North Carolina’s role is fully examined and that the state’s taxpayers do not further fund or help facilitate a future U.S. torture program.
The North Carolina Commission will seek new information from the SSCI and from state and county officials who approved using North Carolina infrastructure in service of “extraordinary rendition.” It will hold highly visible hearings to give a voice to top experts from the human rights, legal, and national security communities, as well as survivors of CIA torture whose mental and physical scars are deep.
Altogether, this project will be a beacon for torture opponents around the world and serve as a direct counter-weight to any backsliding that may occur under a Trump presidency.
Larry Wilkerson is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He is the Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He is a Republican.