The systemic abuse of people of color in the United States is nothing new. Communities of color have been disproportionately demonized and criminalized under the guise of public safety, national security, or some equally precarious reason. State violence has and continues to disproportionately affect various communities, whether through police brutality, detention, or death. Equally troubling is that the state agents that perpetrate, authorize, or condone these acts of violence are rarely, if ever, held accountable.
In the context of the War on Terror, state violence has been the modus operandi of U.S. policies targeting Muslims that have often been based on premises of collective responsibility and guilt by association. One of the most egregious forms of state violence, torture, has been used extensively post-9/11 on Muslim prisoners facing an often farcical journey through the justice system—even though torture is against both U.S. and international law. As made evident by recent moves by the U.S. administration, those responsible for this kind of violence are unlikely to face consequences anytime soon. In fact, the opposite may happen, with torture being rewarded.
This applies to deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Gina Haspel, who was nominated by President Trump last month to be the head of the organization. Haspel’s nomination—which may be confirmed after her Senate hearing, currently scheduled for May 9—has been decried by advocates and activists across the board for her role in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program in a “black site” in Thailand.
Details of the extent to which Haspel oversaw the torture of specific detainees remain murky, yet it is clear she oversaw the U.S. base in Thailand at some point during its operation between early-to-mid-2002 and when it closed in December of that same year. We know that Haspel did supervise the base during the brutal torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was waterboarded three times. It is less clear whether she oversaw the torture of Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian prisoner who was waterboarded 83 times. She did, however, write a cable ordering the destruction of videotapes documenting CIA torture, making calls of accountability across the board even more difficult.
The CIA’s now well-documented torture program post-9/11, which lasted from 2002 to 2008, ranged from forced rectal feeding (a form of rape) to making prisoners stand on broken legs and shoving them into coffins. All of these abuses and more were part of a cruel system of human rights violations that have recently resurfaced in the wake of Haspel’s nomination. And they reveal that the utter dehumanization of prisoners—Muslim prisoners in particular—in CIA custody is no impediment to career advancement. Though the apparatus of torture and the questions surrounding its use and illegality extend far beyond Haspel’s nomination, her potential appointment as CIA director is indicative of four things in the American socio-political-historical context: a lack of unanimous agreement that torture is illegal and should be completely abandoned in the current iteration of the “War on Terror”; the carte blanche impunity given to high-level officials no matter how egregious their crimes; American exceptionalism and historical amnesia; and the acceptance of the wholesale dehumanization of Muslims among U.S. government officials, both at home and abroad.
No Consensus on Torture
Under the second Bush administration, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo wrote the now-infamous torture memo stating that anything short of organ failure or death did not rise to the level of torture. Specific tactics approved by former Attorney General John Ashcroft included prolonged standing, stress positions, and sleep deprivation. In the early years post-9/11, questions of accountability were almost nonexistent because of a lack of public knowledge and the legal gymnastics government officials were going through to make a once-outlawed practice acceptable in the national security context. The few incidents that were exposed—such as the Abu Ghraib scandal, where Iraqi prisoners were abused and humiliated—were brushed aside with the “few bad apples” response also common in the framing of systemic police abuse in the United States.
By the time Barack Obama became president, torture had been widely stigmatized. Therefore, one of his first acts was to sign an executive order ending the use of what the Bush administration had called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which included sleep deprivation, waterboarding, prolonged standing, and other tactics that effectively constitute torture. But the memo did not abandon the use of extraordinary rendition, a tactic used by the United States whereby supposed terror suspects were sent to countries hosting black sites. The Obama administration also allowed force feeding, which the United Nations also considers torture. The executive order, therefore, was limited in the ability to abolish torture in its totality both because it was an order—with the potential to be overturned by Congress and the next president—and because it still allowed room for certain types of abuses to go unabated.
Obama’s lack of seriousness in curbing torture could also be seen in his failure to hold officials accountable for it—a deterrent necessary for preventing future acts of torture. For example, he rebuffed the push to declassify the 7,000-page Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on torture that was released in 2014 about the tactics used under President George W. Bush, leaving much of it hidden from the public.
In light of the infrastructure built by President Bush and preserved in many ways by President Obama, Haspel’s nomination by a president who has specifically condoned torture is exponentially problematic. Not only has Trump stated his desire to reinstate the use of torture, including waterboarding; he has also indicated a desire to reopen CIA black sites.
Moreover, the current head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, is not categorically against torture, and previously wrote to the Senate Intelligence Committee that if that if the law became a barrier to gathering evidence, he “would want to understand such impediments and whether any recommendations were appropriate for changing current law.” The willingness to both evade current laws and create legal maneuvers in order to torture prisoners, coupled with staff fully prepared to implement this agenda, made Pompeo’s nomination frightening; it makes Haspel’s far more dangerous, given her past.
With this historical legacy and no real accountability measures in place, Haspel’s nomination indicates that the United States will not only continue practices excluded from weak bans on torture, but also reintroduce tactics that have been widely condemned and upheld as illegal, such as waterboarding.
Carte Blanche Immunity
Torture is banned in domestic law through the anti-torture statute, Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C; the United States is also a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture. And yet, there has been virtually no accountability for those who have ordered, condoned, or participated in the torture apparatus.
Beginning with the famous torture memos written by attorneys under the Bush administration, those who provided legal cover for torture have faced few, if any, consequences. For instance, Yoo, who said that there was no law that would prevent torture—including “crushing the testicles of the person’s child”—and who authored the torture memos, is now a thriving law professor at University of California, Berkeley. Gina Haspel’s nomination is also indicative of this carte blanche impunity, especially since her record on torture only resurfaced because of the nomination, not out of a real desire to hold any officials accountable for these crimes or to bring justice to the victims.
As Juan Mendez, an Argentinian torture survivor and U.N. special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, wrote in 2015 with regard to CIA torture, “The U.S. government has effectively handed ‘get out of jail free’ cards to those who authorized torture, with significant consequences. Many of those same individuals have written memoirs and gone on talk shows, particularly since the Senate’s landmark report on torture was released six months ago, to explicitly disavow any regret or compunction for what they still call enhanced interrogation.”
But disavowal of torture was as unlikely then, with a president who supposedly condemned torture, as it is now, with an explicitly pro-torture president. Obama’s words early on his presidency and prior to the release of the CIA torture report, when asked to comment about Bush-era torture, were that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” This statement didn’t just effectively let previous torturers off the hook, it initiated a precedent of proactive impunity—in other words, extending forgiveness to your predecessor so your successor will do the same for you. The cycle will undoubtedly continue.
Furthermore, in the course of the narrative surrounding Gina Haspel’s nomination, the CIA itself has largely not been held accountable as an institution. Contestations of Haspel’s nomination are necessary and appropriate, but if we are serious about ending systemic torture, we must challenge institutional norms within the CIA that allow these abuses to happen in the first place.
In 2016, when the CIA conducted a closed briefing for the Senate Intelligence Committee in response to its report on torture, then-director John Brennan stated, “The agency over the course of the last several years took actions to address shortcomings.” Second to the egregiousness of torture itself, the description of the CIA’s crimes against humanity as “shortcomings” represents the extent to which the CIA can consider its abuses “mistakes,” in the interest of “national security,” and escape from any semblance of punitive measures to curb its ability to conduct further torture. Haspel’s nomination instead of her prosecution simply continues this legacy. The outcome of her nomination will almost surely have absolutely no impact on CIA conduct going forward.
Impunity, therefore, is not an exception. It is policy.
American Exceptionalism and Historical Amnesia
When the declassified portion of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture was released at the end of 2014—documenting some of the most gruesome torture techniques, including prisoners freezing to death and others having their eyes gouged out—there were widespread condemnations. But many of those condemnations were rooted in the notion of torture as un-American or as a departure from American history. For example, in the foreword to the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who spearheaded the creation of the report, stated, “It is my sincere and deep hope that through the release of these Findings and Conclusions and Executive Summary that U.S. policy will never again allow for secret indefinite detention and the use of coercive interrogations.”
The same false narrative of a torture-free United States was also evident in Independent Maine Sen. Angus King’s response to the torture report: “This is not America. This is not who we are.”
But here’s the problem: This is exactly who we are. Because of U.S. exceptionalism, or the idea that we are a country without flaws, any deviation from our idealistic notions of who we are is treated as just that—a deviation. In fact, the United States has long been a purveyor of violent torture, a history that Alfred McCoy documents extensively in his book A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. This includes the Cold War torture techniques perfected by the CIA in the 1963 Kubark manual. It also includes a list of tactics that were shepherded around the world to destabilize and brutalize populations, notably many countries in Latin America. Many of these tactics—such as waterboarding, stripping and blindfolding prisoners, and stress positions—were recycled post-9/11.
The Wholesale Dehumanization of Muslims
While impunity and false narratives have operated together to downplay the seriousness of torture and the longstanding infrastructure that has allowed it to continue, institutionalized Islamophobia has also played a role. After the release of the 2014 Senate report on torture, a Washington Post-ABC News poll asked a sample of people in the United States whether they thought “the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified or unjustified.” Fifty-nine percent responded that it was justified. The question of whether torture was moral, legal, or ethical was never asked: Muslim prisoners, therefore, are simply a means to our national security ends.
Even in the face of narratives that called for holding the CIA accountable for their role in torture, Muslim victims have been completely erased. For example, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and who expressed deep concern over Haspel’s nomination, said, “This was a grave chapter in our history. The actions taken under this program cost our nation global credibility and they put the lives of Americans at risk.” Similarly, in response to the 2014 torture report, President Obama said, “These harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as a nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national security interests. Moreover, these techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners.”
Notably, neither Obama nor Heinrich mentioned Muslims, because they are apparently only a liability to Americans’ perceptions of their greatness or an impediment to pursuing U.S. interests, not human beings deserving of dignity. Furthermore, in a context where torture has become synonymous with “Muslim,” it is clear that this abuse of human rights could only happen, be ignored, and adapted as policy because of the rampant Islamophobia that has bolstered and legitimized the War on Terror apparatus.
Haspel’s nomination has put torture back into the spotlight, but for all the outrage, little has registered over the past 16 years to hold government officials accountable—never mind to acknowledge or address the harm caused to the Muslim prisoners who have been released from U.S. custody and those who remain imprisoned.
But the War on Terror has always been about targeting Muslims and excluding them from the bounds of humanity. Torture is just one tactic to ensure that Muslims are dehumanized. That dehumanization justifies, in a cyclical pattern, subsequent abuses. That’s why this nomination should bring torture squarely to the forefront, but also address the lasting impact of this dehumanizing system on Muslims more generally: to better understand how Islamophobia operating in one context bolsters its operation in another.
Khaled al-Sharif, who suffered abuses by the CIA, said in reference to his experience that “you realize it was a nightmare, but still you feel afraid and shaking with fear.” There are many more prisoners like al-Sharif, and Haspel’s nomination might make the reality of traumatic nightmares a reality for many more Muslims.
This is why torture must be contended with, its legacy addressed, and its advocates sanctioned. This is why the Senate report on torture must be revived with vigor. This is why Haspel’s nomination should not only be condemned; she should also face prosecution. No one should be rewarded for torture or any other crimes against humanity.