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Senate Urged to Reject Trump's Pick of Bush-Era Torture Advocate to Be Human Rights Official at State Department

"I realize that absolutely no one in the world would expect anything else from Trump, but still...having your human rights guy be a supporter of torture? That's a step beyond."

Marshall Billingslea

Marshall Billingslea, the Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing in the United States Department of the Treasury, takes part in a press conference on the financial sector in Latvia on March 16, 2019. (Photo: Valsts kanceleja/ State Chancellery

Human rights advocates are urging senators to block the advancement of Marshall Billingslea, President Donald Trump's pick to be the executive branch's top human rights official,citing his record as a torture advocate under the George W. Bush administration.

"I realize that absolutely no one in the world would expect anything else from Trump, but still, having your human rights guy be a supporter of torture?" tweeted Andrew Stroehlein, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) European media director Monday. "That's a step beyond."

Billingslea, who is currently assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department, would serve as Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the State Department.

He faced a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month over Democrats' opposition because they lacked "basic vetting information."

"There has been ample evidence that Mr. Billingslea encouraged the use of interrogation methods that amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment while he served in the Bush administration," said Daphne Eviatar, director of Security with Human Rights at Amnesty International USA, the day of the committee hearing. "This makes a mockery of that important position."

In a piece published Friday at The Progressive, HRW's Elisa Epstein and Andrea Prasow laid out a number of their concerns with the nomination.

Billingslea claimed in his confirmation hearing that when he advocated for the use of torture in 2002, he was following the legal guidance of the Justice and Defense Department lawyers who, under the Bush administration, sought to provide legal cover for torture and other ill-treatment of detainees in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. 

"Billingslea, in his testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 19, falsely contended that torture was not illegal until the McCain-Feinstein amendment passed" in 2015, Epstein and Prasow wrote. That assertion, they added, also disregards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibition on torture and cruel treatment.

"The treatment of detainees held by the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere violated a range of laws," they continued, "including prohibitions on torture, assault, sexual abuse, kidnapping, homicide, and war crimes."

That background drove a number of human rights organizations to write to senators ahead of the Senate committee hearing to urge them to reject Billingslea. They wrote, in part:

According to a bi-partisan report on detainee treatment unanimously adopted by the Senate Armed Services Committee ("SASC Report"), Mr. Billingslea encouraged the use of interrogation methods that amounted to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment while he served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict Under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during the administration of President George W. Bush.

To support their use, Billingslea falsely claimed, in a memo addressed to the Secretary of Defense, that a defense department working group, of which he was a member, "endorsed" the use of a number of techniques amounting to torture or other ill-treatment. In fact, the working group report included senior civilian and military lawyers who opposed torture and the final report had been completed without the knowledge of the working group's dissenting members.

Mr. Billingslea also pushed for additional torture techniques to be used on a specific detainee, Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Slahi was a Mauritanian man detained at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp without charge from 2002 until his release on October 17, 2016. According to the SASC report, Mr. Billingslea forwarded a memo notifying Secretary Rumsfeld that JTF- GTMO intended to isolate Slahi and recommending that he approve the use of "sleep deprivation" and "sound modulation at decibel levels not harmful to hearing," both of which amount to a breach of the absolute prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment. Secretary Rumsfeld approved the techniques, which were subsequently used on Slahi. In 2004, the Marine officer charged with prosecuting Slahi in a military commission determined that statements elicited from Slahi were obtained under torture and resigned his position so as not to participate in the proceedings.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), spoke to Billingslea's background, telling the committee that "a fulsome and accurate understanding of his involvement in detainee torture matters is both essential and directly relevant to his current nomination." Yet, said Menendez, the Trump administration has stonewalled.

"It took the administration months to dig up memos that Mr. Billingslea authored or approved on torture," said Menendez. "Despite repeated requests, the administration has not shared how many documents are 'missing' or the titles of those documents; and they have refused to provide any information on how they searched for the 'missing' documents."

"Instead, in effect, they said 'trust us.' Well, I'm sorry but 'trust us' does not cut it when it comes to 'missing' torture documents," Menendez continued, "and it doesn't cut it when it comes to this administration and its propensity for obfuscation and lies."


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