In keeping with his administration’s consistent practice of appointing people who are inimical to the stated missions of the government agencies they’re tapped to lead, President Donald Trump has nominated a staunch advocate of torture to a top human rights position at the State Department.
Last week 21 human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Human Rights First published an open letter to US senators urging them to reject the nomination of Marshall Billingslea as Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. If confirmed, Billingslea, who currently serves as Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing at the Treasury Department, would be the senior-most executive branch official directly responsible for creating and implementing US government policy on promoting human rights around the world.
Billingslea’s nomination has alarmed human rights advocates due to his unapologetic embrace of torturing suspected terrorists during the George W. Bush administration, in which he served as Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Negotiation Policy. During his tenure at the Defense Department, Billingslea recommended the use of interrogation techniques that constitute torture under US and international law.
According to the 2009 Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainee treatment, Billingslea, who participated in a 2003 Pentagon working group on interrogation, pressed for the use of torture of detainees at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, despite the objections of high-ranking military officials, including Gen. Thomas Romig, the Army’s Judge Advocate General. Billingslea and other members of the working group recommended Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorize the use of 35 interrogation techniques, many of which constitute torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment under domestic and international law. According to the report, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers recommended to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in April 2003 that only 24 of the 35 techniques be used, Billingslea pushed for the approval of all 35.
The Gloves Come Off
“Guys, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee,” Billingslea said, according to Romig. “It’s time to take the gloves off.” That euphemism for torture — “take the gloves off” — was first used by Rumsfeld and appears numerous times in the Senate report. Alberto J. Mora, who at the time was the Navy’s general counsel, called the standard being used to determine the legality of harsh interrogation “a travesty of the applicable law.” Officials at the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) had issued memos asserting sweeping presidential powers during wartime, including the authority to suspend constitutional free speech and anti-torture protections, and to ignore domestic and international laws against torture. OLC attorneys including John Yoo infamously argued that detainee abuse only crossed the threshold of torture when the pain inflicted upon the victim was equal to “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Yoo, who is now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, later admitted that some detainee abuse went too far.
Most of the torture techniques approved by the Bush administration — which included the interrupted drowning technique known as “waterboarding,” sleep, sensory and food deprivation, shackling in excruciating “stress positions,” the use of loud music and dogs to torment detainees, slamming into walls, solitary confinement, exposure to extreme heat or cold and sexual humiliation — are illegal under both domestic and international law. Many of the techniques also violate the Army Field Manual, the US military standard for detainee treatment. In addition to these approved “enhanced interrogation” techniques, US military and intelligence personnel subjected terrorism detainees — many of them innocent men, women and children — to additional abuses, including homicide, rape, imprisonment of innocent relatives as bargaining chips, exposure to sometimes lethally extreme temperatures and brutal beatings.
Saying Yes to Torture
In a memo to Rumsfeld, Billingslea falsely claimed that the Pentagon working group had endorsed some of the torture techniques he was recommending. In fact, senior military and civilian lawyers vehemently opposed the methods, and Billingslea completed the group’s final report without the knowledge of its dissenting members.
Rumsfeld approved all of the techniques recommended by Billingslea, which were then used to torture Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who allegedly helped plan the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 175, the plane that al-Qaeda militants crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. Slahi was tortured with beatings, solitary confinement, repetitive loud music, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, sexual abuse, mock execution and threats to rape his mother. Guantánamo prosecutor Col. Stuart Crouch, whose Marine Corps buddy was the pilot of Flight 175, believed Slahi was guilty as charged. However, Crouch refused to proceed with prosecuting him after determining that “what had been done to Slahi amounted to torture.” Slahi was released from GITMO in 2016 after 14 years of imprisonment.
Torture doesn’t seem to bother President Trump very much. On the 2016 campaign trail he promised to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” He also said he will seek to change US law so that waterboarding is no longer considered a war crime. Trump’s predecessor, Barak Obama, issued an executive order banning torture. However, instead of prosecuting any of the Bush torture architects as required under the law, the Obama administration actively shielded them from any accountability for their crimes. Furthermore, Obama attempted to undermine publication of the Senate torture report and prosecuted and jailed former CIA agent John Kiriakou for blowing the whistle on torture.