A Torturer at the Top: Why Gina Haspel’s CIA Appointment Will Spur Torture at All Levels

Anti-torture activists protest the Republican National Convention outside the Minnesota State Capitol August 31, 2008, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Gina Haspell, the Trump nominee to head the CIA, has been directly involved in torture. (Photo: Max Whittaker / Getty Images)Anti-torture activists protest the Republican National Convention outside the Minnesota State Capitol August 31, 2008, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Gina Haspell, the Trump nominee to head the CIA, has been directly involved in torture. (Photo: Max Whittaker / Getty Images)

Trump’s decision to nominate Gina Haspel — a US intelligence officer whose direct involvement in torture has been copiously documented in the Senate torture report and beyond — to head the CIA has provoked expressions of horror and outrage among human rights workers worldwide.

Truthout asked Gerald Staberock, the secretary general of the Geneva-based World Organisation Against Torture (most commonly known by its French acronym OMCT), one of the world’s foremost organizations tracking torture and opposing its use, to share his analysis of this week’s announcement.

You said in an official OMCT statement: “The appointment of a person against whom there is serious evidence having responsibility over serious international crimes, including torture and enforced disappearance, is truly shocking.” Nobody from the United States has been disturbed in the least way for being involved in — much less carrying out — torture. In view of that, isn’t Gina Haspel better described as “the rule” than a shocking exception?

Gerald Staberock: Indeed, the normalcy with which this appointment is received is deeply disturbing. For many of us outside, the American dream was not only about making it to be rich, but about values. An American dream without values is not possible, it would be reduced to greed.

But of course, we also have seen another America. I think about the many generals that spoke out about torture. I firmly believe that intelligence is vital to counter the threats in the world, but intelligent intelligence, not torturing intelligence.

Nobody is likely to speak out against torture if her/his very boss has been responsible for such a crime.

I am convinced that many — even within the US intelligence community — reject torture and consider it antithetical to their profession, which involves helping to understand threats, defining strategies to counter them. They know and understand that torture only makes terrorism great, feeds into its causes. And many also know how lucky they are not to have ended up before courts during the Bush period. I doubt that there is much appetite to get close to this red line once again.

But the problem, apart from the torturer being a criminal — and it is rarely positive for any institution to be led by a criminal — is that nobody is likely to speak out against torture if her/his very boss has been responsible for such a crime.

The appointment of such a person in that sense is poison to the integrity of an institution or profession — it is far more than just “a bad choice.”

President Obama and his two attorneys general steadfastly refused to prosecute anybody for torture. Under international law, does this not make them complicit — equally guilty — for, in effect, endorsing torture? And does this not also extend to Donald Trump and Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions? Can you imagine arrest warrants being issued for these people?

I am not asking Mr. Obama or even Mr. Trump to decide on the prosecution. It is none of their business. It is not a political choice. It is about, “the law is the law.” I expect prosecutors to say, “This is torture — this is a crime. I investigate to bring to justice.” Criminal law is not dependent on who is the perpetrator — and this is why we must have an independent judiciary. But why did this not happen in the US? Does it not tell us something about the ethics in certain areas of the legal profession, or about a lack of courage and independence?

Wolfgang Kaleck, the general secretary of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights based in Berlin, in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, spoke of intending to push for an arrest warrant for Gina Haspel so that, if she came to Germany, she could be arrested. Could you comment on this as well as on the possibility of such a thing happening to others, for example from the Bush administration, even at this late date?

I think this is an important element: many from the Bush period have to be careful in their travel.

In fact, I believe some do already constrain themselves, but they won’t say so. Even George W. Bush had to cancel a visit to Geneva back in 2010.

What happened is beyond denial, and there is even more information coming out as we speak. The point is: the US would be the primary state to prosecute, but it is unwilling or incapable.

So, while the appetite for prosecution may be limited in many prosecution services in Europe where the US is concerned, the policies and abuses are on the record. They can be difficult for an independent prosecutor to ignore. In fact, the more time passes, the more likely I see such prosecutions happening.

Regarding the US being the primary state to prosecute, can you explain the situation in reference to the International Convention against Torture, which the United States has ratified, and the status of torture in international law as a crime against humanity?

The very essence — or an important element — of the Convention is that the crime of torture is a universal crime according to the Convention. Any state may establish jurisdiction over a torturer, even if the torture did not happen on its territory. Torture is also a war crime if it is part of a war and can be a crime against humanity. So, if the evidence is strong, it may be difficult to look the other way. So, any of Haspel’s travel will be a risk — or a major embarrassment for a European country.

What can you tell us about the last appearance by the United States before the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) to report on its efforts to comply with the provisions of the International Convention against Torture, which it has ratified?

The United Nations Committee Against Torture is the primary universal expert body dealing with more than 150 countries and their laws and policies against torture in light of the Convention. The Committee was for long led by Claudio Grossman, dean of the American University’s law school, and has today an American vice chair, Felice Gaer. It is globally a tremendously important body. The US had — like any other country — to report back under the Bush period when its legal advisers were trying to pervert the interpretations of the Convention to say that kidnapping, keeping detained persons without telling anybody, is not a disappearance, and that torture is not torture. Luckily, we saw an attitude shift during the Obama administration when the US was called again to report. But one thing despite some improvements is very clear: you cannot claim that you fully comply with the legal and moral obligation that torture can never be justified if you at the same time do everything to ensure impunity. This was the central message of the CAT’s recommendations after the meeting with the United States delegation. And it remains as valid today as back then.

But what about those who have gone on to prestigious careers in academia and business? Why are there no threats of arrest warrants against them?

Under the law it is clear that all those who tortured, aided and abetted, including those responsible for setting up the policy, are liable under the law. And this is not about politics, it is about the law. So, this whole story does not start nor end with Gina Haspel. Getting international arrest warrants is a very difficult business, especially when you deal with a powerful government. There is overwhelming evidence of what the policies were, whom they targeted, etc., but it is of course, more difficult to establish individual criminal responsibility of an intelligence community that by definition opposes transparency like nothing else.

US torture has a massive impact on torture policies across the world.

And indeed, I think we have to show that torturers cannot simply go on with their lives, take reputable jobs as if nothing happened. If you have blood on your hands you should not be allowed to pursue an academic career.

But there is one point I feel strongly about — also in relation to the Obama administration. One of the first things I should have expected was that all those who said no, who rejected torture within the system, be rehabilitated, honored. I am speaking of the Alberto Moras of this world and many more. This would also have sent a strong message to the system. Unfortunately, this opportunity — even more important than punishing people and much easier to do — was missed.

Peter van Buren, a former United States Foreign Service officer, writing at the end of 2012, stated emphatically: “Torture is, however, invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control.” In concluding the article, he says that “we are torturers and unless we awaken to confront the nightmare of what we are continuing to become, it will eventually transform and so consume us.” Could you comment — and elaborate — on both statements from your perspective as head of the OMCT?

I think those are important points, torture is always about a dangerous ‘me and the other’ — whatever the other is — terror suspects, dissident, a different class, caste — whatever. And it is about destroying a person. This is why torture is much more than a simple physical assault. Torture survivors will deal all their life with the consequences because somebody tried to destroy their personality.

And we do often ignore the long-term consequences for our security, for an institutional culture and ethics. As absolute power corrupts, so does torture. It corrupts our institutions and the rule of law. It changes who we are.

What about the United States’ use of psychologists to make the torture “more effective”?

This is one of the most troublesome elements for me in this whole chapter. People with training to help, to cure, put their energy, their imagination and creativity into making people suffer! It could not be more anti-ethical. But it is not completely new — think about the doctors of the Argentinian junta who assisted the torture program. We have also heard similar accounts about doctors (mainly guest workers from Asia) who have such roles in some Arab countries.

Finally, what is the OMCT’s overall take on this subject?

The OMCT believes that torture is never acceptable, and we fight for justice wherever it happens. There is no right for the US to be different. There is no “America first” in terms of being excepted from the call for justice. To the contrary, US torture has a massive impact on torture policies across the world. You cannot imagine in how many senior government meetings I hear that the US, too, is torturing and not bringing anybody to justice. The Bush administration delivered a blow to some of the most fundamental values and norms. It is a long-term battle to repair it, one that cannot be done with Americans doing this for America.