Fifteen years ago, President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq, initiating one of the longest military engagements in U.S. history. In an address to the nation, Bush declared, “America faces an enemy who has no regard for conventions of war or rules of morality.” He added, “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.”
Those weapons never materialized, of course, and the decision to go to war under false pretenses proved to be catastrophic for both the United States and Iraq. Nearly 4,500 Americans died. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including at least 180,000 civilians, have been killed since 2003. The financial costs of the war also vastly exceeded the Bush administration’s projections, totaling over $3 trillion, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes.
Yet, in the post-9/11 era the United States sacrificed more than blood and treasure. The country severely damaged its moral standing by adopting a barbaric torture program in brazen defiance of constitutional law and international conventions. That program has been the subject of fierce debate — and often harsh criticism — over the past decade and a half. President Donald Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel to become the next CIA director is a disquieting reminder that the United States has never truly reckoned with the disgraceful legacy of torture.
A longtime veteran of the CIA, Haspel is the former chief of a secret detention facility, or “black site,” in Thailand that played a prominent role in the Bush administration’s torture program. Before Haspel’s arrival in 2002, one prisoner at the facility, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, was waterboarded 83 times in a month, confined in a coffin-like box for hours at a time, and slammed headfirst into walls.
The abuse was so inhumane that, as Dexter Filkins wrote in the New Yorker, “at one point he appeared to be dead.” On Haspel’s watch, another prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded multiple times. And in 2005, Haspel was involved in the decision to destroy videotapes of the interrogations.
Haspel faced no consequences for her role in torture or the ensuing coverup. No officials were criminally charged in the torture of at least 39 detainees who were subjected to waterboarding, mock executions, sleep deprivation, rectal feeding and other brutal techniques. In 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order banning torture and directing the CIA to shut down the black sites. But he declined to take further action against those who participated in the program, naively insisting that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” Not only were they not held accountable, but some, including Haspel, have been rewarded.
There is much about the use of torture that the American people still don’t know. The most comprehensive accounting of what happened is a 528-page summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture investigation that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a defender of the intelligence community throughout her career, released in December 2014. The report determined that CIA officials lied to lawmakers about the program and concluded that torture “was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information. … ” However, the CIA fought hard to suppress the report’s findings, including by spying on Senate staffers’ computers, and the full study, which totals more than 6,700 pages, has never seen the light of day.
Feinstein is now rightly calling for the declassification of documents related to Haspel’s role in the torture program, but that alone is not sufficient. It is long past time to investigate — and, where appropriate, to prosecute — any crimes of the torture era. The Senate Intelligence Committee report should be fully declassified. So should the internal review that former CIA chief Leon Panetta conducted during his time leading the agency. And Haspel, as a participant in both torture and attempts to cover it up, should not be confirmed.
With Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., declaring his intent to vote against her confirmation and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressing concerns about her record, Democrats may be able to defeat Haspel’s nomination. But they need to insist on the fundamental principle that a torturer is unfit to serve in government in any capacity.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation. This column first appeared in The Washington Post.