We Must Root Out the Torturers In Our Midst

Victims never forget torture. But if recent events are any guide, our country wants to us to forget that Americans inflicted torture in our name. Unless we demand accountability, torture lurks only a snap decision away.

A quick refresher is in order. After the attacks on September 11, the Bush Administration chose, in the words of then-vice president Dick Cheney, to go to the “dark side” to fight terrorism. That meant rounding up thousands of suspects and subjecting many of them to torture and execution.

Among others, Justice Department lawyers like Jay Bybee and John Yoo argued the legality of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees.

Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment is the internationally accepted definition of torture. In places like Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, soldiers and contractors tortured and even killed suspects, many of whom had nothing to do with Al Qaeda.

For its part, the Central Intelligence Agency created “black sites,” secret detention centers, all over the world. According to the executive summary of the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report, interrogators subjected dozens of those held in places like Jordan, Romania and Poland to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” i.e. torture.

Much debate surrounded our use of waterboarding, when prisoners are drowned to the point of asphyxiation. US and foreign security operatives also beat prisoners, forced them to assume stress positions, raped them and subjected them to extremes in temperature and sleep-deprivation.

GettyImages-51038608 An unidentified U.S. soldier (center) at Abu Ghraib prison appears to be kneeling on naked detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in these undated still photos. Robin Kirk writes that to date, no high-ranking U.S. official has been held accountable for torture. Washington Post via Getty

Survivor stories are harrowing. In 2003, a North Carolina-based plane under contract to the CIA picked up Khaled el-Masri, a Bavarian car salesman. Before realizing they had the wrong person, the Americans tortured him.

As the New Yorker reported of one incident,

two people violently pulled (el-Masri’s) arms back. On that occasion he was beaten severely from all sides. His clothes were sliced from his body with scissors or a knife. His underwear was forcibly removed. He was thrown to the floor, his hands were pulled back and a boot was placed on his back. He then felt a firm object being forced into his anus.

The CIA knew such treatment was, at the very least, questionable. According to the Washington Post , an internal CIA memo relayed instructions from the White House to keep the program secret from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell out of concern that he would “blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.”

Related: Men And Boys Are Victims of Sexual Torture, Too

President Barack Obama formally stopped the torture program with his first executive order in 2009. But few have paid any price for the serious human rights crimes they are alleged to have committed.

Among the most notorious is Gina Haspel, currently second to CIA Director Mike Pompeo. According to a ProPublica investigation, Haspel supervised the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, suspected of being an al Qaeda leader. Like el-Masri, a North Carolina-based plane transported Zubaydah.

While in charge, Haspel refused to halt interrogators at a Thai black site even when Zubaydah vomited, lost consciousness and urinated on himself while shackled.

During one waterboarding session, medical personnel had to revive him. The torture continued even after the agency reported that the “subject has not provided any new threat information or elaborated on any old threat information.” In fact, he was not a member of al Qaeda at all.

Another American who has prospered despite links to torture is Christopher Brinson. As a U.S. Army Reserve Captain, Brinson supervised reservists Charles Graner Jr. and Lynddie England, among others, as they tortured prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2003-2004. In return for immunity, Graner told army investigators that Brinson instructed him to obey military intelligence officer orders to “soften up” prisoners via torture.

While a number of enlisted soldiers, including Graner and England, served time, Brinson was only reprimanded for overseeing torture. Currently, Brinson is chief of staff to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL).

Bybee, who helped justify torture while working for Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, is now a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. His support of torture continues to poison our justice system. In 2013, he ruled in Chappell v. Mandeville that an American inmate did not have a constitutional right to present evidence of the alleged torture he suffered while confined.

John Yoo retains a chaired professorship at the University of California’s law school. Perhaps the most “rehabilitated” of all is the former president, George W. Bush, who authorized the torture program and is currently remaking himself as a cuddly amateur portraitist.

Others involved in torture didn’t escape unscathed. Interviewed by the Witness to Guantanamo Project, Damien Corsetti was known as the “King of Torture.” Although a military jury later cleared him of all charges, Corsetti remains haunted what he witnessed.  

Related: CIA Woman in Torture Controversy Vaulted to No. 2 Slot

In an interview with a Spanish newspaper, Corsetti described how witnessing torture was worse than combat.

The cries, the smells, the sounds, they are with me all the time. It is something I can’t take in. The cries of the prisoners calling for their relatives, their mother. I remember one who called for God, for Allah, all the time. I have those cries here, inside my head.

To date, no high-ranking U.S. official has been held accountable for torture. That makes it all too easy for leaders like our current president to threaten a return to the dark side and failed tactics that ruined so many lives.

As the cases I described show, my state is among those that provided a home to the CIA contractors who flew individuals to and from torture sites. Pilots did so from taxpayer-funded airports in cities like Smithfield.  

That’s why I agreed to support the NC Commission of Inquiry on Torture, a grassroots effort to build momentum for genuine national accountability. The federal government and courts won’t guarantee justice but people can if they insist on transparency and truth.

The United States is not the only country to have used torture (far from it, sadly). And we are not the only country to try to ignore our record. But we would be foolish to ignore lessons learned by others.

The only thing we gain by covering up our record of torture is the certainty that this terrible legacy may ensnare us again, at even greater cost.

Robin Kirk is Co-Chair of the Duke University Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Join the Discussion