Obama Can Stop a Trump Return to Torture by Releasing Abuse Files

Iraqi men tour a gallows April 22, 2003, in Abu Ghraib, site of Iraq's largest prison and home to thousands of political prisoners over Saddam's 24-year rule, before U.S. forces took over control of the facility. Reuters

Naked detainees piled atop one another like animal carcasses. Another man prostrate on the floor wearing only a leash and collar, the female soldier holding the other end of the leash, glaring. The hooded man balanced on a cardboard box, arms spread, wires dangling from his fingers, told if he fell he would be shocked to death.

More than any other single event, the publication of the Abu Ghraib photographs helped bring the last era of American torture to a close. For many these images exposed an America that had lost its moral compass and given into its darkest self.

How quickly we forget. After 2004, when the photographs broke in the press, Americans shuddered in collective revulsion. Ten years later, we voted in a president who ran on an explicit pledge to bring torture back. "Torture works," barked President-elect Trump, and "even if it doesn't work they deserve it."

Those looking for hope in Trump's latest comments, in which he seemed to temper his prior support for waterboarding, miss the point. Trump still maintains that "if it [prisoner abuse] is so important to the American people…I would be guided by that." His advisors on the far-right will hardly restrain his vengeful impulses after the next attack.

Many accuse President Obama of priming America to backslide on torture. By discouraging torture prosecutions—by telling Americans to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards"—he took torture not only off the prosecutor's desk, but out of our dinner-table debates. His White House carried bucketfuls of water for the CIA, abetting its effort to obstruct (and minimize) the Senate's devastating torture report. Preferring peace with the CIA, President Obama never bothered to secure Americans' political will against a return to torture.

This was to cede the field of history. It meant those at the heart of the torture program, such as Dick Cheney or José Rodriguez (the CIA official who destroyed the waterboarding tapes) could claim, in interview after interview, that the CIA never broke the law, saved lives, and should do it all again if duty called. Today Rodriguez is pushing for a return to torture. Other key personnel involved remain in the CIA's top ranks.

Donald Trump was hardly the first to suggest we should Make America Torture Again; he was just the most crass about it.

Is the die cast? Obama cannot unmake those choices now. But there is one thing he can still do—one move that might lead America, as it stands on the brink of its next torture program, to think twice. He could declassify some of the thousands of torture photos and videos—from Abu Ghraib, secret CIA prisons, and Guantánamo Bay—that have yet to emerge.

We haven't even seen the worst of it. The CIA retains up to 14,000 unpublished blacksite photographs, including nude pictures of detainees, "blindfolded, bound, and show[ing] visible bruises," with CIA officers in shot. Other still-secret photos (from seven separate prisons—not just Abu Ghraib) apparently depict: "U.S. troops posing for "trophy" photos with dead bodies; others, with rifles and pistols held to live detainees' heads. (At least one soldier serving in Afghanistan tried to excuse his actions by saying he was "joking"; another called the pictures "something cool to remember our time there.") A third soldier described a different photograph depicting her "as if [she] was sticking the end of a broom stick into the rectum of a restrained detainee."

Americans need to see this. A collective look at this horror is our best chance of pricking the national conscience before impressionable young soldiers serve in an administration that has promised to make them do it all over again.

Even today, despite a virulently anti-Muslim climate, I believe many Americans would shun torture if they were reminded what it looks like.

Read more: Confessions of an American military torturer

Descriptions won't cut it. Senators are right to push for publication of the full 7,000-page Senate torture report, but it isn't enough. As Rodriguez knew full well when he destroyed the waterboarding tapes, written accounts of torture hide a multitude of sins. Hence the bland bureaucratese in the torture memos, in which "rectal rehydration" stood in for sodomizing a detainee with his food, the "confinement box" for a makeshift coffin in which a prisoner was stuffed, and so on. Even the word "torture" itself has lost some of its force. As in so many areas of American discourse, by slapping his seal of approval on the word like so much gold leaf, the president-elect has blasted through the torture taboo.

We also need to look back because our institutional safeguards against a return to torture are not as strong as we would hope.

Yes, torture remains illegal in the United States. But then again, it always was. Yes, some senators recently sought to steel-plate the torture ban by restricting interrogation techniques to the Army Field Manual. But with a Republican-controlled Congress, far-right judicial appointments in view, and a White House staffed by people who have repeatedly made anti-Muslim statements, the fate of those statutory restrictions is uncertain at best.

Abuse doesn't necessarily imply waterboarding—but it doesn't have to. All that is required is to turn personnel loose from the Army Field Manual. Much of what the CIA did—stress positions, sleep deprivation, skull-splitting white noise—was 'touchless torture,' the kind that leaves no mark on the body but rakes furrows in the psyche.

One of the men I represented as a lawyer for Guantánamo detainees, recalling his tour of CIA black sites, used to compare the two worst places he was taken: Morocco, where for 18 months Moroccan agents periodically slashed his genitals with a razor, and one of the CIA's most notorious black sites, the Dark Prison in Afghanistan, where the CIA used the 'enhanced' techniques on him. He was always clear about which was worse. Not the razors; the music. "Think of it this way," he would say. "With the Moroccans, I thought they would break my body. In the Dark Prison I felt like I was going to lose my mind."

Read more: Remember the Abu Ghraib torture pictures? There are more that Obama doesn't want you to see

No one has ruled this sort of thing out—no one is even discussing it. There is a menagerie of ways to inflict misery on foreign captives, none ever ruled unlawful by a U.S. judge. There's no reason to think a fresh class of White House lawyers won't be leaned on to greenlight new abusive interrogation policies.

Marines at Camp X-Ray at the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay escort a newly arriving detainee into a processing tent after being showered in this February 7, 2002 file photo. Reuters

Some have mused that Trump's repeated promises to commit war crimes are "tough talk" that he cannot mean. On this I side with Masha Gessen, a veteran journalist of Russia, when she tells us to "believe the autocrat." Trump himself, responding to reports that military officers might disobey torture orders, said: "They won't refuse. They're not gonna refuse me. Believe me." Trump is fundamentally a showman, a vacuum with few real policy preferences other than to appear strong and to please the audience in front of him.

We laugh him off at our peril.

To avoid charges of partisanship, President Obama should also release images of prisoner abuse from his time in office. I know these images exist because I have seen the videotapes with my own eyes. In a case challenging the abusive force-feeding of Guantánamo detainees, our legal team won the right to see classified footage of force-feeding for the first time. I watched some 11 hours of the stuff. It is seared in my brain.

For years, the Obama administration fought to keep all of these images secret. The reason generally given is that publication might inflame anti-American sentiment and put personnel at risk; most federal judges have agreed to suppress them on that basis.

To be sure, images of torture will anger some people. President Obama (and the agency heads) may feel that the truth is worth no risk, however slight.

But on the eve of the Trump era, we confront a stark question: which is the greater threat to our security? That we search our souls and reckon with past mistakes, or that we hide them from the American people when we know junior personnel will be asked to carry out abuses?

One terror attack stands between our personnel and intolerable pressure to abuse prisoners. No wonder ISIS is cheering. It was never an accident that their execution videos showed their victims clad in orange, the color prisoners wore in Guantanamo Bay. Trump's presidency fuels their doomsday narrative about total war between the West and the world's billion-plus Muslims. ISIS hopes for an apocalyptic confrontation between our societies. There may be no talking them back from the brink. There is, however, some hope of persuading Americans.

President Obama still has the power to set the tone on torture. He has one of the highest approval ratings of any outgoing president. The bully pulpit is still his. And he is, as the intelligence community calls it, the "final classification authority." For him, and for all the intelligence personnel briefing journalists about their fears for a Trump presidency, this is worth a final stand.

Remind Americans what abuse really looks like. Rip off the Band-Aid. Publish at least some of the torture photos. It will be uncomfortable, but it is our best hope for stopping America from retreading the dark road we walked 15 years ago.

Cori Crider is a national security lawyer and journalist who has represented Guantánamo prisoners, victims of "extraordinary rendition," and survivors of drone attacks. She was director of the Abuses in Counter-Terrorism team at human rights NGO Reprieve