President Donald Trump’s nomination of Mike Pompeo to head the State Department and Gina Haspel the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) do not bode well for US commitments to uphold basic rights and the rule of law at home and abroad.
Last year, Human Rights Watch opposed Pompeo to be CIA director partly because of his prior endorsement of torture. These concerns persist. During his confirmation hearing, Pompeo said waterboarding and other previously used interrogation techniques that amounted to torture were barred by a 2015 law. But in written follow-up questions, he raised the possibility that the law may have to be revised if it became an impediment for US interrogators. In a January speech he tacitly endorsed coercive methods, saying that if CIA officers said they “missed an opportunity to obtain information from a detainee … we’re going to begin to move heaven and earth to make sure that something like that does not ever happen again.”
Haspel is reported to have run a CIA “black site” in Thailand as part of a US program that used torture after the 9/11 attacks. She later served as chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, who led the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from approximately 2002 to 2004. In these positions she was directly involved in the CIA’s notorious and unlawful rendition, detention, and interrogation program. She was also directly involved in ordering the destruction of videos of CIA officers torturing detainees. The US government should investigate Haspel for past violations, not nominate her for higher office.
The prohibition on torture is a central tenet of the post-World War II international human rights legal regime in which the US was a key actor from the beginning. It is bad enough that outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ran the State Department poorly, demoralized staff, undermined US multilateral engagement, embraced arms deals to governments committing widespread abuses, supported restrictions on women’s rights, and barely engaged human rights issues.
Now, by nominating a secretary of state and a CIA director with a history of endorsing abusive practices, the Trump administration not just runs the risk of eroding US law on torture and other ill-treatment, but US engagement in the international legal system more broadly. Any senator who cares about either outcome should oppose both nominations.