Should Billingslea be confirmed by the U.S. Senate as undersecretary of state for civilian security, human rights and democracy, he would be tasked with upholding the same international laws that he disregarded when advocating for the use of torture under Bush.
It would be his job to ensure that U.S. foreign policy aligns with international human rights law, and to encourage U.S. partners and foes to abide by human rights standards. But how could he carry out these duties effectively if he can’t, or won’t, see the severity of the human rights violations that he himself advocated?
Torture is banned by the United Nations Convention against Torture, which the U.S. ratified in 1998, among other laws. But Billingslea claimed in his confirmation hearing that when he advocated for the use of torture in 2002, he was following the legal guidance of the Justice and Defense Department lawyers who, under the Bush administration, sought to provide legal cover for torture and other ill-treatment of detainees in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The treatment of detainees held by the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere violated a range of laws, including prohibitions on torture, assault, sexual abuse, kidnapping, homicide and war crimes. Moreover, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, frequently cited by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a party, each state that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In 2015, Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain jointly proposed an additional anti-torture provision that became a part of U.S. law, providing uniform measures for interrogation of detainees. Billingslea, in his testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 19, falsely contended that torture was not illegal until the McCain-Feinstein amendment passed.
Billingslea readily admits he is no expert on interrogation or interrogation methods. And yet, in the early 2000s, he participated in a senior-level working group tasked with reviewing the legality and effectiveness of certain “enhanced interrogation” methods. He wrote memos on interrogation and pressed for harsher practices to be used on detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
Now, Billingslea is trying to excuse his sorry record, saying he simply followed the advice of a select group of lawyers who crafted faulty legal justifications for the use of torture. But let’s be clear — Billingslea disregarded dissenting opinions, including those from the judge advocate generals of every military service within the Bush administration. He could have joined those dissenting voices but instead chose to cast his lot with those advocating torture.
The United States has never credibly investigated or prosecuted those most responsible for the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, the CIA secret detention program, or the transfer of detainees to torture abroad in the post 9/11 years. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump advocated bringing back the use of waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse.”
While he has not, to our knowledge, brought back these techniques, Trump has nominated a number of individuals who advocated for them, including Billingslea, to senior positions within the executive branch.
The use of torture and the indefinite detention without trial of dozens of men at Guantanamo has already corroded the United States’ standing within the international community. The promotion of the people responsible for crafting the policy to senior government positions only does more damage.