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on the world: a view on human rights

Gina Haspel Is Only The Start of the Conversation on CIA Torture


In 2002, as part of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme, agent Gina Haspel ran a secret CIA torture prison in Thailand; torture methods at the site included waterboarding, which she oversaw. In 2005, she ordered the destruction of tapes of prisoners being tortured. Rather than face prosecution for crimes against humanity, in February 2017 Donald Trump appointed her deputy director of the CIA.

At a confirmation hearing for her new position as CIA chief in May 2018, Haspel was unapologetic and evasive over questions by the US Senate on torture. Unsurprisingly, her appointment has been controversial. The media has tried to play down her torturer credentials by focusing on her role as the first female CIA director as being some sort of  victory for women.

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The CIA has a long, solid relationship with torture and human experimentation.  Under its latest incarnation in the so-called “war on terror”, prosecutions have been few and far between. Haspel is not the only person to profit from CIA torture: in 2017, private contractor psychologist James Mitchell and a colleague managed to end a court case brought by survivors, through an out-of-court settlement, for their design of the torture programme. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were paid over $80 million to design “enhanced interrogation techniques”. At the very same time, Mitchell was making even more money on the book tour circuit promoting his actions.

The situation is not completely gloomy. Haspel may face prosecution if she travels to the European Union (EU): in June 2017, German NGO the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) filed further information in a criminal complaint against Haspel with the Federal Prosecutor, which it hopes will lead to an arrest warrant being issued if she ever steps foot in EU territory.

Haspel’s confirmation and appointment have demonstrated two things: the US has no remorse for the damage it has caused to the lives of so many individuals and communities. It has also shed light on how little is actually known about the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme, more than 12 years after the US claimed to have shut it down.

Most importantly, Haspel’s appointment has restarted and amplified an important debate on CIA torture, one that has largely been stifled and shrouded in obscurity. Now is not the time for that debate to die away; the US may not be prepared to offer details but there is no longer any doubt or denial that torture took place.

Nor should that debate be restricted to the US. If Gina Haspel ran a CIA prison in a sovereign state such as Thailand, then surely the Thai authorities were aware of it and responsible too. A comprehensive 2013 report by Open Society Foundations catalogued the then known complicity of at least 54 states in the extraordinary rendition programme, including 27 in Europe. All of these states should be investigated along with Haspel. Other states have since emerged as also being involved. While some bodies, such as the European Parliament, have constantly called for accountability and transparency, this has not translated into concrete actions.

States such as Macedonia and Poland have been successfully sued by victims and NGOs at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for their involvement and cases are pending against Lithuania and Romania, yet states are loath to investigate themselves and various campaigns demanding accountability have petered out.

In 2012, the ECtHR ordered Macedonia to pay damages to Lebanese-German national Khaled El-Masri for its role in his 2003 rendition; the US later admitted it had the wrong guy. In April 2018, Macedonia apologised to El-Masri but it has never carried out its own investigations. The US and Germany have never apologised. As foreign minister at the time, Germany’s now president Frank-Walter Steinmeier was criticised for holding back information and failing to help him. He was asked to apologise during his election campaign but did not. El-Masri still suffers from the trauma of his ordeal and has not received adequate support and rehabilitation since his return to Germany.

In the United Kingdom, as Haspel was being grilled by senators, the Conservative government issued an unreserved and unusual apology to two Libyan victims whose rendition the previous Labour government of Tony Blair facilitated, yet there was no admission of liability and efforts to investigate properly, which at one stage included a criminal prosecution involving senior intelligence officials and politicians, were quickly obstructed.

In Scotland, an ongoing investigation into at least half a dozen rendition flights that stopped and refuelled at Scottish civilian airports has been hampered by the US’ refusal to disclosure the entire 2014 US Senate report into CIA torture to investigators. A revelatory short section of the report was made public but the whole report remains inaccessible. Many other states facilitated the rendition programme through allowing similar flights to refuel and land, thereby facilitating torture, but refuse to investigate.

A mafia-style silence rests over the world. Foreign heads of states have not waded into the controversy over Haspel’s appointment and were also silent when Trump threatened to bring torture back due to their own complicity. Indeed, if the US were to bring back torture, it could only be with their help.

The possibility of the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigating the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme as part of a broader investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan is a hopeful prospect, even though it is unlikely that it will cover senior CIA officials. It would, however, send a message to the US that it cannot continue to act with impunity.

Almost two decades on, we still just see the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of men, women and children have “disappeared”, especially in countries like Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many remain unaccounted for. What happened to them? Where did they go? Did the CIA really end extraordinary renditions as it claimed to? These questions need to asked, more loudly, and they need to be answered.

With Gina Haspel a constant and public reminder of the US’ shameful actions, now is the time to rip the dirty bandages off this gaping wound and for people worldwide to demand accountability, not just of Haspel, but everyone, everywhere, who was involved in the torture and kidnap of civilians all over the world as part of or on behalf of the CIA.

If Gina Haspel claims that “torture doesn’t work”, that is because it is not an interrogation technique; it is designed to break people. Demanding accountability and transparency of all states involved is not simply to draw a line under the past and seek closure, but to ensure that it is not happening now and will not happen again in future. Without knowledge that cannot happen and history will repeat itself.

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