By elevating torturers to high government posts, Trump shreds our remaining credibility

At 61, Haspel is a veteran CIA operative who navigated challenging foreign assignments.

After World War II, the United States and its allies punished German and Japanese torturers in tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo, and the U.S. assumed a leading role in drafting treaties to prevent these horrors from recurring. We also signed and ratified three of these treaties — one of which requires the United States to investigate and punish alleged violations — and passed laws declaring torture to be a felony that can even carry the death penalty.

But now we might as well dismantle the National World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall. Maybe we can use the scraps to enlarge Guantanamo or construct a giant granite waterboard instead. The president has nominated an apparent torturer, Gina Haspel, to head the CIA, and a torture apologist, Mike Pompeo, to be our top diplomat.


So, instead of punishing American torturers — which we failed to do with any significance despite the truckloads of evidence exposed in the years following the 2001 terrorist attacks — we are now elevating them to the highest levels of government. With the selection of Ms. Haspel and Mr. Pompeo, we shred what is left of the rule of law and turn our back on the very human rights that distinguish us from the terrorists we fight.

Ms. Haspel oversaw a secret prison in Thailand where CIA agents and contractors tortured suspected terrorists in the years following the 911 terrorist attacks, using such “enhanced techniques” as extended sleep deprivation, slamming detainees against a wall, locking them in small coffin-sized boxes (sometimes with insects) and simulated drowning: the waterboard. She reportedly presided specifically over the waterboarding of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the man accused of planning the deadly attack against the USS Cole.

What’s more, she helped orchestrate the torture program and then helped destroy evidence of it once the public learned of the CIA’s activities, which were cruel, inhumane and utterly ineffective. In fact, the CIA considered one such “interrogation” — on Saudi Arabian Abu Zubaydah, who was irreversibly damaged and nearly killed from being waterboarded 83 times in a single month — a success, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, “not because it resulted in critical threat information, but because it provided further evidence that Mr. Zubaydah had not been withholding … information from the interrogators.” In other words, the agency tortured Mr. Zubaydah for weeks and learned nothing new. Years later, the CIA admitted he wasn’t the high level al-Qaida official they believed him to be.

The CIA’s interrogators hide under the “just following orders defense” — a defense rightly rejected at the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals and in every other war crimes tribunal since. They also often claim legal cover from memos drafted by Department of Justice lawyers. However, it is clear Ms. Haspel and her accomplices knew very well that their actions were illegal; that is precisely why she and her then-boss, Jose Rodriguez, ordered the videotapes of the torture in Thailand to be destroyed in 2005. Their interrogation methods clearly met the definition of torture. They were designed to inflict “prolonged mental harm,” were “calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality,” and to inflict “severe physical pain or suffering.”

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And while Mr. Pompeo may not have been calling the shots, he certainly defended them. In past statements, he claimed that waterboarding and other so-called enhanced techniques were not actually torture. Imagine being tied up with a cloth over your face and water being poured over you, simulating drowning until you passed out. To Mike Pompeo, that’s not torture. Mr. Pompeo cannot be trusted to negotiate agreements with foreign diplomats when he treats with such disregard the blatant breach of our most important international covenants.

If we are a country of laws, if we honor the human rights won and enshrined in law after World War II, we must call on our senators to reject the appointments of Gina Haspel and Mike Pompeo. And we must start upholding our own convictions.

Jeffrey Davis ( is a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and author of “Seeking Human Rights Justice” and “Justice Across Borders.”