When you find yourself wounded in enemy territory, as I did after my Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq, you develop an elevated understanding of the threat of torture by those who may capture and hold you prisoner. How you are treated is affected by how brutally your own nation treats individuals in its custody, which is why it’s so important that the United States leads in recognizing that torture is illegal under our own federal law and the law of armed conflict that our nation and countless other countries agreed decades ago to follow.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the CIA secretly began using so-called enhanced interrogation techniques — also known as torture — during brutal interrogations of individuals detained by the CIA at overseas “black sites,” or secret prisons. We now know that the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program — in which a CIA official named Gina Haspel participated — violated fundamental constitutional protections and basic human decency.
Although it took too long after the full extent of the “enhanced interrogation program” became known, our nation once again renounced torture in 2015 when Congress passed a law sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — who survived five years of torture in a North Vietnam prison — reaffirming that torture is illegal and banning the CIA from engaging in it.
I was hopeful at the time that we, as a country, were turning the page on this shameful betrayal of our values. So I was appalled during the 2016 campaign when Donald Trump bragged that he would bring back torture and a “hell of a lot worse” because he mistakenly believes it works. He even said he loved waterboarding, an internationally-recognized form of torture.
Despite having a campaign and administration filled with broken promises, Trump looks intent on keeping his promise to return this nation to one of the darkest chapters in its history. Last year, the president nominated Steven Bradbury, a former Justice Department lawyer who authored legal opinions justifying the use of torture, to become one of his administration’s top lawyers.
And earlier this year, Trump nominated Haspel to lead the CIA. Her confirmation as the high-profile, public-facing representative of our intelligence community would be far worse than even Bradbury’s.
Haspel did not simply participate in torture, she supported brutal interrogations and ran a CIA black site in Thailand where at least one detainee was waterboarded. She then attempted to obstruct justice by eliminating evidence of this torture. In 2005, Haspel drafted the cable ordering the destruction of 92 videotapes documenting the CIA’s torture of detainees, in violation of congressional oversight requests, a federal court order and the directions of the Bush administration.
Her defenders suggest “she was just following orders” in directing the destruction of evidence of torture. That defense wouldn’t have protected me on the battlefield if the orders were illegal, and it shouldn’t protect a nominee to be CIA director.
The pervasive fear our nation felt in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is often held up as a way to excuse or justify the CIA’s activities at black sites across the globe. We heard that from Haspel during her Senate confirmation hearing, particularly in relation to her time in Thailand. But we did not hear her say that what she did was wrong. It was and it still is.
Torture is illegal, immoral and it does not work. Fear and uncertainty are not legitimate excuses for torture. Their actions endangered our national security, put our troops at greater risk and undermined our standing in the world. As Sen. McCain frequently says, torture is not about our enemies — it’s about us. We are a nation of laws. We believe that all people, no matter how hateful or harmful, are entitled to human dignity.
The torture program not only compromised our nation’s values, it helped recruit terrorists and put a much larger target on the backs of U.S. troops and diplomats working in the world’s most dangerous places.
Haspel’s reprehensible actions should disqualify her from becoming the next CIA director. The Senate must defeat Haspel’s nomination and send a message to the rest of the world about the American values I fought to defend and our nation’s commitment to condemning torture and promoting human rights around the globe.
Tammy Duckworth is a U.S. senator from Illinois. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.