Could the Trump administration return the US to large-scale, systematic torture in the name of security? Yes.

By Naureen Shah, Director, Security and Human Rights Program at AIUSA

Wednesday night, Senator Tom Cotton recommended the US return to waterboarding and expressed his hope that President-elect Trump is “tough” enough to “make that call.” Sure enough, during the presidential campaign, President-elect Trump himself repeatedly threatened to bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Is the US poised to return to waterboarding and other forms of torture in the name of national security? It could be.

We are calling on President-elect Trump to abandon this rhetoric, and commit to refraining from turning it into actual government policy. Those advising the Trump administration can still make the choice to urge him in the right direction and his new administration can commit to abiding by US and international law on torture. We are also urging the Obama administration to take steps now to forestall a return to these abuses.

But let’s be clear: The risk is real. Under the Trump administration, we are at risk of seeing hundreds of people tortured or otherwise ill-treated by US officials in the name of security. Here’s how:

Guantanamo: If the Guantanamo detention camp is still open when President Obama leaves office in January, it is all too likely that it will become a site of systematic torture once more. It was once called the “battle lab” because it served as an experimental ground for future abuses. That future could soon be upon us. The 60 people still there could be at risk of torture and a dramatic change in their detention conditions. And there are hundreds more people that the Trump administration could seek to bring in: People arrested far from any battlefield (including US citizens), as well as people captured in Iraq, Syria or other places where the U.S. is engaged militarily. Indeed, he has promised to “load [Guantanamo] up.

“Enhanced Interrogation”: People currently at Guantanamo, as well as newly arrived individuals, could be subjected to waterboarding and other abuses. Recent history could repeat itself: Sexual humiliation and assault, confinement in small coffin-like boxes, men hung naked in diapers and shackled in positions where they are forcibly deprived of sleep. This all happened under the former Bush administration. Back then, they called some of these abuses “enhanced interrogation.” (Side note: There’s no doubt, waterboarding is torture). Changes in U.S. law like the McCain/Feinstein amendment should forestall these techniques, but there are many work-arounds. At the end of the day, the question is whether Justice Department lawyers will be willing to write permission slips for torture, despite it being clearly prohibited under U.S. and international law.

Extraordinary rendition: Under the former Clinton and Bush administration, the U.S. engaged in rendition: Kidnapping people and holding them incommunicado, where they were sometimes tortured. In a way, the Obama administration left this option on the table. Although the Obama administration accepted that international law prohibited it from transferring people to torture, it expressly left the door open to kidnapping people and using diplomatic assurances — promises from a foreign government not to torture — as a way around the transfer-to-torture prohibition. It’s all too possible that the Trump administration walks through that open door, and begins large-scale rendition and outsourcing of torture to foreign governments.

Black sites: The CIA could establish “black sites” to hold people secretly and abuse them. President Obama’s executive order on lawful interrogations prohibited this, but the Trump administration could withdraw that order or simply use its loopholes.

We have worked for years to prevent all of this, and we had some wins along the way, including an amendment to U.S. law and the publication of the Senate torture report. But today, we are at risk.

Isn’t this an exaggeration? I wish it were. The hard truth is that even though the human rights community has for years sought to guard against a return to systematic torture in the name of national security, there is much we failed to get. No senior official involved in the CIA’s secret detention program from 2002–2008 was ever prosecuted. Some of those involved in that program could actually land positions in the Trump administration. That means that Trump administration officials who are ordered to design a torture program may have even less fear of prosecution than former Bush administration officials did, 15 years ago.

So will this just be the Bush administration’s torture program on repeat?

Yes and no. In some ways, it could be worse because there is arguably more overt support for torture now than before. Whereas, under the administration of former president George W. Bush, top U.S. officials claimed to reject torture as morally abhorrent (even while ordering and encouraging it), many politicians now openly celebrate torture. In a perverse effort to win public approval, people like Senator Tom Cotton trivialize the horror and inhumanity of torture and signal they would support a return to its systematic use.

We are at inflection point on human rights in this country, and on torture in particular. Poll results, while limited by multiple factors, suggest an alarming increase in U.S. approval of torture. In March 2016, a Reuters poll reported that nearly two-thirds of Americans surveyed believed torture can be justified to extract information from “suspected terrorists.” In contrast, in 2007, a Pew poll showed that only about forty percent of Americans surveyed believed torture could be justified to get key information. According to the same polls, while in 2007 a majority of 54 percent said torture was never or rarely justifiable, in 2016 only fifteen percent of those polled said it should never be used.

What can we do?

We have 69 days to close Guantanamo. Shutting it down can’t prevent a new administration from returning to torture or restarting secret detention, but it could deprive the US government of a location that has proven all too convenient for torture. We must urge the Obama administration: Don’t leave Guantanamo to Trump. Take action.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store