March 19, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Cornell Welcomes Another Torturer

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On May 10, 2017 the Cornell Club of New York invited former US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to promote her new book on “the global struggle for democracy and why America must continue to support the cause of human freedom.”   It was an unfortunate choice, as Rice was one of the first officials of the George W. Bush administration to have broken international and domestic law by approving torture of prisoners held at the Guantánamo Bay prison and so-called “black sites” run by the Central Intelligence Agency.  It is not clear whose idea it was to invite Secretary Rice to speak on, of all things, democracy and human freedom, but it was apparently a popular one, since the event sold out. As a Cornell alumnus I was troubled to learn that our fellow graduates found it acceptable to honor former government officials responsible for some of the most heinous crimes and violations of human rights.

Now some of our students are doing it again, as the Cornell Republicans host ex-Vice President Richard Cheney.  The concern about honoring a torturer is not a matter of partisan politics, but of public record.   The decisions of Rice and Cheney, along with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other members of the National Security Council’s “Principals Committee” in the Bush White House to approve torture in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have been known since at least 2008 and have led to criminal investigations in Spain and Germany. A 2012 report prepared for the US Senate Intelligence Committee describes the decision process in detail, and an executive summary was declassified and made public in 2014.

Conspiracy to commit torture is illegal under US law and under the international convention against torture, to which the United States is a party. Many of our students are aware that as a matter of law the crime of torture falls under the category of jus cogens, along with such practices as genocide and slavery; it would be recognized as a crime even if it were not subject to treaty or domestic law, and weakening the ban on torture (“derogation”) is not permitted under any circumstances — including national emergency or war. Those are the terms of the treaty the United States signed, and of the domestic law adopted under our Constitution.

It is also a matter of public record what the Bush administration’s torture regime entailed — among many other crimes, the extensive physical and psychological abuse of Abu Zubaydah. Mistaken for a top al Qaeda leader (he was not even a member of the organization) — Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, kept in a coffin-sized box for 180 hours, thrown against walls, deprived of sleep to the point of psychosis, and subject to other unspeakable horrors. As the Senate report confirms, Condoleezza Rice gave explicit permission on behalf of the White House for the CIA to carry out those crimes.   When challenged by students at Stanford, where she taught for many years and served as Provost, she shifted the blame to President Bush, claiming, “by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.” Rice’s statement reminded many of President Richard Nixon’s similar attempt to excuse his numerous crimes: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

Unlike Rice, ex-Vice President Cheney has not tried to excuse his approval of torture.  He rejects the term in favor of the euphemism, “enhanced interrogation,” but he has called the practices “absolutely, totally justified,” and said, “if I had to do it over again, I would do it.” In a 2014 interview on Meet the Press, Cheney was reminded of the scores of innocent people caught up in the “Global War on Terror,” many of them tortured and some beaten to death in prisons at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Bagram air base in Afghanistan, subjected to sexual abuse in the form of forced nudity, “rectal feeding,” and “rectal hydration.”  Chuck Todd nearly begged Cheney to express remorse for at least the innocent victims, which he estimated to be about a quarter of the captives, but to no avail: “I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent,” insisted Cheney. “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.”

As critics had anticipated, President Barack Obama’s decision not to prosecute the officials responsible for torture, even as he denounced the practice himself, left the door open for torture’s return.  President Donald Trump, an open advocate of waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse” other torture methods, has just appointed as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, who had been serving as deputy director.  The New York Times has reported that as a clandestine agent in 2002, Haspel was dispatched “to oversee a secret prison in Thailand” where CIA contractors waterboarded an al Qaeda suspect and subjected him to other “brutal interrogation techniques.” The practices were so horrendous that some of the CIA employees “broke down emotionally” when obliged to observe them. Trump’s appointment of Haspel raises doubts about US commitment to international and domestic law forbidding torture.

US soldiers, if instructed to carry out the policies Trump favors, would violate their obligations under the Geneva Conventions and as well as domestic military law. That is one reason why so many military veterans, including more than forty retired generals, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, came out strongly against the normalization of torture during the last presidential campaign.  Trump’s own Secretary of Defense James Mattis has thrown cold water on the President’s enthusiasm for torture and has vowed to uphold US and international law.  Senator John McCain — a torture victim himself during the Vietnam War — has been a particularly outspoken opponent of the practice.

The Cornell Republicans could have chosen any number of Republican political figures to honor with an invitation to our campus.  One can only hope that their decision to invite Cheney was a function of ignorance of his criminal record as a supporter of torture rather than an endorsement of the illegal and immoral practices of the current administration and its predecessors.

Matthew Evangelista is the President White Professor of History and Political Science. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically.