Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?

John LaForge

If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. - Martin Luther King, Jr. Apr.4, 1967

IN some cases, US interrogators forced suspects to stand for up to 180 hours.
IN some cases, US interrogators forced suspects to stand for up to 180 hours.

On Jan. 25, 26 and 27, the new president again asserted falsely that torture “works.” Claiming to have spoken with high-level intelligence officers, Trump said they told him torture works “absolutely.”

This implausible claim flies in the face of the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report which concluded that torture is not merely illegal but worthless. The 6,000-page Senate report found that torture produced “fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.” This established fact has been settled law for so long that torture has been prohibited by international law and US statute, and -- for good measure -- the Senate voted to ban torture across the US government in 2015. Historian Michael Kwass reminds us that as early as 1764 Cesare Beccaria called for abolishing torture because it is immoral and doesn’t work.

Feb. 17 last year at an event in Bluffton, S.C., Trump said, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works,” adding, “Half these guys [say], ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works. … I would bring back waterboarding. And I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” At a big rally Nov. 23, 2015, he said, “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would, in a heartbeat, in a heartbeat. And don’t kid yourself folks, it works, okay, it works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work. It works.”

At a Republican debate last March he said “Waterboarding is fine, and if we want to go stronger I’d go stronger too. We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding.” Asked about military personnel refusing such an unlawful order, Trump said, “I’m a leader. If I say ‘Do it,’ they’re gonna do it.”

Trump went further late last November at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, where he said, “If it doesn’t work they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing,” indicating he would torture suspects merely for revenge or for propaganda.

In a televised chat with South Carolina State Rep. Bill Herbkersman, Trump said that he would “immediately” resume waterboarding and “much worse,” calling waterboarding a “minor form” of interrogation. With the ascension of Trump to the White House, we can be certain that Obama’s decision not to prosecute was an inexcusable blunder. If Trump returns to practicing atrocities like those committed under Bush/Cheney/Haspel, we will have President Obama partly to blame.

When president Obama chose not to pursue criminal torture charges against president Bush, vice president Cheney, Sec. of Defense Rumsfeld and other officials in the Bush administration -- Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and Gina Haspel -- the principle outcry at the time, for good reason, was that Obama’s negligence would open the door to future torture programs.

Trump has placed Gina Haspel at the deputy directorship of the CIA, an appointment that may presage the president’s intentions. Haspel oversaw the torture of two suspects at the secret CIA prison in Thailand. Haspel’s torturing sessions were videotaped, but when the tapes existence became known, the CIA had this evidence destroyed, itself a criminal act. One name appearing on the destruction order was Gina Haspel.

By 2007, the CIA’s destruction of its own torture videotapes was a full-blown scandal, and even the then Senator Joe Biden charged that the CIA tape’s destruction and the criminal violations they established called for a Special Prosecutor.

Because the so-called president does not read books, and gets what “information” he has from television alone, it’s understandable that his ideas about torture do not go beyond the fictional TV torture commercial called “24.” Of course, the strategists whispering in Trump’s ear may remind him that “torture works,” not as TV shows, but in the sense that when the country knows that the government tortures its opponents, the opposition tends to shrink. Torture works if you want to terrify the population; just ask US-supported freedom fighters like the Shah, Somoza, Batista, Pinochet, or Franco.

Obama himself, while being credited with halting the torture program, continued for years to allow the force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay. Force-feeding is an excruciating and sometimes bloody practice involving a plastic tube being painfully forced into the nose and down the throat of the prisoner. In 2013, at least 35 prisoners at Guantanamo were being force-fed, according to the Miami Herald. The UN Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights ruled in May 2013 that force feeding was “cruel, inhuman and degrading” and as such a “flagrant violation of international human rights law.” Prof. Steven Miles at the U. of Minn. told reporters that Obama’s force-feeding “constitutes torture” considering its long-term use and the military’s methods.

Jenna Johnson, reporting in the Washington Post, noted last summer that “Trump’s call for waterboarding and more extreme measures is always met with warm applause and cheers at his rallies.” And it is thanks to Trump’s lying, fictionalized TV treatments of it, and euphemisms like “force-feeding,” that in December 2016, the Red Cross could report that 46 percent of the US adults in its global survey said that torture could be used to obtain information from enemy soldiers. Never mind that it’s a war crime and worthless.

Unless the public is outraged enough to confront it, the new administration may drag the United States again “down the long, dark and shameful corridors” warned of by Dr. King.