(Trigger warning: Vivid descriptions of torture)
In 2002, 16 years before becoming CIA director, Gina Haspel oversaw the CIA’s Cat’s Eye black site prison in Thailand and the torture of a man ProPublica described as a “Palestinian militant.” Abu Zubaydah’s experience included “prolonged sleep deprivation; stress positions; confining the prisoner inside small, wooden boxes; slamming him into a plywood wall; and waterboarding.”
The process of waterboarding involves strapping a prisoner to a board, turning them upside-down, and pouring water over a cloth being held over their face to simulate the feeling of drowning. The UN has condemned the practice as torture, and cited multiple law enforcement experts from multiple countries in its conclusion that torture, including waterboarding, is “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.”
Zubaydah was waterboarded dozens of times in the CIA black site Gina Haspel oversaw. His trauma was so severe that it even impacted his torturers, according to ProPublica:
Over a 17-day period, the two psychologists subjected Zubaydah to the simulated drowning procedure 83 times, CIA cables show, as he gagged, vomited, became “hysterical” and suffered “involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities.”
The treatment shook some of the CIA officers who witnessed it, declassified documents show. “Several on the team profoundly affected … some to the point of tears and choking up,” one of them wrote on Aug. 8.
Another detainee at Haspel’s facility was Abdal Rahim al-Nashiri, who was involved in the al-Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. During Haspel’s confirmation hearings, Dr. Sondra Crosby, a public health professor at Boston University, wrote to ranking member Senator Mark Warner, urging him to vote against Haspel’s confirmation to head the CIA given her involvement in horrific torture procedures.
The Intercept obtained an email Dr. Crosby sent to Warner, in which she wrote that al-Nashiri was “one of the most severely traumatized individuals I have ever seen” in her more than 20 years of experience treating torture victims around the world, including in war zones like Iraq, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo:
“I urge Senator Warner to oppose Ms. Haspel, who did not have the courage or leadership to oppose the [Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation] program,” wrote Crosby. She stated that some of the techniques used against Nashiri are still classified. In her letter to Warner, Crosby stated that among the known acts of torture committed against Nashiri while he was in U.S. custody at several U.S. facilities, included:
suffocated with water (waterboarding)
subjected to mock execution with a drill and gun while standing naked and hooded
anal rape through rectal feeding
threatened that his mother would be sexually assaulted
lifted off ground by arms while they were bound behind his back (after which a medical officer opined that shoulders might be dislocated)
(CIA director Gina Haspel during her 2018 confirmation hearing. Screenshot from C-SPAN/Fair Use)
In 2009, despite Barack Obama winning 10 million more votes overall and garnering 365 electoral college votes in a stunning repudiation of the eight-year Bush administration, the newly minted president decided he wasn’t going to prosecute the Bush administration for torture, saying that it was “time for reflection, not retribution.” People like Gina Haspel remained in their government roles, slowly moving up the career ladder. Arguably, it was Obama’s decision to not prosecute Bush officials that led to Haspel eventually becoming CIA director despite her record.
With regard to the Trump administration, President-elect Joe Biden is singing the same tune of “unity” and “moving forward.” An adviser to the President-elect told NBC News that, while Biden will respect the Department of Justice’s independence, his main focuses will be on containing the virus, rebuilding the economy, climate change, and race relations, rather than “looking back at the Trump administration.”
Obviously I won’t fault the incoming administration for prioritizing Covid and the economy, and his “unity” focus is on-brand given his campaign and his acceptance speech, but justice and accountability are important. The crimes of the Trump administration are too numerous for this one post, but among the most egregious are the permanent orphaning of at least 545 immigrant children and the forced sterilization of immigrant women in detention camps.
Child separation and forced hysterectomies seem to fit under Article II of the UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (emphasis mine):
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
(White House advisor Stephen Miller. Photo: Screenshot from CNN/Fair Use)
In 2018, the New York Times interviewed Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s most senior White House advisors. Miller was identified as the architect of Trump’s immigration policy, and referred to “zero-tolerance” policies like child separation as a “deterrent” to stop border crossings. Even Trump abandoned the idea of separating children from their parents after former Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly broached the idea in 2017. But Miller insisted.
“No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement,” Miller told the Times. “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period. The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”
Miller, who was outed as a white nationalist in emails leaked in 2019, was reportedly “furious” that child separation wasn’t being strictly enforced after former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy. Miller even proposed a harsher version of child separation that would have ripped nearly ten times as many immigrant children from their parents’ arms, according to NBC News.
Miller saw the separation of families not as an unfortunate byproduct but as a tool to deter more immigration. According to three former officials, he had devised plans that would have separated even more children. Miller, with the support of Sessions, advocated for separating all immigrant families, even those going through civil court proceedings, the former officials said.
While zero tolerance ultimately separated nearly 3,000 children from their parents, what Miller proposed would have separated 25,000 more, including those who legally presented themselves at ports of entry seeking asylum, according to Customs and Border Protection data from May and June 2018.
Ben Ferencz, the last surviving member of the team that successfully prosecuted numerous high-ranking members of the Nazi regime at Nuremberg, referred to child separation as a “crime against humanity” in 2018. While the phrase “crime against humanity” may seem like hyperbole, we have a duty to listen when a man who prosecuted 22 Nazis for killing more than one million people uses those words.
Allowing the architect of a policy that may have irreparably harmed thousands of immigrant children to live out the rest of his days in freedom and comfort is an affront to the entire concept of justice. If America is to heal from the trauma inflicted by the Trump administration, and if we are truly a nation of laws, prosecuting Stephen Miller is a necessity.