Five Things You Should Know about President Trump’s Attempt to Make America Torture Again

By Elizabeth Beavers, Senior Campaigner, Security With Human Rights

Yesterday, President Trump turned his egregious campaign rhetoric into reality by declaring on national television that torture “absolutely works.” This outrageous statement came amongst reports that his administration is preparing to sign an executive order that could pave the way for a return to large-scale, systemic torture and expanded indefinite detention at Guantánamo. Here are five things you should know:

1. Torture and enforced disappearance are against the law. Period.

Some reports say that the executive order could initiate a review of detention and interrogation policies and lift bans on secret detention in CIA “black sites.” But this executive order would not and cannot change the fact that torture is abhorrent, it is barbaric and inhumane, and it is still unlawful.

The world’s governments recognized this in the aftermath of the atrocities of the World War II. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, enshrined the right to be free from torture and other cruelty. Legally binding international agreements, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Convention Against Torture, and the Geneva Conventions make this prohibition explicit.

Torture is also explicitly banned by domestic U.S. law. In 2015, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 sponsored by Senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein that strengthened the ban on torture and other ill-treatment. The provision, by codifying the Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations as the standard for national security interrogations across the government, reaffirmed the ban on many specific forms of torture and ill-treatment. This includes waterboarding, forced nudity and other sexual abuse, hooding, mock executions, deprivation of food, water or medical care, beatings and “other forms of physical pain.”

This provision extended the Detainee Treatment Act, passed by Congress in 2005 by a vote of 90–9, which banned the Department of Defense from using techniques not authorized by the Army Field Manual, and also banned across government agencies the use of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment or punishment.

It’s really very simple: torture is a crime. And no executive order can change that.

2. Returning to “black sites” would re-open one of the worst chapters in U.S. history.

We’ve seen these horrors before. From 2002 to 2008, the CIA rounded up and “disappeared” more than 100 men, some taken from their home in the middle of the day, blindfolded and shackled on a plane, and taken to a place they’d never seen before.

In CIA-run “black sites” all over the world, many or all were subjected to some of the most degrading treatment imaginable. There’s been much talk about waterboarding, without much description of what it really is.

Malcolm Nance, combat veteran and former chief of training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School, described it this way: “Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.”

He told Congress: “Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration — usually the person goes into hysterics on the board…When done right it is controlled death.”

In addition to the excruciating simulation of drowning, the CIA inflicted numerous other cruelties: forced rectal feeding and forced nudity to humiliate and exert control, painful shackling in “stress positions,” sensory and sleep deprivation, and mock executions.

At least one individual — Gul Rahman — died after being subjected to this cruel treatment in CIA custody. He froze to death while chained partially nude to a concrete floor.

Secret detention and torture replace the rule of law with terror. To re-open these unconscionable practices would rupture the United States’ purported legal and moral foundations. If the Trump administration attempts to return the U.S. to torture, we are all at risk.

3. Adding more people to Guantánamo will violate human rights and won’t bring justice for acts of terror.

It has been more than fifteen years since the first individuals arrived at Guantánamo to be indefinitely detained without charge or fair trial in the name of national security. There are 41 people still there, and most are still facing no charges. Guantánamo has become an international symbol of torture and other abuses, and has damaged U.S. credibility on security and human rights across the globe.

The Trump administration should be finding ways to close the doors, instead of opening the floodgates. Adding more people to Guantánamo could create a parallel system of detention without charge or fair trial where hundreds more could languish until they die.

There still has been no justice for the crime against humanity committed on 9/11, in large part because the U.S. government decided to pursue prosecutions not through fair trials, but through flawed military commissions at Guantánamo. Those “trials” drag on without resolution, now under a third presidency. Repeating those same mistakes will only yield the same results — acts of terror should be swiftly investigated and prosecuted through fair trials in federal courts. Rounding up and indefinitely detaining more people will only further violate human rights and delay real justice and security.

4. President Trump’s cabinet nominees already acknowledged that torture is unlawful and promised to refuse orders to bring it back.

Many of President Trump’s cabinet nominees have already faced tough questioning from the Senate, and were explicitly asked about torture. Every nominee asked acknowledged that torture was unlawful, and pledged to abide by the law.

These promises must now become more than empty words. Mike Pompeo, as CIA Director, must refuse any orders to re-start black sites or engage in torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Jeff Sessions, if confirmed as Attorney General, must ensure that the Justice Department does not write “permission slips” to get around legal prohibitions against torture and secret detention. General Mattis must ensure that the Army Field Manual not be re-written to include torture and other cruel treatment as optional “techniques.”

This is the moment when rhetoric will be tested. It is crucial that Congress, the media and the public aggressively hold each nominee to account, and ensure that the promises they made under oath translate into decisive action to prevent a return to torture.

5. The United States should lead the world with human rights, not participate in a race to the bottom.

Instead of leading global efforts to eradicate torture and preserve human rights, the United States chose to let fear win by carrying out secret detention, torture, indefinite detention, and other abuses in the name of security. These decisions gave other countries the excuse to engage in their own human rights abuses, and destroyed U.S. credibility in holding other governments to account. Guantánamo continues to serve as a physical symbol of torture and other abuses, and damages diplomatic efforts.

By re-opening and expanding the failed policies that have fueled human rights violations, the Trump administration would do unspeakable damage not only to the lives immediately affected, but to the global infrastructure that protects human rights for all. The same rights that we all possess by virtue of our shared humanity are at risk when the rights of some are violated.

Today’s executive order is a step backward, but it is only the beginning of the fight. Enforced disappearances, torture, and indefinite detention were unlawful when they were enacted immediately after 9/11 and remain unlawful today. These executive orders can’t and don’t change that.

Read our coalition letter to President Trump, urging him to reject torture and close Guantánamo.

Take action: Tell Congress to stand up against the Trump agenda of fear, hate, and bigotry under the guise of security — tell them that the America you believe in leads with human rights.