Why Trump Won't Reopen the CIA's Black Sites
For the last two months, Washington was under the impression that Donald Trump didn't really mean it when he promised on the campaign trail to bring back torture.
The president himself said in November that he had discussed waterboarding with retired general James Mattis, and Mattis (who is now Trump's secretary of defense) told him waterboarding was not as useful as a "pack of cigarettes and a couple beers." Trump's new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, went further. In his confirmation hearings earlier this month, he said he would not follow an order to bring back a torture program and he did not expect to be given such an order. Bullet dodged.
Then came the news Wednesday that the White House was planning to issue an executive order to study whether or not the CIA should revive the network of secret prisons that President Barack Obama shut down on his first days in office back in 2009.
But before we cue the outrage, it might be wise to view these developments not so much as a return to the early days of the war on terrorism, but as an example of Trump's style of governance by misdirection. Even if Trump believes today that waterboarding and other kinds of enhanced interrogation are effective, as he told ABC News Wednesday, he will have a very hard time reinstating it.
To start, it's illegal under U.S. law. And the draft executive order makes sure to say that any interrogations must be within the boundaries of the law. Trump acknowledged this as well in his interview with ABC News.
It's also politically impractical. The draft executive order has drawn fire from members of both parties. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Wednesday he would do everything within his power to stop any government steps to revive the CIA's enhanced interrogation program. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the law of the land prohibits torture, regardless of any executive orders signed by Trump.
What's more, current and former CIA officers have said they would not want to revive the program. It was such a mess for the agency that to this day, human rights groups have called for international prosecutions of senior officials who authorized it. CIA officers in the 2000s had to take out insurance policies in case they were sued in international or domestic courts.
No wonder White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Wednesday that the draft order was not a "White House document."
That said, there is a more pernicious reason that the CIA will not likely be reopening its black site prisons. It's called "extraordinary rendition." This is the practice of letting third countries interrogate detainees for the U.S. It is a murky area when compared to the CIA's own interrogation and detention practices, which were detailed in a nonclassified report by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee. There has been no such transparency when it comes to human rights abuses by U.S. counterterrorism partners.
President Bill Clinton approved extraordinary rendition in rare instances. In 1995, for example, the U.S. sent a cell of Bosnian suspected terrorists to Egypt, where, according to their lawyer, they faced torture.
George W. Bush expanded the practice. The Senate report on the CIA program goes through numerous examples in which suspects were shuttled from CIA black sites to prisons in countries such as Pakistan and Morocco, though it's silent on how they were interrogated in these foreign jails.
Barack Obama also sent prisoners to third-world prisons, though there is no public evidence that the suspects were tortured. In 2012, I visited a foul prison in the Puntland region of Somalia that had accepted 16 people captured by the U.S. since 2009. The prison was unsanitary and lacked running water. Some inmates complained of beatings from the guards.
Since 2014, when Obama began a new special-operations campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has trained and partnered with Iraq's military, Kurdish militias and other local fighters. In 2015, Iraqis told me that the U.S. did not interrogate or capture Islamic State fighters, and left this to local partners. In some cases, those interrogations did not meet international standards.
In 2015, CIA Director John Brennan addressed the CIA's work with less savory allies in a letter to senators who had raised concerns over the agency's partnerships in fighting terrorism. Brennan said that in some cases the CIA had continued its relationships with entities that had engaged in human rights abuses, "because of the critical intelligence those services provide, including information that allows us to disrupt terrorist plotting against the United States.” He did not acknowledge sending captives to be interrogated by these services.
Sarah Margon, the director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, told me Wednesday she was particularly worried about the CIA's partnerships under Trump. This is because Trump has said he would explore working with countries like Russia, which has committed war crimes in Syria and Chechnya, to fight jihadists. "There are still very worrisome partnerships that need to be addressed that can be exploited by this administration, given the direction it appears to be moving in when it comes to longstanding commitments to a values-based foreign policy," she said.
Those partnerships will likely be the reason that Trump, despite his bluster, will not revive the CIA's black sites program. He simply doesn't need to. In a narrow sense, this will be a victory for human rights and the rule of law. But given the history of America's third-world allies in the war on terror, that victory is pyrrhic.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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