Lessons From a Torture Advocate’s Failed Bid for a Key Human Rights Position

As society continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, most news has been gloomy. But there have been positive developments, and among them is a rare story of accountability for torture. In April, Marshall Billingslea — who promoted torture and harsh and degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody during the George W. Bush administration — lost his lengthy bid for a top State Department post that oversees, among other matters, human rights and counterterrorism policy.

After more than a year of vigorous civil society opposition to Billingslea’s nomination and unrelenting resistance from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, President Trump announced last month that he would be appointing Billingslea to a position that does not require Senate confirmation — Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control. This appointment effectively ended Billingslea’s bid for Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. And on Monday, Trump nominated Billingslea for Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. By refusing to confirm Billingslea for a top position overseeing the human rights and counterterrorism portfolios at the State Department, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, bolstered by support from civil society, took a stand against torture and demonstrated that there can and should be consequences for promoting it.

For those unfamiliar with Billingslea’s record, his support for torture and abuse of detainees during his time at the Defense Department after 9/11 is well documented. Retired Major General Thomas Romig, who was then the judge advocate general of the Army, has recounted that Billingslea, when confronted on the issue of torture, stated, “Guys, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s time to take the gloves off.”

Billingslea personally recommended to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the approval of harsh techniques that went beyond the methods — some of which were already unsavory — that General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had proposed. And Billingslea recommended that Rumsfeld approve an interrogation plan that included multiple torture techniques for Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Slahi was then tortured extensively. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor assigned to the case, resigned in protest, feeling that he could not prosecute a defendant who had been tortured in order to collect evidence. Slahi was ultimately released  after 14 years of detention without charge.

Individuals with such a record of support for torture and direct involvement in the torture program should have no place in this or any future administration. But, as one of us along with our colleague Rob Berschinski previously explained, this nomination smacked of “a particularly searing irony. If confirmed, Billingslea would [have] become the top U.S. executive branch official directly responsible for human rights policy.”

And indeed, Trump’s decision to nominate a person with this history for a human rights position met strong resistance. In addition to opposition from civil society, including a letter signed by over 20 organizations — from human rights-focused groups such as Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International to others such as 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows and VoteVets — several former government officials with personal knowledge of Billingslea’s record on torture spoke out against his confirmation.

As reported by Mike DeBonis in The Washington Post, retired Major General Romig sent a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee saying that Billingslea “went out of his way to advocate for using abusive interrogation techniques against detainees in our custody … despite being told that his positions were wrong, counterproductive, and unlawful by a group of senior military lawyers.” DeBonis further reported that Joseph Bryan, the lead investigator for a 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody, also sent a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Billingslea’s record. And former Naval Criminal Investigative Service official Mark Fallon spoke out against Billingslea as well, refuting Billingslea’s claims during his confirmation hearing: “Marshall Billingslea was our biggest obstacle within the Pentagon trying to dissuade policymakers from going down a road that we believed was illegal, immoral and ineffective and would derail the ability to bring forth justice … So it’s disingenuous for him to claim that he was some type of passive participant.”

Ultimately, this pushback fortified bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill, with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) joining a number of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrats who raised concerns about Billingslea’s torture record.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s refusal to advance Billingslea’s nomination was a rare bright spot on an otherwise bleak torture accountability record for the United States. Despite horrific torture and abuse in the years after 9/11, including mistreatment that led to detainee deaths, the Obama administration declined to prosecute those responsible for detainee abuse during the Bush administration. Reasonable minds can differ on the wisdom and morality of this decision, but it most certainly paved the way for President Trump to nominate — and for the Senate to confirm — individuals who played a role in the torture program or supported torture to senior positions, including at the Department of Justice, at the Department of Transportation, at the Department of the Treasury (Billingslea, actually), and on the federal judiciary.

Chief among them was Gina Haspel, who was confirmed as Director of the CIA despite her role in the CIA’s Bush-era torture program. Had either the Bush or Obama administration held those responsible for the torture program criminally accountable, it’s also unlikely that the International Criminal Court’s investigation into U.S. torture in Afghanistan would be necessary today because a case is inadmissible at the court if a state has ensured accountability itself.

Despite this overall bleak picture, Haspel’s confirmation was not cost-free. Her prominent role in the torture program was the subject of widespread public controversy, and she ultimately was not confirmed until she made crucial commitments. For example, in her confirmation hearing, Haspel stated: “I can offer you my personal commitment clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart a detention and interrogation program.”

But as the nation gets closer to finally ending its post-9/11 chapter and recalibrating national security priorities, the United States must move beyond stated commitments and blocked nominations, laudable as they may be. Moving forward, future administrations should follow the advice of retired Marine Corps Major General Michael Lehnert, the first commander of the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities after 9/11. They should “refus[e] to appoint, nominate, or retain in their administration anyone who was involved in managing, directly carrying out, or providing legal authority for the torture program” in the first place.

Improving accountability by sending a strong signal that resorting to torture and detainee abuse has consequences — even if only political in nature — is an important part of ensuring that the country never again debases itself in times of fear by turning to these heinous practices.

Image: U.S. Treasury Department Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea speaks during an Organization of American States meeting on state corruption and human rights violations in Venezuela at the organization’s headquarters March 01, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Rita Siemion

Director of National Security Advocacy at Human Rights First. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. Follow her on Twitter (@ritasiemion).

Benjamin Haas

Advocacy Counsel at Human Rights First, Former Army Intelligence Officer, Graduate of West Point and Stanford Law School. Follow him on Twitter (@BenjaminEHaas).