Human whats? In the Middle East and elsewhere, the Trump administration has begun to signal that human rights aren't exactly on its agenda. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has taken the lead in this process in a round of personal diplomacy in the Middle East (with Trump's generals not far behind). In early March, he wrote various "advocacy groups" that the administration was considering withdrawing from the U.N. Human Rights Council to protest the records of some of its members, including Saudi Arabia and China. And then, as if to hint at what the value of such rights might really be in Washington, he signaled to Congress that the administration would, as the New York Times reported, "lift all human rights conditions on a major sale of F-16 fighter jets and other arms to Bahrain." This means American arms dealers can sell their weaponry to that Sunni Persian Gulf monarchy, despite its grim repression of its majority Shiite population. And that, in turn, means that we can finally put something like an initial price tag on human rights, at least for the Shiites of the tiny kingdom that houses the U.S. Fifth Fleet: $3.8 billion ($2.8 billion for those 19 new fighter planes and a billion dollars more to support that country's air force in various other ways).
We can similarly put a very partial price tag on the value of human rights when it comes to Yemenis. The citizens of that riven land are living at the edge of a potentially catastrophic famine and under regular air attack from Saudi Arabia and its allies (including Bahrain) in a disastrous American-backed two-year-old war that was meant to check Iranian influence in the region. It has already cost at least 10,000 lives and displaced millions. As for that very partial price tag, it's $350 million for 16,000 Raytheon guided munitions kits that will turn dumb bombs into "smart" ones. Their sale to the Saudis had previously been blocked by the Obama administration in response to news about their air strikes against civilians in Yemen. Now, as a signal of the sort of heightened support the Trump administration expects to offer that country's royal family -- you know, the crew with that terrible human rights record -- in its fight against Iranian influence in the region, it is releasing them. (Undoubtedly, more cluster bombs will be next on the list.)
We are, of course, at the very beginning of the Trump era, which means so much yet remains to be known, though The Donald's generals are clearly already ramping up America's wars (and the civilian casualties that go with them) in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. In turn, that means sooner or later other classic aspects of America's recent wars will undoubtedly be ramped up as well. With that in mind, we've turned to TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author of American Nuremberg and an expert on the "unholy trinity" of grim methods this country has brought to bear in its war on terror -- torture, extraordinary rendition, and indefinite detention (think: Guanta'namo) -- to read Washington's tea leaves and give us a preview of things to come and so of human rights in the age of Trump. Tom
Resurrecting the Unholy Trinity
Torture, Rendition, and Indefinite Detention Under Trump
By Rebecca Gordon
When George W. Bush and Dick Cheney launched their forever wars -- under the banner of a "Global War on Terror" -- they unleashed an unholy trinity of tactics. Torture, rendition, and indefinite detention became the order of the day. After a partial suspension of these policies in the Obama years, they now appear poised for resurrection.
For eight years under President Obama, this country's forever wars continued, although his administration retired the expression "war on terror," preferring to describe its war-making more vaguely as an effort to "degrade and destroy" violent jihadists like ISIS. Nevertheless, he made major efforts to suspend Bush-era violations of U.S. and international law, signing executive orders to that effect on the day he took office in 2009. Executive Order 13491, "Ensuring Lawful Interrogations," closed the CIA's secret torture centers -- the "black sites" -- and ended permission for the Agency to use what had euphemistically become known as "enhanced interrogation techniques."
On that same day in 2009, Obama issued Executive Order 13492, designed -- unsuccessfully, as it turned out -- to close the U.S. military prison at Guanta'namo Bay, the site of apparently endless detention without charges or trials. In 2015, Congress reinforced Obama's first order in a clause for the next year's National Defense Authorization Act that limited permissible interrogation techniques to those described in the U.S. Army Field Manual section on "human intelligence collector operations."
All of that already seems like such ancient history, especially as the first hints of the Trump era begin to appear, one in which torture, black sites, extraordinary rendition, and so much more may well come roaring back. Right now, it's a matter of reading the Trumpian tea leaves. Soon after the November election, Masha Gessen, a Russian e'migre'e who has written two books about Vladimir Putin's regime, gave us some pointers on how to do this. Rule number one: "Believe the autocrat." When he tells you what he wants to do -- build a wall, deport millions, bring back torture -- "he means what he says." Is Gessen right? Let's examine some of those leaves.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who paid minimal attention to the election campaign of 2016 that Donald Trump has a passionate desire to bring back torture. In fact, he campaigned on a platform of committing war crimes of various kinds, occasionally even musing about whether the United States could use nukes against ISIS. He promised to return waterboarding to its rightful place among twenty-first-century U.S. practices and, as he so eloquently put it, "a hell of a lot worse." There's no reason, then, to be shocked that he's been staffing his administration with people who generally feel the same way (Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis being an obvious exception).
The CIA was certainly not the only outfit engaged in torture in the Bush years, but it's the one whose practices were most thoroughly examined and publicized. Despite his enthusiasm for torture, Trump's relationship with the Agency has, to say the least, been frosty. Days before his inauguration, he responded to revelations of possible Russian influence on the U.S. election by accusing its operatives of behaving like Nazis, tweeting: "Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to 'leak' into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?"
He quickly appointed a new director of the CIA (as hasn't been true of quite a few other positions in his administration). He chose former Congressman Mike Pompeo, whose advice about torture he has also said he would consider seriously. A polite term for Pompeo's position on the issue might be: ambiguous. During his confirmation hearings, he maintained that he would "absolutely not" reinstate waterboarding or other "enhanced techniques," even if the president ordered him to. "Moreover," he added, "I can't imagine that I would be asked that."
However, his written replies to the Senate Intelligence Committee told quite a different, far less forthright tale. Specifically, as the British Independent reported, he wrote that if a ban on waterboarding were shown to impede the "gathering of vital intelligence," he would consider lifting it. He added that he would reopen the question of whether interrogation techniques should be limited to those found in the Army Field Manual. ("If confirmed, I will consult with experts at the Agency and at other organizations in the U.S. government on whether the Army Field Manual uniform application is an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country.")
In other words, as the Independent observed, if the law prohibits torture, then Pompeo is prepared to work to alter the law. "If experts believed current law was an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country," Pompeo wrote to the Senate committee, "I would want to understand such impediments and whether any recommendations were appropriate for changing current law." Unfortunately for both the president and him, there are laws against torture that neither they nor Congress have the power to change, including the U.N. Convention against Torture, and the Geneva Conventions.
Nor is Mike Pompeo the only Trump nominee touched by the torture taint. Take, for instance, the president's pick for the Supreme Court. From 2005 to 2006, Neil Gorsuch worked in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, the wellspring for John Yoo's and Jay Bybee's infamous "torture memos." Gorsuch also assisted in drafting Bush's "signing statement" on the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act. That act included an amendment introduced by Senator John McCain prohibiting the torture of detainees. As the White House didn't want its favorite interrogation methods curtailed, Gorsuch recommended putting down "a marker to the effect that... McCain is best read as essentially codifying existing interrogation policies." In other words, the future Supreme Court nominee suggested that the McCain amendment would have no real effect, because the administration had never engaged in torture in the first place. This approach was the best strategy, he argued, to "help inoculate against the potential of having the administration criticized sometime in the future for not making sufficient changes in interrogation policy in light of the McCain portion of the amendment."