Torture on Trial in the US Senate, as the UK Government Unreservedly Apologizes for Its Role in Libyan Rendition


Sen. John McCain gives his reason for refusing the nomination of Gina Haspel as the next Director of the CIA (graphic by CBS News).Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

In the last few days, two very different approaches to torture have been on display in the US and the UK.

On Wednesday, the US Senate conducted confirmation hearings for Gina Haspel, Donald Trump’s nomination as the next Director of the CIA, who has attracted widespread criticism since her nomination was announced back in March, for two particularly valid reasons: firstly, because, towards the end of 2002, she was in charge of the CIA’s first post-9/11 “black site” in Thailand, where several “high-value detainees” were held and tortured, and secondly because, in 2005, she was involved in the destruction of videotapes documenting the torture of prisoners, even though a court had ordered the tapes to be preserved.

At the time of her nomination, we signed up to a letter from a number of rights groups opposing her nomination, and also published an article on our website, entitled, The Torture Trail of Gina Haspel Makes Her Unsuitable to be Director of the CIA.

In the run-up to the nomination hearings, on May 7, we were appalled to see Donald Trump tweeting his support for her, stating, “My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists. Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!”

Gina Haspel, of course, has “come under fire” not “because she was too tough on Terrorists,” but because she was involved in torture — and Trump’s tweet showed exactly why her nomination shouldn’t proceed, because he evidently equates being “tough on Terrorists” with engaging in torture, even though torture is illegal and its use in the “war on terror” was, as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report showed (in the redacted version of the executive summary released in December 2014), horribly brutal, and also produced no information that could not have been obtained through other means (in other words, through non-abusive rapport-building).

On Wednesday in Congress, however, Gina Haspel did nothing to reassure critics that she is fit to lead the CIA. As the Washington Post stated in an editorial, “Gina Haspel fails the test,” “After a 33-year career at the agency, she may be, in many respects, the most qualified person ever nominated to the post, as one Republican senator contended,” but she also has “a dark chapter in her past” — the supervision of the “black site,” and “her subsequent involvement in the destruction of videotapes of that shameful episode.”

The Post’s editorial also stated:

As Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, made clear from the outset, Ms. Haspel needs to clearly repudiate that record. She must confirm that techniques such as waterboarding — now banned by law — were and are unacceptable, and she must make clear that she herself will never again accept orders to carry out acts that so clearly violate American moral standards, even if they are ordered by the president and certified by administration lawyers as legal.

Ms. Haspel did not meet that test. She volunteered that the CIA would not on her watch engage in interrogations; she said she supported the “stricter moral standard” the country had adopted after debating the interrogation program. Pressed by Mr. Warner and several other senators, she eventually said she “would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal.” What she would not say is that the torture she oversaw was immoral, or that it should not have been done, or that she regretted her own role in it — which, according to senators, included advocating for the program internally.

Gina Haspel’s refusal to condemn the torture program appalled many lawmakers too. As Sen. Kamala Harris explained after the hearing, “Earlier today I asked CIA director nominee Gina Haspel if she believed enhanced interrogation tactics like waterboarding were immoral. It was a yes or no question. She refused to answer.”

More significantly, Sen. John McCain, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a statement explaining why he would not be backing Gina Haspel’s nomination:

Today, Gina Haspel testified before the Senate and to the country about her qualifications to lead the CIA. This occasion provided an opportunity to provide details about her experience in the CIA, explain her involvement in the so-called enhanced interrogation program during the Bush Administration, and account for the mistakes the country made in torturing detainees held in U.S. custody after the September 11th attacks. Unfortunately, the testimony the American people heard from Ms. Haspel today failed to address these concerns.

Like many Americans, I understand the urgency that drove the decision to resort to so-called enhanced interrogation methods after our country was attacked. I know that those who used enhanced interrogation methods and those who approved them wanted to protect Americans from harm. I appreciate their dilemma and the strain of their duty. But as I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.

I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense. However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.

In addition, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee when the CIA torture report was produced, also indicated that she would not support Haspel’s nomination. She wrote, “The torture program was illegal at the time based on international treaties the US is signatory to, including the Convention Against Torture and Geneva Convention, but no one has ever been held accountable. Gina Haspel was intimately involved and should not lead the agency.”

The UK apologizes

In the UK, meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May issued an unreserved apology on Thursday to Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, Libyans who were kidnapped and rendered to torture in Libya by the CIA after a tip-off from Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, in 2004. As the Guardian explained, Belhaj was subsequently “tortured and sentenced to death” under Col. Gaddafi, whose regime he had opposed, but “was released six years later.” The newspaper also noted that “Boudchar was four and a half months pregnant when she was abducted. She was released shortly before giving birth.”

The couple had fought for an apology from the UK government “for more than six years after papers came to light during the Libyan revolution that revealed the role played by British intelligence officers in their kidnapping,” as the Guardian also explained.

Fatima Boudchar holds up the letter to her and her husband, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, from British Prime Minister Theresa May, apologising unreservedly for the UK's role in their abduction and rendition to Libya in 2004.In the House of Commons, watched by Fatima Boudchar and her 13-year-old son Abderrahim, who had traveled to London for the event, the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, read out Theresa May’s letter, in which she stated, “It is clear that you were both subjected to appalling treatment and that you suffered greatly, not least the affront to the dignity of Ms. Boudchar who was pregnant at the time. The UK government believes your accounts. Neither of you should have been treated in this way. The UK government’s actions contributed to your detention, rendition and suffering. The UK government shared information about you to its international partners. We should have done more to reduce the risk that you would be mistreated. We accept that this was a failing on our part.”

She also wrote, “On behalf of Her Majesty’s government I apologise unreservedly. We are profoundly sorry for the ordeal that you both suffered and our role in it. The UK government has learned many lessons from this period.”

In Istanbul, where Belhaj received a copy of the letter, he said, “The wording of the apology was heartfelt. There was a feeling of concern, an admission of the shortcomings, an expression of unreserved apology, lessons learned, admission of failings and an expression of disappointment towards the international partners that I was handed over to.” Belhaj always made a point of only seeking £1 in damages from the British government, although, when Jeremy Wright read out Theresa May’s letter, he also announced that Boudchar would receive £500,000 compensation for the UK’s role in her kidnapping and rendition.

Sapna Malik, from the law firm Leigh Day, which represented Belhaj and Boudchar, said, “Today’s candid apology from the government helps restore the humanity and dignity so brutally denied to my clients during their ordeal, and is warmly welcomed.”

Cori Crider, who represented the Belhaj family on behalf of the human rights organization Reprieve, called the extent of the government’s apology “unprecedented.” She said, “It’s broader and deeper and more sincere than any apology we have seen from the war on terror.”

We hope that Gina Haspel is paying attention, and also the US lawmakers who are currently weighing up whether or not to approve the nomination, as CIA Director, of someone who has not issued any kind of apology for her involvement in the crime of torture that continues to damage America’s reputation around the world, and also, we believe, to infect its very soul.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

24 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at two contrasting stories from last week – on the one hand, the Senate confirmation hearings for Gina Haspel, nominated as CIA Director by Donald Trump, who is implicated in the use of torture when she was in charge of the CIA’s first post-9/11 “black site” in Thailand, and the subsequent destruction of videotapes documenting the torture, and, in contrast, the British government apologizing unreservedly for their part in the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, two Libyans kidnapped in 2004 and sent to the custody of Col Gaddafi, with the involvement of MI6. There’s a lesson here that the US needs to learn, obviously.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    She needs to be held accountable for the crimes she committed and now for defending and promoting the use of torture…she’s a monster

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Natalia. In its latest coverage – looking at a few Senators’ voting intentions – the Guardian also quoted the ACLU, who, quite rightly, said the Senate “should not even agree to vote on this nomination until it gets full information and honesty from this nominee.”

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    That’s good news, Andy. I hope Congress will make the right decision.Trump’s tricks no longer amuse even his supporters.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I think his hardcore supporters wouldn’t be put off by anything he does, Aleksey, and unfortunately there are millions of them, celebrating his prejudices and his ignorance, as though they were virtues, but I’m sure the tide of centrist opinion is turning ever more firmly against him with every passing month. I hope he loses significantly in Congress in the mid-term elections in November, although that doesn’t look as certain as it should:

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    As part British it’s shameful to have seen what the government has done and sorry but an apology doesn’t make things right. Accountability for the torturers and the ones who authorized and let this happen.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, agreed, Natalia. The very nomination of Haspel confirms what happens when those involved in torture aren’t held accountable. One of them gets nominated to be the Director of the CIA! Absolutely disgraceful!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:


  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David. Good to hear from you.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, I look forward to more fulsome mea culpa’s as more cases of UK involvement in these illegal kidnappings are taken through our courts

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that must be a reasonable expectation after this result, David, but it may be that other UK involvement remains hidden. After all, this was only exposed because horrendously incriminating documents happened to be found in an office as Gaddafi fell in Libya!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, if we know anything post Snowden, it’s that if something really dodgy needs to be leaked it probably will be. Any Government agency or indeed politician for that matter who thinks they can operate with clandestine impunity is likely to be proved wrong sooner or later. As Trump will find out … it’s not so much the crime as the cover up

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    I hope you’re right, David, but I fear that many parts of our government and others generally remain adept at hiding what they really don’t want anyone to know. Where’s the Senate torture report, for example? Or any photo of anyone being abused at Guantanamo?

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Sigh … at least the sun is shining … I’ve got nothing

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    At least the sun’s shining where you are, David. Here it’s pretty overcast 😉

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Andy, at least the UK finally issued an apology. I’m still waiting for the US to even acknowledge they abused then deported my friend, Haroon Rashid after making up stories of ties to terrorism (Ashcroft, Bush, Cheney) – they announced a “terrorist cell” in Denver and trumped up charges against him. We fought it for over year but they kept moving jurisdictions to keep him from mounting a defense – held him longer than law allowed and sent him back in the middle of the night. His wife and children left devastated financially and emotionally….. all to justify keeping the people in fear of terrorism

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s definitely significant, Jan – and the purpose of my article was to specifically highlight the US’s seemingly never-ending refusal to accept responsibility for its many post-9/11 crimes. I don’t recall hearing of Haroon Rashid’s case before, but maybe it’s just one I heard about but then couldn’t specifically remember, as there are so many cases like it in post-9/11 America, just as, I have to say, there are regular convictions – and huge prison sentences – in the UK for any muslims allegedly involved in alleged plots that never happened – so thought crimes, essentially.
    Haroon Rashid’s story here:

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Peter B. Collins wrote:

    Due to “American exceptionalism”, no lesson will be learned.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    That sounds like it could be engraved on a stone and put in front of the Congress, Peter!

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Andy, what it doesn’t say is the “felony” was when he went to help a woman being attacked by gang-bangers and he got in a physical altercation with the gang-bangers, who were twice convicted of drug dealing as well as convicted of multiple aggravated assaults. The police cut a deal with the two gang-bangers to testify against Haroon. That was his “federal felony assault”…

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Shameful, Jan. And then there are all those examples of “plots” that were actually engineered by the FBI.

  22. Tom says...

    The Senate confirmed Haspel as CIA Director. One key was 5 Democrats who voted yes. What does this mean?:

    During her confirmation hearings, none of the ones who voted no on confirmation ever said do you oppose torture? Every single one of them said “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Many of these people are lawyers. They did it because all that matters to them is self preservation. Not losing their seat in the November election. Saying torture means that you’re “weak on terrorism”.

    Why don’t people say torture? Because it’s like publically criticizing Israel. We just don’t do things like that in polite society.

    Torture doesn’t work. It never works. There is no cure for PTSD. Every day, 3 vets with undiagnosed/untreated PTSD kill themselves. Every day. Back during the Vietnam War, the evening news would always have the body count of those killed for that day. You sit, eat dinner and find out how many killed.

    What’s the worst part of all this? These who support torture literally don’t care.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Please read the “Close Guantanamo” statement following the confirmation of Gina Haspel as CIA Director:

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. Yes, I just sent out a “Close Guantanamo” statement to supporters:
    You’re absolutely correct to point out that lawmakers put self-preservation before any notion of morality or ethics. It’s really quite shameful.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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