As our new elected leaders take office, it’s time to acknowledge that North Carolina’s approach to U.S. torture hasn’t worked.
That’s the three-monkey approach: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
It started in 2006. Faced with clear evidence that North Carolina was helping the CIA torture by lending our airports and our fellow citizens to the effort, state government officials declined to act. They professed to believe President Bush’s later debunked claim that the U.S. did not torture.
State officials followed the path of the federal government. Even after declassified documents fully revealed torture, federal officials ignored laws and treaty obligations that prohibit such acts and refused to launch criminal investigations. Instead, they prosecuted whistleblowers who were warning the nation about intelligence agency abuses. The full disclosure of the Senate Torture Report remains blocked today. No accountability efforts have been undertaken.
What has been the result? International organizations have noted with increasing alarm that other countries consider the U.S. torture program to serve as the green light for torture elsewhere: “The Americans are doing it, so why can’t we?”
The failure to hold the CIA has had frightful consequences at home as well. According to an international Red Cross poll, Americans are about the most pro-torture population on earth. Without a full accounting of the immorality and uselessness of torture, nearly half of us now see torture as an acceptable policy for our government.
Donald Trump campaigned on using tougher tortures, and loading up Guantanamo with “bad guys” – notwithstanding the opposition of 176 retired officers, including 33 four-star generals and admirals who have warned that torture is both “unnecessary” and “counterproductive,” and “violates our core values as a nation.”
How did the nation that pushed for the Convention Against Torture under President Reagan get to this point? When high-ranking military officers and front-line military interrogators tell us torture not only doesn’t work … but is counter-productive. When former Bush officials warn us that the U.S. has lost moral standing abroad and, by embracing torture, has emboldened other countries to use it more as well.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people should do nothing.
Despite getting reams of evidence starting in 2007, North Carolina officials have refused to conduct or seek an investigation … or even say one public word about torture being a bad idea.
By winking at torture, our leaders have made it feasible for a new administration to not only publicly advocate resuming torture, but to beef it up. Trump and his cabinet nominees demonstrate that. Mike Pompeo, nominee for CIA director, spoke out against closing the CIA’s black sites and defended its torture program. Jeff Sessions, nominee for Attorney General, joined the minority of senators who opposed requiring all U.S. personnel to stick to anti-torture rules in the Army Field Manual.
Given its history, the Smithfield-based CIA front company Aero Contractors could immediately resume – assuming it ever stopped – secretly ferrying detainees to torture sites under the new administration. Since the Bush torture program, Aero has added employees. The Johnston County Airport has surrounded its largest tenant with demonstrator-proof fencing and security cameras.
Pretending we didn’t torture has not worked well for us. According to Harvard’s Alberto Mora, the Bush-era Navy General Counsel, the unaddressed U.S. torture record has made us a pariah nation. It has eroded our standing as a world leader, fueled terror attacks, put our personnel overseas at greater risk and hindered recruitment of allies to fight terrorism.
As our new North Carolina leaders take office, we face a crossroads on torture. We can continue pretending. Or we can acknowledge that North Carolina has played a role, and seek full federal transparency about that role. We can call on the federal government to seek justice and redress. And we can forbid North Carolina public facilities and private companies from being utilized to aid and abet torture.
Let’s not stand by and furnish our airports and our people as a Trump government threatens to restart the U.S. torture machine. Instead, let’s show the nation and the world that North Carolina is better than that.
Deborah Weissman is the Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Christina Cowger, is coordinator of North Carolina Stop Torture Now.