President Donald Trump nominated an official to the top human rights post at the State Department who played a significant role advocating for harsh interrogation techniques during the George W. Bush administration, according to The Washington Post.
Marshall Billingslea was nominated in January to be undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, which troubled human rights advocates and led to a standstill in his Senate confirmation process.
In September, a handful of officials said during his confirmation hearing that Billingslea misrepresented the extent of his role within the interrogation debate in the early 2000s.
Billingslea served as the Pentagon’s point man on military detainees held at Guantanamo Bay from 2002 to 2003, The Post reported, and a 2008 Senate report said he “played a role in promoting interrogation techniques that congress later banned as torture – including the use of hoods or blindfolds, sleep deprivation, prolonged standing, the shaving of beards, the removal of clothing and the use of military dogs to intimidate detainees.”
Billingslea denied that he had been an “advocate for torture” during his time in the Bush administration, but Senator Robert Menendez accused him during the hearing of misrepresenting his role. The official suggested during the hearing that he was “merely a bureaucratic functionary relaying decisions up the chain of command.”
However, Mark Fallon — “a former senior Naval Criminal Investigative Service official who opposed the use of torture techniques as a leader of an investigative task force at Guantanamo” — said Billingslea was the “biggest obstacle within the Pentagon” in trying to convince policymakers that the interrogation techniques were wrong.
“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,” Fallon said. “So it’s disingenuous for him to claim that he was some type of passive participant.”
Likewise, Thomas Romig — “a retired major general who at the time in question served as judge advocate general of the Army” — said in a recent letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Billingslea’s history makes him a decisively poor candidate for the new position.
“To put it mildly, I believe that Mr Billingslea is one of the worst possible candidates for this critical senior leadership role overseeing human rights policy for the Department of State,” Romig wrote.
Criticism against Billingslea within the committee has been bipartisan, The Post noted, with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) expressing his concerns and joining Democrats in asking for documents pertaining to Billingslea’s Pentagon days to be declassified.
In a recent interview with The Post, Paul said “he has asked the Trump administration for any documentation from Mr Billingslea’s time in the Pentagon showing ‘where he was arguing against widening the ability to do torture.’”
“I haven’t seen any of that yet, and unless I do, I’m very troubled,” the Republican added.
But other Republicans have maintained that Billingslea is just the man for the job, which has been vacant since Trump took office, arguing that “his work in the Treasury Department has made him singularly qualified for the more senior State Department position, pointing to his extensive global travels promoting anti-corruption and human-rights issues and his work to impose financial sanctions on members of rogue regimes.”
That experience becomes practically irrelevant given Billingslea’s track record on torture, others maintain: “If named to the State Department post, they argue, he will simply lack the credibility to advocate for his portfolio inside the Trump administration and abroad.”
“The senior most US official responsible for human rights policy should be disqualified if they have a pro-torture background – that is not a high bar,” Mr Berschinski said. “He’s not going to have any credibility walking into a foreign ministry in Beijing or Riyadh or Cairo. He’ll get the exact same message: Who are you to lecture me?”
“The senior most US official responsible for human rights policy should be disqualified if they have a pro-torture background – that is not a high bar,” said Rob Berschinski, formerly a deputy assistant secretary of state and currently senior vice president of policy for Human Rights First. “He’s not going to have any credibility walking into a foreign ministry in Beijing or Riyadh or Cairo. He’ll get the exact same message: Who are you to lecture me?”
Senator James Risch (R-ID), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said earlier this month that he supports Billingslea’s confirmation but is unsure when he will move forward with the process.