Much has been made of President Trump’s disregard for rules and norms—boundaries delineated by ethics and morality if not written laws themselves. But transgressing laws, rules, and norms isn’t the only way to destroy them. Another way is simply not to enforce them.
In that regard, the 44th president, Barack Obama, bears a measure of responsibility for the recklessness of his successor, in particular Trump’s decision to appoint Gina Haspel, the Central Intelligence Agency’s deputy director, to run the agency itself. Haspel oversaw a black site during the Bush era where at least one detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was tortured*.
Despite that, al-Nashiri provided “essentially no actionable information,” according to a CIA interrogator cited in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report. Haspel also then played a role in a decision to destroy recordings of CIA detainees being tortured.
Before Obama even took office, he announced his belief that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards” on torture. That set the standard for Obama’s tenure, as all avenues of accountability for Bush-era torture were curtailed. A Justice Department inquiry into interrogators who broke even the “acceptable torture” guidelines ended with no charges. Civil lawsuits from former detainees were blocked when the Obama-era Justice Department invoked the state secrets doctrine. An internal Justice Department review of the torture memo’s authors concluded they had not committed professional misconduct when they worked backwards to justify the Bush administration’s use of torture in defiance of laws against it. Even a proposal for a South African-style “truth and reconciliation” commission was rejected. All avenues for any form of accountability for torture—criminal, civil, even professional—were blocked by Obama-era officials. Even an episode in which the CIA spied on Senate staff in an effort to stonewall an inquiry that ultimately found CIA torture ineffective, and then lied about having done so, ended with little more than an apology.