Coalition Letter on the Nomination of Marshall Billingslea

We are a group of non-governmental organizations that advocate for human rights, civil rights, and government accountability. We are writing to share our serious concerns about PresidentTrump’s nomination of Marshall Billingslea to be Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the Department of State, given Mr. Billingslea’s well- documented history of advocating for the use of torture and other unlawful interrogation practices.

The Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights is the senior-most executive branch official directly responsible for forming and implementing U.S. government policy on promoting universal human rights, preventing mass atrocities, aiding refugees and victims of conflict, fighting corruption, combatting human trafficking, and countering terrorism, among other tasks. He or she routinely and directly engages with foreign governments, civil society, media, and victims of human rights violations on these topics and is expected to explain to these audiences why the U.S. government rejects torture and other forms of ill-treatment as a matter of law and policy. He or she also maintains oversight of many hundreds of millions ofdollars’ worth of foreign assistance aimed at aiding refugees, protecting human rights defenders, supporting torture survivors, assisting survivors of human trafficking, and otherwise helping civilians exposed to the ravages of war and government abuse. Accordingly, he or she must be a strong advocate for policies and assistance accounts that seek to protect and promote human rights within the interagency policy and budgetary formulation processes.

Mr. Billingslea lacks relevant background and experience concerning the vast majority of tasks that fall under the purview of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, a position into which recent Democratic and Republican administrations have appointed senior officials with extensive backgrounds in human rights, development, and refugee policy. Moreover, and most importantly, we are deeply troubled at the possibility that someone with arecord of endorsing torture and other ill-treatment will be the face of American efforts to advance justice and human rights abroad.

According to a bi-partisan report on detainee treatment unanimously adopted by the Senate Armed Services Committee (“SASC Report”), Mr. Billingslea encouraged the use of interrogation methods that amounted to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment while he served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict Under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during the administration of President George W. Bush.

To support their use, Billingslea falsely claimed, in a memo addressed to the Secretary of Defense, that a defense department working group, of which he was a member, “endorsed” the use of a number of techniques amounting to torture or other ill-treatment. In fact, the working group report included senior civilian and military lawyers who opposed torture, and the final report had been completed without the knowledge of the working group’s dissenting members.

Mr. Billingslea also pushed for additional torture techniques to be used on a specific detainee, Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Slahi was a Mauritanian man detained at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp without charge from 2002 until his release on October 17, 2016. According to the SASC report, Mr. Billingslea forwarded a memo notifying Secretary Rumsfeld that JTF- GTMO intended to isolate Slahi and recommending that he approve the use of “sleep deprivation” and “sound modulation at decibel levels not harmful to hearing,” both of which amount to a breach of the absolute prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment. Secretary Rumsfeld approved the techniques, which were subsequently used on Slahi. In 2004, the Marine officer charged with prosecuting Slahi in a military commission determined that statements elicited from Slahi were obtained under torture and resigned his position so as not to participate in the proceedings.

All the undersigned organizations have serious concerns about Mr. Billingslea’s record, his possible involvement in violations of U.S. and international law, and how this will affect his ability to perform the duties he would be tasked with in this position. Before holding a confirmation hearing on his nomination, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should insist that the Trump administration declassify and release publicly all memos, e-mails, notes, and other documents, including those Mr. Billingslea authored or approved, that could provide additional information regarding his involvement in the approval, authorization, or use of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

Even if such documents are not released publicly in full, the Senate’s own public report, as highlighted above, does in and of itself raise significant and compelling concerns. We urge you to take these particularly troubling elements into account during the confirmation process.


Alianza Americas
American Civil Liberties Union
American Jewish World Service
Amnesty International USA
Center for Gender and Refugee Studies Center for Victims of Torture
Charity & Security Network
Defending Rights & Dissent
Demand Progress Education Fund
Grassroots International
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
Latin America Working Group
National Immigrant Justice Center
National Religious Campaign Against Torture Open Society Policy Center
Physicians for Human Rights
Project On Government Oversight
South East Asia Faith Initiatives
Washington Office on Latin America
Win Without War


Published on November 30, 2018


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