Gina Haspel is flawed choice to lead CIA
With critical support from Florida’s Bill Nelson and five other Democratic senators, Gina Haspel has been confirmed as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
A career employee for 33 years and most recently the deputy director, she is highly suited in every respect but one. That one, unfortunately, outweighs the others. For it sends a harmful message to the nation and the world that the United States is ambivalent about the crime of torture.
Haspel once supervised a CIA detention facility in Thailand where a man suffered prolonged torture, including repeated waterboarding that nearly took his life. He was suspected of Al Qaeda connections and involvement in the fatal bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole, and reportedly turned out to be guilty of neither.
It is unclear whether Haspel was actually in charge at the time or whether she was present during the worst of it, but it is beyond doubt that she was complicit in the subsequent shredding of 92 tape recordings that would have been of interest to senators who were working to put the CIA out of the torture business.
The CIA also selectively declassified documents to help her nomination, withholding others that skeptical senators thought might shed more light, and Haspel refused to override the decision.
Her weak defenses were that the George W. Bush administration had pronounced the so-called “enhanced interrogation” methods to be legal, that the tapes were destroyed to protect the identities of CIA operatives from potential leaks and that the declassification followed established procedure.
Of a more troubling nature was her stubborn refusal, despite appeals from various members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to declare that waterboarding and other forms of torture were unambiguously immoral. She finally came around to conceding that it was a mistake, but her words lacked the sense of moral imperative that the nation — and the world — needed to hear.
She did offer assurances that she would refuse to resume torture even if ordered to by President Donald Trump, who vowed during his campaign to bring back waterboarding and “a lot worse.”
During her public testimony to the committee, Haspel said the CIA no longer conducts any interrogations, that she would never allow coercive questioning and that the agency “should hold ourselves to a stricter moral standard.”
But she was evasive when asked what she would do if Trump asked her for personal loyalty, as fired FBI director James Comey said the president demanded of him. Nor would she say whether she would inform the committee of such an event.
“That’s hypothetical,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to occur.”
To be clear, waterboarding is torture, unquestionably. It simulates drowning. After World War II, six Japanese generals were hanged for extensive crimes that included the waterboarding of American prisoners. Current U.S. law forbids it.
We take Haspel at her word, however, that she would not permit it on her watch. But she was strangely reluctant to condemn its past use until it threatened to defeat her confirmation. In a letter that won over Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee vice chair, she finally did repudiate it. Some may find the language lacking in tone or in conviction. This is what the letter said, in part:
“While I won’t condemn those that made these hard calls, and I have noted the valuable intelligence collected, the program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world. With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior Agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken. The United States must be an example to the rest of the world, and I support that.”
In Senate debate Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore, mocked the letter as “a confirmation conversion on the eve of a crucial vote.” Referring to the withheld documents, he called it a “secret nomination” and complained of “a stark failure of Senate oversight…”
The nomination, confirmed 54-45, would have failed without the support of the six Democratic senators, four of whom face difficult re-election campaigns this year in states that Trump carried. Nelson is considered one of the most vulnerable.
So what example will her confirmation set? How will the rest of the world see it? As redemption? Or as expediency?
They will see it, we think, in the same way that Sen. John McCain did. McCain, who endured prolonged torture as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, is more qualified to speak on the subject than anyone else in government. Here, in part, is what he said:
“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.” But McCain, suffering from brain cancer, was unable to return to Washington for the debate.
Florida’s other senator, Republican Marco Rubio, is a member of the Intelligence Committee, where he spent his five minutes of public question time fawning over Haspel’s qualifications and asking only about China.
Rubio, Nelson and other senators who disregarded McCain’s advice will bear the responsibility for how Haspel runs the CIA in the regime of a president who exhibits no respect for the rule of law or for human rights.
We take Haspel at her word, however, that she would not permit [waterboarding] on her watch. But she was strangely reluctant to condemn its past use until it threatened to defeat her confirmation.