Gina Haspel is flawed choice to lead CIA

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - VOICES & OPINION - Edi­to­ri­als are the opin­ion of the Sun Sen­tinel Ed­i­to­rial Board and writ­ten by one of its mem­bers or a de­signee. The Ed­i­to­rial Board con­sists of Ed­i­to­rial Page Ed­i­tor Rose­mary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Andy Reid and Ed­i­tor-in-Chief Julie An­der­son.

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.

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