Haspel’s words tip scales against her con­fir­ma­tion

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION -

The nom­i­na­tion of Gina Haspel to be di­rec­tor of the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency presents an exquisitely dif­fi­cult choice for sen­a­tors weigh­ing her con­fir­ma­tion. It is one that should tip, on the ba­sis of Haspel’s own words, against her con­fir­ma­tion.

On one side of the ledger is the sheer fact of Haspel’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions for the job by virtue of her ex­pe­ri­ence in the agency. Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Richard Burr, R-N.C., did not ex­ag­ger­ate when he de­scribed Haspel, at the panel’s hear­ing Wed­nes­day, as “the most pre­pared nom­i­nee in its 70-year his­tory.” Those sign­ing a let­ter urg­ing Haspel’s con­fir­ma­tion span Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can ad­min­is­tra­tions, and in­clude eight for­mer CIA di­rec­tors or act­ing di­rec­tors, three for­mer di­rec­tors of na­tional in­tel­li­gence and two for­mer sec­re­taries of state.

On the other side of the ledger are two in­ter­re­lated and trou­bling episodes: Haspel helped over­see the agency’s de­ten­tion and in­ter­ro­ga­tion pro­grams — its tor­ture of sus­pects, to put it bluntly — in the af­ter­math of 9/11. And she was in­volved in the de­struc­tion of video­tapes of the wa­ter­board­ing of ter­ror­ism sus­pects — de­struc­tion that was op­posed by nu­mer­ous other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials. Haspel did not help her­self with her tes­ti­mony; she as­serted that the agency would not en­gage in such con­duct go­ing for­ward but res­o­lutely de­clined to ex­press re­gret for the pro­gram.

Two ex­changes, with rank­ing mem­ber Mark Warner, D-Va., and with Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat Ka­mala Har­ris, were il­lus­tra­tive — and trou­bling. Warner’s ques­tion was sim­ple: “With the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, do you be­lieve ... the in­ter­ro­ga­tion pro­gram was con­sis­tent with Amer­i­can val­ues?” Tellingly, Haspel could not bring her­self to give the morally cor­rect an­swer: No, it wasn’t.

In­stead, she of­fered ob­fus­ca­tion, about the gov­ern­ing au­thor­ity of the Army Field Man­ual, and broad as­sur­ances that “my moral com­pass is strong.”

Har­ris’ query was sim­i­larly straight­for­ward: “The pres­i­dent has as­serted that tor­ture works. Do you agree with that state­ment?” Haspel was less than de­fin­i­tive. “I don’t be­lieve that tor­ture works,” she said, and then im­me­di­ately un­der­mined the sig­nif­i­cance of that seem­ing con­ces­sion. “We got valu­able in­for­ma­tion from the brief­ing of al-Qaida de­tainees and I don’t think it’s know­able whether in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques played a role in that.” Sorry, not sorry.

There are two other sets of con­sid­er­a­tions that should not be en­tered into the ledger at all. The first is to weigh al­ter­na­tives — whether de­feat­ing Haspel would end up with some­one even worse. This ad­min­is­tra­tion’s track record does not sug­gest a pen­chant for or the abil­ity to at­tract the best and bright­est. But as tempt­ing as it is to let an­tic­i­pa­tory realpoli­tik in­flu­ence moral judg­ments, it would be a mis­take. These are choices that re­flect our val­ues.

The sec­ond in­volves the rel­e­vance of gen­der. Haspel would be the first woman to head the CIA. “It is not my way to trum­pet the fact that I’m a woman up for the top job at CIA, but I would be re­miss in not re­mark­ing on it,” she said Wed­nes­day, “not least, be­cause of the out­pour­ing of sup­port from young women at CIA and in­deed across the (in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity) be­cause they con­sider it a good sign for their own prospects.”

But gen­der can­not be used as an off­set to moral fail­ure. And the in­sin­u­a­tion that re­sis­tance to Haspel equates to hos­til­ity to­ward women is re­pug­nant.

In the end, the risk posed by con­firm­ing Haspel is not that she will au­tho­rize an­other round of tor­ture if Trump were to press that course on her in the af­ter­math of a ter­ror­ist at­tack. CIA di­rec­tors face all sorts of fraught judg­ments that go be­yond tor­ture, in­clud­ing the use of drones and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing risk of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

Pres­i­dent Trump has demon­strated a will­ing­ness to wave aside niceties of moral­ity and in­ter­na­tional law in the ser­vice of the war on ter­ror. Would a Di­rec­tor Haspel stand up to Trump’s worst in­stincts, or en­able them? The worry is not that she will re­live his­tory but that she failed to show that she has learned from it.

Ruth Mar­cus ruth­mar­cus@ wash­post.com

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