The director of the Central Intelligence Agency shouldn’t find it difficult to issue a full-throated condemnation of torture. Our nation wrote most of the international agreements banning it.
But Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the agency, couldn’t meet that standard in Senate confirmation hearing this week. With three decades of distinguished service on her resume, Haspel is qualified to run the CIA. She’d be the first female CIA director, a barrier well worth breaking. And she reportedly has the confidence of managers and rank-and-file employees at the agency.
Haspel, though, was tasked in 2002 with overseeing a secret CIA prison in Thailand where prisoners under interrogation were waterboarded, deprived of sleep to the point of danger, physically and psychologically abused and confined in tiny, painful boxes. And she was involved in the destruction of videotapes of those torture sessions in 2005, as questions about CIA interrogation methods were mounting.
That was, as Haspel pointed out in her hearing, a different time. The national post-9/11 attitude toward terrorism was one of rage and panic. In testifying, she said the CIA under her leadership “will not restart such an interrogation and detention program.”
But she could not bring herself to call torture immoral, which it is. And asked how she would respond if, as George W. Bush did after 9/11, a president twisted the law to order torture, she gave contradicting answers.
This question is crucial because Trump has spoken in favor of torture in the pursuit of intelligence.
Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Armed Services Committee and was tortured by the North Vietnamese for five years, says the Senate should reject Haspel. McCain, now being treated for cancer, championed a law in 2005 reaffirming the illegality of waterboarding and “enhanced interrogation.” And he addressed the issue incomparably in a speech on the Senate floor in 2014 after the release of a report that exposed the torture undertaken by CIA operatives under Haspel’s command:
“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.”
This week, three Americans were released unharmed from North Korea. If the United States argues that torture is acceptable in the pursuit of its own interests, other nations will know it is acceptable to torture Americans, and such safe returns will be harder to achieve.
Unless Haspel can convincingly condemn the use of torture, she should not be confirmed, because her ascension would put our nation’s stamp of acceptance on behavior it must condemn.