At her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel promised her “moral compass is strong” and that she would not allow the CIA to undertake activity “that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal.”
But when asked whether she viewed as immoral the “enhanced interrogation” techniques like waterboarding — which are widely viewed as torture — that took place under her supervision at a CIA “black site” in 2002, Haspel repeatedly dodged the question.
Many current and former US officials, along with human rights advocates, say Haspel’s confirmation as director would send a message that the US doesn’t hold torturers to account — and actually condones torture.
Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria, says that’s exactly what elevating her would say to countries in the Middle East, for example, where some governments are known to torture their own citizens. He also says it would also undercut diplomatic efforts of State Department officers trying to improve human rights around the world.
“People who are abusing detainees in places like the police cells in Egypt will be very happy, because they will say, ‘We have a person at the helm of the CIA who understands, us accepts us,’” says Ford, who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
Ford, along with 115 former ambassadors, wrote a letter to senators on Wednesday condemning Haspel’s appointment, saying, “She is emblematic of choices made by certain American officials in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001 that dispensed with our ideals and international commitments to the ultimate detriment of our national security.”
Other signees included Samantha Power, former US ambassador to the United Nations; Thomas Pickering, her predecessor in that role; and Princeton Lyman, a former US special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan. And last month, more than 100 retired military officers wrote their own letter expressing the same sentiment.
Groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and the Center for Victims of Torture have all opposed her nomination, some of them calling her “Bloody Gina,” a name protesters repeated at Wednesday’s hearing.
“It’s a propaganda boon for terrorists and a thumb in the eyes of our allies,” says Raha Wala, director of National Security Advocacy at Human Rights First. “She is the exact wrong person for the job at a time when the US is facing multiple threats.”
“It sends a message, not only to our citizens, but governments around the world, that our support and defense of liberty and democracy is essentially all talk and no action,” he adds. “The world will be viewing this as the US promoting a torturer to the most powerful spy agency that’s ever existed.”
Wednesday’s hearing, contentious at times, did not quell concerns the United States is about to install a CIA director who supported torturing suspected terrorists in the wake of 9/11. Nor did it convince her critics she would stand up to President Donald Trump — who has spoken of bringing back waterboarding and worse — if he ever asked her to revive the torture program.
Haspel assured senators she “would not restart, under any circumstances, an interrogation program at CIA.” But she refused to denounce the program, answering most questions in terms of legality instead of morality.
When California Sen. Kamala Harris pressed Haspel on this in a heated exchange, Haspel only responded, “I believe that we should hold ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the Army field manual.”
Whether she will secure the necessary votes for the job is still uncertain, particularly after Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was himself tortured during the Vietnam War, urged his colleagues to reject her nomination.
I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country & has devoted her professional life to its service & defense. However, her role in overseeing the use of torture is disturbing & her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying. https://t.co/ocDtdqU2Sx— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) May 10, 2018
Senators’ inquiries during the public part of her hearing focused almost exclusively on two major controversies: Haspel’s role at a black site facility in Thailand and the sequence of events in 2005 where she drafted a cable ordering the destruction of 92 videotapes depicting an al-Qaeda suspect being interrogated. A second part of her hearing took place behind closed doors, with just the intelligence committee, because it dealt with classified information.
The CIA has never publicly acknowledged what Haspel actually did at the secret prison in Thailand, codenamed Cat’s Eye, nor did Haspel shed light on it Wednesday. She is not named in the publicly available summary of the committee’s damning 2014 torture report, which found the CIA’s post-9/11-era torture practices were far more brutal — and far less effective — than the agency led the White House and Congress to believe.
Former Ambassador Ford says he understands that some people think Haspel is getting treated unfairly, but asserts that advocacy for human rights is more important. He quoted Robert McNamara's book “In Retrospect” when the former secretary of defense said, “Americans need to understand that foreign countries have their own agendas and they will try to manipulate the United States. And, if the United States strays too far from its own deeply held values that have public support it will get into trouble.”
The claims she oversaw torture and destroyed the evidence overshadow the chance for a fresh start for the agency, whose relationship with the president has been troubled.
There’s no question Haspel is qualified for the job: The 33-year CIA veteran has steadily climbed the ranks of the agency’s clandestine service to her current role as acting director.
Of course, Haspel would not be the first nominee for a high-ranking CIA post whose record is tainted by connections to torture. Her supporters have drawn comparisons between her and Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, who was confirmed 63-34 despite also being involved in the now-defunct “rendition, detention and interrogation” program.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn and other Republicans called it a double standard. But Wala, of Human Rights First, disagrees, saying Haspel’s involvement was much more direct.
“With Gina Haspel, we are at a whole new level. This is unprecedented,” Wala says. “She was directly and operationally involved in torture but also in the cover-up of torture. Our country has never faced that, let alone the level of secrecy in this process.”
That secrecy is by design. Haspel is a rare nominee whose entire career took place in the shadows. The CIA has declassified a few documents in recent weeks, such as a bare-bones timeline of her career and short biography. Haspel herself controls what information is declassified on her background.
That’s a conflict of interest, say many critics, including Katherine Hawkins, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group.
“It is flatly untrue that she cannot reveal her involvement” in the black site and other CIA postings, Hawkins says. “That is a pure attempt to evade oversight ... It’s a major reason my organization opposes her nomination.”
Other human rights advocates opposing Haspel and say she knew what was going on those detention programs and was privy to some of the details.
Scott Roehm, a policy expert for the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), a Minnesota-based human rights organization, strongly came out against Haspel’s nomination. This is only the second time in the organization’s 30-year history it has so publicly opposed a nominee. Roehm says it has to do with some of the organization’s clients, who have experienced the kind of treatment Haspel oversaw.
“The reality is, you know the damage inflicted on the people we see and on many of the people who were subject to the CIA program isn't different in kind,” Roehm says, comparing some of the enhanced interrogation techniques used under Haspel’s watch like waterboarding and sleep deprivation and some of the techniques used on CVT’s clients. CVT’s clients have daily appointments with psychologists because of their experiences, Roehm said.
“It’s a referendum on torture,” Roehm says of Haspel’s nomination. “If she is confirmed, it sends the message the world over to allies, to enemies, to the president in particular — who is an open advocate for torture — that with respect to torture, the US is open for business again.”
Roehm says he is deeply troubled by her unwillingness to say that what she did was immoral and wrong, particularly when the US is condemning other countries for torturing their citizens. He pointed to an exchange she had with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden when she was asked about whether she advocated for an expansion or continuation of the torture program.
“She would not say that it was inconsistent with American values,” Roehm said.
Some Republican senators, including Richard Burr, who chairs the intelligence committee, say Haspel shouldn’t be judged on her past actions.
“This is about how she will lead the agency going forward. This is not a trial about a long-shuttered program,” Burr said at Wednesday’s hearing. “We have learned from our past mistakes.”