President Trump has named Gina Haspel to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, immediately raising questions about the torture program the Bush administration devised after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a program in which Haspel was an active participant.
Unfortunately, the discussion of this issue is already showing the same pathologies it always has: the denial of what our government actually did, the cloaking of terrible crimes in euphemism and vagueness, and the general whitewashing of one of the most indefensible things the U.S. government has ever perpetrated. It is absolutely vital that we have all our facts straight so that Haspel’s nomination and our own recent past may be judged honestly.
Let’s remind ourselves of the history of the torture program. In the aftermath of 9/11, amid widespread fear of more large-scale attacks, the Bush administration ordered the CIA to begin torturing captured al-Qaeda suspects. The CIA had almost no experience in interrogation, and as it struggled to figure out the best way to go about it, the agency turned to a pair of psychologist contractors who themselves had zero experience in interrogation. The psychologists ended up relying in large part on their study of the torture suffered by American POWs in the Korean and Vietnam wars to devise a program the CIA would now use on prisoners.
Because torture is against the law, the administration tasked some of its lawyers with writing a series of memos that would claim that whatever it was doing to its prisoners wouldn’t actually qualify as “torture.” To read these memos is to descend into a bizarre and horrifying world of legalistic brutality. Among their claims are that it can’t be torture if the president orders it. That torture is only torture if causing pain is itself the “specific intent,” so it can’t be torture if you do it to gain information. And that it isn’t torture unless what you inflict rises “to the level of death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant body function.”
This was all presented under the absurd euphemism “enhanced interrogation,” which the Bush administration invented to convince the public that there was something thoughtful and careful about what they were doing, and which some people continue to use today. I’m sure than in Haspel’s confirmation hearings, we’ll hear it many times.
But it wasn’t “enhanced interrogation,” or “harsh interrogation methods,” or “rough interrogation.” It was torture. Torture is defined clearly in both U.S. law and the U.N. Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a signatory: It’s the intentional infliction of intense physical and/or mental suffering for such purposes as extracting information or a confession. No one has ever articulated what differentiates “enhanced interrogation” from torture, because it’s impossible.
In order to keep its treatment of prisoners as far from the reaches of U.S. law and U.S. courts as possible, the CIA set up a number of “black sites” in allied countries around the world. One of them, in Thailand, was overseen by Gina Haspel. Among the prisoners there was an al-Qaeda suspect known as Abu Zubaidah, who was tortured extensively. As a Senate report subsequently explained, he was subjected to waterboarding and extended use of stress positions, which are designed to produce excruciating pain.
At Haspel’s site and elsewhere, prisoners were also beaten, hung from their wrists, made to stand for extended periods, subjected to freezing temperatures, deprived of sleep and subjected to mock executions, in addition to stress positions. There are still living Americans who were subjected to stress positions in Vietnamese POW camps; you can ask them whether stress positions are torture.
But Haspel’s supervision of torture sessions is not the end of her story. CIA personnel videotaped Abu Zubaidah’s interrogations and that of another prisoner at the Thailand black site, presumably so that there would be a record of whatever they revealed. In 2004, a court ordered the CIA to produce the tapes in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, but the agency simply refused to comply. Here’s what happened next:
When questions began to swirl about the Bush administration’s use of the “black sites,” and program of “enhanced interrogation,” the chief of base [Haspel] began pushing to have the tapes destroyed. She accomplished her mission years later when she rose to a senior position at CIA headquarters and drafted an order to destroy the evidence, which was still locked in a CIA safe at the American embassy in Thailand. Her boss, the head of the agency’s counterterrorism center, signed the order to feed the 92 tapes into a giant shredder.
That may or may not qualify as obstruction of justice, but it’s certainly obstruction of truth.
Haspel’s advocates will offer a number of defenses in an attempt to wash away this history. They will say that the torture was legal according to the Bush administration memos, and that she was following orders. Those vulgar arguments are barely worth addressing, if you think it might be worthwhile to have a CIA director with a functioning conscience. They’ll say that if you put aside the torture question, Haspel is an eminently qualified intelligence professional who has spent her career in public service, and it would also be an important milestone to have the agency headed by a woman for the first time. Those things are true, but utterly irrelevant.
So here are a few suggestions for questions Haspel ought to be asked at her confirmation hearings:
- Do you acknowledge that the torture program was a mistake? Do you regret your own participation in it?
- Do you regret destroying the evidence of the torture you participated in?
- If you assert that what you supervised wasn’t actually torture, can you provide a definition of torture that wouldn’t apply to things such as waterboarding and stress positions?
- During the campaign, Trump said that he wanted to revive the torture program and make it even more brutal, suggesting that he’d “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Do you believe we should bring back torture?
- Trump also advocated killing the families of suspected terrorists as a means of intimidating them. If he ordered you to do so, would you follow that order?
- If you believe that torture was legal and morally defensible, why aren’t we using it now? Shouldn’t it be a permanent fixture of U.S. policy?
- If at some point in the future the president orders you to create and manage a new torture program, will you do so?
- What would it take for you to refuse to establish a torture program? What kind of order would you judge to be beyond the pale?
There is a way Haspel could redeem herself enough to deserve this promotion. She could apologize for participating in the torture program, and acknowledge that she and her colleagues betrayed not only fundamental human morality but also the principles on which America is supposed to rest. She could make clear that she understands that it was a profound evil, and that she lacked either the wisdom or the courage to refuse to be a part of it. She could make clear that as CIA director she will strive to relocate the agency’s moral compass, even if it requires standing up to the president who appointed her.
Will she say those things? I’m willing to reserve judgment, but I doubt it. If she doesn’t, she shouldn’t get the vote of any senator who cares about America’s moral standing.