President Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA director gives the Senate the opportunity to reclaim and reassert America’s moral standing. Haspel, currently the agency’s deputy director, was directly involved in the CIA’s “black site” prison in Thailand where detainees were tortured in the years immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Her best defense is that she was merely following orders. It has been used before.
The facility in Thailand was where two al-Qaeda suspects were repeatedly tortured. Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times and brought nearly to the point of death. He reportedly revealed nothing new after being waterboarded, maybe because he had nothing to reveal. Sorry.
The other detainee was Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. He, too, was waterboarded and, as with Zubaydah, his agony was taped. These tapes made for such tough viewing that some intelligence agents broke down and cried. With the cooperation of Haspel, the tapes were destroyed.
At the time, some American officials objected to what the CIA was doing. And some of them balked. From all indications, Haspel did not balk. Ultimately, she was dispatched to Thailand to oversee the facility.
I give Haspel and others in the agency the benefit of the doubt. Some of them clearly believed that torture works. They also thought it was legal. President Barack Obama settled that question by banning it. Whether it works remains an open question. Many professionals say it doesn’t. All I can say is that it would probably work on me.
In “Directorate S,” Steve Coll’s recent book about the endless war in Afghanistan, he describes the CIA’s interrogation program as a “science fiction-tinged dystopia of intimidation and dominance over prisoners.” Psychologists were used to develop torture techniques. He cites a CIA cable in which Zubaydah’s cell is described as “white with no natural lighting or window” and interrogators were clothed in black. “The stage was set for the most shockingly bureaucratized descent into the application of pseudoscience on human subjects by the CIA” since it dabbled in drug-induced mind control in the 1950s.
Sooner or later in reading about the use of torture, you want to look away. You also want to ask whether anyone noticed that the United States had adopted the morality of the enemy it was fighting. The CIA breezed by the Army Field Manual, considering it too dainty. The stink from the program lingers to this day.
Americans understandably think that torture is something we might have to inflict on our enemies abroad. But this is not how it is viewed in many countries where torture, although always denied, is routinely practiced and where, as it happened, American prisoners were sent to be tortured. The effect of the American program was to give the torturers implied permission: See, even the Americans do it. Our moral authority has declined. Torture made us just another goon nation. The shining “city upon a hill,” the John Winthrop phrase that Ronald Reagan loved to quote, has been blemished.
That, though, is not the way Trump sees it. In his swaggering tough-guy pose, he has endorsed torture in the past. “In my opinion it works,” he said last year. Given that, he might want to revert to the practices of the George W. Bush administration, which created that facility in Thailand. Would Haspel thwart the president? This is the question the Senate must pose to her when she comes up for confirmation. If she equivocates, she needs to be rejected.