Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, presents herself well. In her testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, she comes across as sober, dedicated and knowledgeable. Those qualities were not in doubt, however. The more nettlesome questions about her past conduct remain only partially answered.
On the positive side, she confirmed over and over that the CIA would not restart the detention and interrogation program. In various ways she indicated the CIA was not in the business of interrogation, did not have interrogators and would not resume those practices. (“Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”) She also confirmed that she would not restart the program even if asked. “I support the law, I wouldn’t support a change in the law. But I’ll tell you this, I would not put CIA officers at risk by asking them to undertake risky, controversial activity again,” she said.
What she would not say, no matter how many ways it was asked, was whether she now thought that program was wrong or regretted her participation in it. Her objections to the program now seem based on the conclusion that we’ve had a public debate and the agency cannot put its people in the position of operating outside the law or the popular consensus. That is a different matter, however, than saying she has come to believe it was wrong.
When the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), asked if the program was consistent with America’s moral values, she deflected, saying we’ve decided as a country to hold ourselves to “a higher moral code” That wasn’t responsive. When Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) asked about her participation, she said she was proud of the “extraordinary work” that was done.
Senators were visibly frustrated at Haspel’s unwillingness to say definitively whether she believed it was wrong at the time to waterboard terrorist suspects. Haspel defended the interrogation sessions.
“We got valuable information from debriefing of al-Qaeda detainees,” she told Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). “I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”
If she vows not to return to that program and vows not to follow Trump’s directive to do so, does it matter if in her heart of hearts she thinks the only thing wrong with the program was the fuss it created? In some sense this is a philosophical question — does it matter what someone’s motivation is if they come to the right conclusion? Many will say that for a position as important as CIA director in an administration as morally suspect as this, only someone with a sterling moral compass should be confirmed. However, in practice what are the chances Trump would nominate someone of that ilk if Haspel’s nomination failed? Furthermore, confirming her without a full repudiation of now-illegal interrogation tactics, for some senators, would be implicit endorsement of those tactics.
More troubling was Haspel’s insistence that she was unaware of legislation introduced to investigate the interrogation program and of the media firestorm erupting the very week the videotapes of waterboarding were destroyed. Really, she wasn’t up on the news affecting her own agency? In any event, her decision not to permit full declassification of her record puts senators in the uncomfortable position of confirming someone based on partial information.
Senators will need to decide if Haspel represents the best option with this president in the Oval Office. She might, but that brings us back to the nub of the problem: The real problem for the United States is the commander in chief; the constant challenge is to find senior advisers who can “baby-proof” the country so as to prevent serious, permanent damage.