Gina Haspel, almost certainly the next director of the CIA, is almost certainly the most qualified person available. She’s spent 33 years at the agency, rising through the ranks to deputy director, garnering the admiration and support of her colleagues but having an unfortunate association and identification with the agency’s post-9/11 interrogation program — that is to say, torture. It’s her Achilles’ heel and why her nomination has to be rejected. No one put it better than Haspel herself.
In her Senate confirmation hearing, Haspel said most of the right things. She pledged to leave the so-called enhanced interrogation program dead and buried. Good. She pledged not to restart the program even if President Trump, whose idea of a briefing book is a Marvel comic, ordered her to. Again, good — but not entirely credible. After all, when told to draft the order to have the videotapes of torture sessions destroyed, she complied — evidence gone. She said she was following orders — and she was. Still, sometimes it’s best not to.
But it was in response to a question from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) that Haspel inadvertently revealed why she is an inappropriate choice to become the next CIA director. Define your “moral code,” he asked her.
“I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal,” she responded. “I would absolutely not permit it. . . . I believe that CIA must undertake activities that are consistent with American values.”
Yes, but the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, forced enemas and other such interrogation techniques were never “consistent with American values.” They are repugnant, later made illegal under President Barack Obama and of questionable effectiveness anyway.
In seeking to assuage senators with some qualms, Haspel assured at least two wavering Democrats that she would, to paraphrase many biblical paraphrases, make torture no more. The two senators, Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) come from states that Trump carried big in 2016, so their votes were only theoretically in doubt. A breeze would tip them over. As for the Senate’s Republicans, a few are still uncertain and another, John McCain (R-Ariz.), is adamantly opposed.
McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, would be the conscience of the Senate on this matter. But the Senate has no conscience, just a terrible fear of being primaried. The rest of the Republicans seem impressed by what they heard from Haspel.
But I have some people in mind who would not be impressed. I can offer no names, but they announce themselves to me when human rights and torture are discussed. One was a driver in Jordan who expressed his outrage and anguish at what U.S. soldiers had done to Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Other nations engage in torture, he said — not America. Not until then.
I heard the same sense of disappointment more recently from a woman who came from one of the Central Asian republics that had once been part of the Soviet Union, where torture was not unknown. Once, she said, she could look to the United States to set a moral example. America did not torture. America was different. In her eyes, the United States had joined the list of low-life countries, the ones that torture.
I’ve been watching the gripping Hulu series “A French Village,” about a fictional town under German occupation during World War II. The themes of patriotism, betrayal, collaboration, lust, love and the babbling idiocy of the local communists are all suffused with the omnipresence of torture. It hangs over everyone in the Resistance — not only a fear of pain, but also a fear of shame: Most think they will be forced to betray their comrades. The stink of torture lingers.
The German occupiers and their French collaborators agreed on the efficacy of torture. They used it promiscuously, but not always productively. Daniel Larcher, the village’s physician, withstands torture and does not talk. That’s fiction. In real life, Jean Moulin and Pierre Brossolette, both heroes of the Resistance, endured torture for days. Moulin died from it, and Brossolette committed suicide.
I defer to these heroes and others about torture: Its effectiveness is in doubt. But I defer above all to that woman whose own country practices torture. If America uses torture in what it considers special circumstances, then others will use it as they feel fit. The rejection of Gina Haspel by the Senate would demonstrate in the age of Trump where America stands. Her competence is not the issue. Her moral standing is.
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