On the other side of the ledger are two interrelated and troubling episodes: Haspel helped oversee the agency’s detention and interrogation programs — its torture of suspects, to put it bluntly — in the aftermath of 9/11. And she was involved in the destruction of videotapes of the waterboarding of terrorism suspects — destruction that was opposed by numerous other administration officials. Haspel did not help herself with her testimony; she asserted the agency would not engage in such conduct going forward — it is now banned by law — but resolutely declined to express regret for the program.
Two exchanges, with ranking Democrat Mark R. Warner (Va.) and with California Democrat Kamala D. Harris, were illustrative — and troubling. Warner’s question was simple: “With the benefit of hindsight, do you believe . . . the interrogation program was consistent with American values?” Tellingly, Haspel could not bring herself to give the morally correct answer: No, it wasn’t.
Instead, she offered obfuscation about the governing authority of the Army Field Manuals, and broad assurances that “my moral compass is strong.”
Harris’s query was similarly straightforward: “The president has asserted that torture works. Do you agree with that statement?” Haspel was less than definitive. “I don’t believe that torture works,” she said, and then immediately undermined the significance of that seeming concession. “We got valuable information from the briefing of al-Qaeda detainees, and I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.” Sorry, not sorry.
There are two other sets of considerations that should not be entered into the ledger at all. The first is to weigh alternatives — whether defeating Haspel would lead to someone even worse. This administration’s track record, after all, does not suggest a penchant for or the ability to attract the best and brightest. But as tempting as it is to let anticipatory realpolitik influence moral judgments, it would be a mistake. These are choices that reflect our values.
The second involves the relevance of gender. Haspel would be the first woman to head the CIA. “It is not my way to trumpet the fact that I’m a woman up for the top job at CIA, but I would be remiss in not remarking on it,” she said on Wednesday, “not least, because of the outpouring of support from young women at CIA and indeed across the [intelligence community] because they consider it a good sign for their own prospects.”
But gender cannot be used as an offset to moral failure. And the insinuation that resistance to Haspel equates to hostility toward women is repugnant. “There is no one more qualified to be the first woman to lead the CIA than 30+ year CIA veteran Gina Haspel,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted on Saturday. “Any Democrat who claims to support women’s empowerment and our national security but opposes her nomination is a total hypocrite.” Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn was scarcely more subtle in a floor speech on Monday. “Women everywhere will be watching this week,” he said, “and Democrats should show them that ambition, good character and hard work are always welcome and rewarded in the upper echelons of the United States government.”
Oh please. “Women’s empowerment,” to use Sanders’s phrase, means judging Haspel by the same standard as any man up for the job.
In the end, the risk posed by confirming Haspel is not that she will authorize another round of torture if President Trump were to press that course on her in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. CIA directors face all sorts of fraught judgments that go beyond torture, including the use of drones and the accompanying risk of civilian casualties.
Trump has demonstrated a willingness to wave aside niceties of morality and international law in the service of the war on terrorism. Would a Director Haspel stand up to the president’s worst instincts, or enable them? The worry is not that she will relive history, but that she failed to show that she has learned from it.
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