The big question in my mind since learning that former torture Chief Gina Haspel has received the nomination for next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been: what should we demand of Haspel to demonstrate that she won’t allow torture to take place under her watch?
Haspel gained notoriety when the news media revealed that she was in charge of a CIA torture facility in Thailand at which at least two suspected terrorists underwent waterboarding. Haspel later participated in an attempted cover-up of the American torture gulag by helping to destroy videotapes that showed torture at a number of secret CIA locations throughout the world. This cover-up strongly suggests that Haspel and her comrades knew that the cruel techniques that they were ordering others to use to interrogate human beings were both illegal and morally wrong.
Certainly a simple statement that she will follow all U.S. laws will not suffice to convince us Haspel’s torture days are in the past, since she could turn around at a later date and say that torture is legal or use an interrogation technique that is clearly torture but declare it isn’t, backed by the weaselly lawyering of the next generation of John Yoos and David Addingtons.
But is it enough for her to state unequivocally that the CIA will not engage in torture nor encourage the intelligence forces of our allies to do so? Doesn’t she also have to define in the most explicit terms what she means by torture and detail the horrific, inhumane acts that she won’t allow to happen under her watch? Will it help if she also cites the overwhelming evidence gathered through centuries that torture does not work?—evidence that the CIA and the Bush II administration chose to ignore.
Will laying out a full policy against all types of physical and mental torture be sufficient to convince the Senate—and the American people—that the CIA won’t revitalize the torture gulag that the Bush II administration established in the first decade of the 21st century? Does she also have to admit that what she ordered others to do was illegal and wrong and that she regrets doing it? Will anything less than a complete and abject mea culpa satisfy our need to protect the United States from ever debasing itself again through the use of torture.
None of it will be enough. There is nothing that Gina Haspel could say or do that could convince any Senator to vote to confirm her as CIA chief except for those so corrupted by politics and self-interest that they no longer have any interest in the United States following its ethical compass.
That doesn’t mean that I believe that once they have served their time we should not give criminals a second chance, restore their rights and let them feely pursue careers and other interests. I believe fully and faithfully in rehabilitation and reintegration of virtually all who commit criminal acts. If you did the time, we should set aside the crime. But I don’t believe in asking the fox to guard the henhouse. We’d be foolish to make a reformed embezzler chief financial officer of a company or to have a reformed sex offender chaperone a field trip of college-aged women.
Besides, up to now Haspel has admitted to no wrong-doing and has never been punished for either the torture or the attempted cover-up. While condemning our use of torture, the United States government has done nothing to punish or even condemn those who established the torture regime and gave the orders to put dozens of people—many innocent of anything other than being at the wrong place at the wrong time—through excruciating mental and physical anguish, despite the fact that virtually all studies show torture to be ineffective in gathering information from enemy combatants. Many like David Addington, John Yoo and Gina Haspel have fallen on their feet with cushy jobs or are enjoying a posh retirement like Bush II and his vice president.
There can be no doubt that Donald Trump likes the fact that Haspel engaged in torture. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he spoke often of bringing back torture and adding prisoners to Guantanamo, which with Bagram and Abu Ghraib has come to symbolize the American torture machine. He has called for “worse than waterboarding.”
There is a cruel streak to most autocrats. The ability to inflict meaningless or excess pain on one’s enemies or even those who disobey seems to come naturally to the dictators of the world. They don’t want merely to win, they want to crush their opponent into fine particles.
Cruelty not only reassures the autocrat of his extensive power, it also serves as a warning to others who might dare to cross the ruler. That was surely the intent when Trump pressured Jeff Sessions to fire Andrew McCabe, Deputy Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) the day before he was eligible for retirement. Firing McCabe for political reasons, as Trump admits happened, was the government’s misguided prerogative. But to do it just before McCabe could cash in on all his years of loyal and competent service to his country was cruel, to say the least. Living in the high-cost D.C. area with two children, how likely is it that McCabe depended heavily on his government pension for his and his wife’s retirement. Unless the plan to work for a Democratic Congressional representative works out or he has enormous success in a post-governmental career, McCabe and his family may find themselves in an economic freefall. The cruelty of the act certainly serves as a warning to others in government wanting to speak up against Trump or cooperate with the Mueller investigation.
Haspel’s best possible excuse for ordering and overseeing the torture committed by her subordinates—that she was only following orders—is what makes her particularly attractive to the autocratic Trumpty-Dumpty. The autocrat likes people who blindly follow orders, even if they are incompetent or unsuited to their jobs. For the autocrat, an order-follower who is also extremely talented and accomplished is a rare jewel indeed. And one who will do anything, who will stoop to any level, who will throw away all scruples—what an extraordinary find that is indeed. Gina Haspel is tailor-made for the Trump administration.
Which is why confirming her as CIA Director would be bad for the country. I’m urging all readers to write their Senators and tell them explicitly that if they vote to confirm Gina Haspel they will lose your vote and support.