War on Terror

Gina Haspel's Confirmation Hearing Is a Reckoning for America's Use of Torture During the War on Terror

"It says that it's OK to engage in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and if you do it, you'll get promoted."

|

Olivier Douliery—Pool via CNP/Newscom

When senators gather Wednesday to consider Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump's nominee to run the Central Intelligence Agency, they'll also be reckoning with broader questions about the agency's use of torture during the first decade of the War on Terror.

Haspel's personal involvement in torture—she ran a CIA "black site" in Thailand, was involved in the waterboarding of at least one detainee, and later ordered the destruction of videotapes showing the waterboarding of another—should draw significant scrutiny from senators. But her own record is only part of the story. Critics charge that confirming her would send a clear message to CIA employees, foreign governments, and American citizens about how elected officials view the use of torture.

"It says that it's OK to engage in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and if you do it, you'll get promoted," says retired Gen. David Irvine, a former Army intelligence officer. "Don't worry about the law, don't worry about morality, don't worry that torture doesn't work. Do it anyway, and we'll cover for you. And you can destroy the evidence as well."

Irvine is one of more than 100 former American military officials who signed a letter urging the Senate to reject Haspel's nomination. It argues that "the torture and cruel treatment of prisoners undermines our national security" by hindering cooperation with allies, alienating local populations, and giving extremists a propaganda tool.

Confirming someone personally entangled with the torture program will undermine America's credibility in addressing global human rights issues, says Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, one of dozens of former American ambassadors to sign a separate letter opposing Haspel's confirmation on the grounds that having her lead the CIA would make it more difficult for diplomats to work with foreign governments.

"Her confirmation is going to be interpreted not just as sweeping it under the rug," he said Tuesday on a conference call organized by Human Rights First. "People overseas are going to look at it as an implicit approval of that program."

Haspel currently serves as the CIA's deputy director. She has worked for the agency for 33 years, and she spent most of that time undercover. She was tapped by Trump to replace Mike Pompeo, who was elevated to the post of secretary of state last month.

Part of her undercover duties included, in 2002, helping set up the CIA's first secret prison for suspected Al Qaeda terrorists to be interrogated, The New York Times reported earlier this year. While there, she reportedly oversaw the waterboarding of at least one detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was involved in the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole.

Though she left the so-called "black site" prison in 2003, Haspel was later involved in the destruction of videotapes showing the brutal torture of another detainee. According to declassified summary of the still-classified Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's torture program, those tapes showed the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded at least 83 times. During one of those sessions, Abu Zubaydah "became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth," according to a CIA cable included in the Senate report.

Following his torture, the CIA made plans "to get reasonable assurances that [he] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life." In 2005, Haspel drafted a document ordering the destruction of the tapes of Abu Zubaydah's torture, and then-CIA counterterrorism official Jose Rodriguez issued the order, according to Rodriguez' memoirs.

The torture program was approved by Haspel's bosses at the CIA, by the Justice Department, and by other higher-ups in the government. But Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel for Human Rights Watch, notes that "the culpability of other senior officials doesn't absolve her of responsibility."

The president has defended Haspel's record as being "tough on terror," and has tried to turn legitimate questions about her appointment into another partisan fight. He tweeted on Monday that "Democrats" want Haspel "out because she's too tough on terror." Trump has taken a glib view of torture in the past, saying during the 2016 campaign that he would "bring back waterboarding, and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."

"With a president evidently committed to policies of torture," says Irvine, "we think this would be a dangerous step backwards."

In excerpts of her prepared testimony, released Tuesday, Haspel says she does not intend to resume the use of torture. "I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation that under my leadership CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program," she will tell senators, according to NPR.

The extent of Haspel's involvement in the CIA's torture program is unknown. But senators on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns about her record.

Haspel has her own reservations about her confirmation. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that she considered withdrawing her nomination to avoid the spectacle of a hearing that could damage her own reputation and that of the CIA. According to the Post, the White House dispatched a team of aides, including Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to meet with Haspel and reassure her of Trump's support.

Whether Haspel can win support from a majority of the U.S. Senate remains to be seen. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has said he will oppose Haspel's confirmation, but he previously threatened to torpedo Pompeo's confirmation as secretary of state before reversing his position on the day of the vote. Further complicating things is the absence of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is back home ailing from brain cancer.

More than 15 years after her involvement in the CIA's torture of suspected Al Qaeda terrorists, Haspel's confirmation hearing will serve as an opportunity for some of America's most powerful elected officials to offer their perspective—on her career at the CIA, yes, but also on what that track record represents. And on what her appointment to lead the CIA would represent.

"She might be a great intelligence officer," says Ali Soufan, a former anti-terrorism official for the FBI, "but at the same time she has a lot of baggage that will stain—further stain—our reputation in the world."

Advertisement

NEXT: Only Robin Wright Should Own Robin Wright

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. As I said before, it’s odd that Trump favors a “whatever it takes” policy toward thwarting threats to America but when the IC decides Trump himself is a threat to America suddenly he’s whining and crying over how unfair it is that these people are doing whatever it takes to get rid of him.

    1. Exactly. Trump is big on Loyalty. If I were Trump, I’d nominate that old fucker George from the Apprentice, or Diamond and Silk. This is not an appointment you want to fuck up. Ask Allen Dulles.

      1. What’s wrong with a “whatever it takes” policy? Clearly there is nothing wrong with it, and the policy includes doing “whatever it takes” to stay in power. And for that matter, what’s wrong with doing whatever it takes to get promoted? Some of our distinguished colleagues here at NYU have shown the great benefits such an approach can have for academic careers. Instead of complaining about these little matters, we should remained focused on things that we all agree about, and join together in protesting the outrageous refusal of a so-called judge in New York to jail America’s leading criminal “satirist.” See the documentation at:

        https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  2. It seems a little too coincidental that all this information of Haspel is suddenly discussed when she gets a promotion in this administration. Especially since some of the reporting on her has had to be retracted.

    Sorry, I shouldn’t question the narrative, even when it increasingly makes no sense

    1. Did someone convene a meeting of Libertarians For Bloody Gina And The Torture Team?

      1. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-wa…..aterboardi

        No, the game that is being played is just too obvious here

        1. She works at the CIA for the entirety of the last administration, getting promoted, and no one raises an eyebrow and now suddenly this.

        2. It should be noted that part of the story discussed above has already been retracted by Pro Publica

        3. “During one of those sessions, Abu Zubaydah “became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth,”

          and

          “she ran a CIA “black site” in Thailand”

          Are not based in any reporting, but rather an already retracted report that relied heavily on former Obama administration officials and Democratic Senators

  3. What difference, at this point, does it make?

  4. Wait a minute. Didn’t the Obama administration, during its eight year run, fire all the CIA officials involved with waterboarding? How did they stay hidden from scrutiny all these years until Trump got into office? Oh, that’s right, they were sequestered at that former U.S. base in Gitmo that Obama closed on Day one of his administration.

  5. The president has defended Haspel’s record as being “tough on terror,”

    noting that such toughness implies being “tough on terrorists.”

  6. I actually think Rand will stand up to her this time. Why? Because he probably feels betrayed by Pompeo on Iran. He learned his lesson and won’t make the same mistake again. Still I think she’ll get approved with help from the dems because she’s a nonpartisan torturer and they got big plans for us after the blue wave.

    1. Unless we start bombing Iran, Rand will not that angry about Trump pulling out of the Iran Deal.

      1. Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran
        Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran
        Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran
        Bomb Ira-a-an

  7. Confirming someone personally entangled with the torture program will undermine America’s credibility in addressing global human rights issues, says Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria…

    If nothing else, we’re going to get some funny looks when we tell people Putin the former KBG guy can’t be trusted.

  8. I’m still far more concerned about the secret kill list with American citizens on it from which we can assassinate people without due process outside a war zone that pose no imminent threat. That is the reckoning we need.

    1. That is the reckoning we need.

      I’m sure that reckoning will come soon enough… as soon as the Project Insight helicarriers are launched.

      *whispers* hail Hydra

  9. Ha! I remember back when Radley Balko and Nick Gillespie were whining about “Republican obstructionists” blocking confirmation of Obama’s highly qualified and libertarian-leaning nominees.

  10. I really don’t care who she tortured. Fact of the matter is she has been a part of a CIA that has absolutely fucked up everything they have ever touched. These people can’t do anything right. When is the last time they stopped… anything? They don’t even do election fraud or coups very well anymore either. And they’ve blurred the lines between foreign and domestic espionage. Do any of those dumb asses in the Senate give a shit anymore that the CIA bugged their fucking meeting rooms?? And in typical CIA fashion they get caught doing even that, because of course they do, they are the fucking CIA.

    1. Yes. She is no better or worse than the entirety of the intelligence community

    2. I don’t give a shit who she tortured either. The fact that there is no evidence the CIA has ever done anything right is a bigger problem.

  11. The recent docudramas Waco and A Looming Tower portrayed rogue and unaccountable elements of the intel community as causing more harm than good. I’m surprised Americans aren’t a little more skeptical here. Anyway the solution is to reduce funding so they cut down on the mischief (e.g. server-gate and the Mueller probe). It doesn’t really matter who’s in charge.

    1. I saw the Waco series–I was shocked at how sympathetic the series was to the Davidians and how it excoriated both the FBI and the ATF.

      I mean, I wasn’t shocked at the events. I was shocked that it came out of Hollywood that way. Somebody must have been sleeping on the job. They’re not supposed to go off narrative like that.

    2. You haven’t been watching all the prime time network TV shows holding up our brave CIA agents as national heroes for the past 40 years then?

  12. Even the most persuasive defenses of her (WSJ Editorial Board) seem to boil down to 1) It was legal according to the torture memo and 2) She was only following orders.

    In other words, even the most persuasive defenses of her aren’t persuasive.

    The legitimate purpose of government is to defend our rights, and those who claim to do so while attacking our constitutional rights–like the right not to be forced to testify against ourselves and the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment–might as well be the enemy.

    You job was to defend the Constitution. You wiped your ass with it instead.

    But wiping your ass with the Constitution was legal at the time? But you were only following orders to wipe your ass with the Constitution?

    Go to hell.

    You’re lucky you aren’t in jail.

    1. She was only following orders.

      You know who else was just following.. nevermind, too easy.

      1. You have it backwards?the notion water boarding is “torture” is the BIG LIE. By no definition of torture does the technique as implemented by the Bush administration amount to torture. Btw, if you think water boarding is torture then you must also think Obama tortured KSM by keeping him in solitary which John McCain stated was the “worst” torture.

  13. I just don’t get all this hand wringing over “torturing” a few pieces of terrorist shit. How many people have we killed and maimed in our never ending wars?

    1. Do you understand that the federal government is supposed to be bound by the Constitution and respect people’s rights?

      Do you or don’t you think that rapists, child molesters, and arsonists have a right not to testify against themselves, to remain silent, to have an attorney present during questioning, and to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment?

      Or do you imagine the Constitution only protects those rights if the defendants are innocent?

      Needing the accused to be a big-eyed bunny with sad droopy ears in order to care about our constitutional rights is childish. Grow the fuck up.

      1. I fully support the constitutional protections provided to US citizens and those on US soil.

        I fully support abiding by treaties and agreements like the Geneva Convention to avoid war crimes and atrocities against opposing forces and civilians. It’s the morally proper thing to do and provides provable benefit to our own people. I fully support extending this courtesy to non-signatories and militia forces that don’t have state backing.

        I don’t give a rats arse about what happens to clear illegal combatants or terrorists. It’s valid to be concerned about how we differentiate, but folks like Abu Zubaydah….zero cares. I’ll do it myself and sleep well at night.

        1. The issue isn’t the nature of the people whose rights our government violated.

          The problem is that our government violated the Constitution.

          1. We all have our baggage. Having said that, some of my stuffed duffel bags come from a time squatting in shitty mud over 50 years ago. One’s feelings about torture can range from spouting about the Constitution to marching in the street, but it takes on a different hue when information needs are dire and immediate. You can make all/any rules regarding information gathering you wish, but in the field, when time is of the essence, those boots on the ground will, oft times, decide their own rules, particularly if they mirror those of their adversaries. I think I’ve witnessed some torture, although it wasn’t mentioned as such at the time, as I recall. What I do recall is whatever worked at the time to get my sorry ass out of a jam seemed to matter more than anything else on earth. Fear works that way, I think. So most of this posturing will have little to no effect in certain circumstances in the field, maybe it will at some
            Gitmo. You can let your imagination decide if you’d feel the same way.

            1. “You can make all/any rules regarding information gathering you wish, but in the field, when time is of the essence, those boots on the ground will, oft times, decide their own rules, particularly if they mirror those of their adversaries.”

              We’re talking about official policy.

              We’re not talking about what individual soldiers do on the battlefield.

              The AG and the Secretary of Defense changed the rules of interrogation to something that is absolutely incompatible with the Constitution. We’re talking about putting someone in charge of the CIA who both carried out and oversaw those unconstitutional activities.

              I have no standing to judge what soldiers do on the battlefield.

              The Senate is considering whether to confirm someone as head of the CIA. That’s my business.

          2. Obama killed an American citizen with a drone!?! You have your priorities screwed up if you care about an interrogation technique used on a few high level AQ officials 15 years ago!!

          3. “The problem is that our government violated the Constitution.”
            NO IT DIDN’T!
            Constitutional protections don’t extend to everyone in the world.
            The Constitution was written to protect the liberties of the citizens of the United States from its government. Not foreigners and certainly not those delineated in Article 3 Section 3.
            Even the extension of its protections to non-citizens on our soil was not intended.

    2. And you’re 100 percent sure 100 percent of them were guilty, right? Even the dozens (hundreds?) of prisoners who were later released with no charges?

  14. The chances of any of us ever knowing what the CIA is up to; whether they are geniuses or dumbasses; who would be a good choice to lead the CIA; and etc. is nigh impossible.

    However. It does seem that since she’s been with the CIA 30+ years. Has held numerous high level posts. Has not been charged with crimes or disciplined for poor performance. She seems to be a valid choice.

    1. Not being charged with crimes doesn’t mean she didn’t commit any.

      1. Not being confined to a facility for the criminally insane doesn’t mean CE is not criminally8 insane.

    2. How many times have we been attacked on American soil since 9/11? How many bombings? darn few. wonder why that is? Maybe somebody is doing something right.

      I have kids and grand kids. If there is a credible threat some Terrorist his Planning to blow an elementary school up, I have no problem with enhanced interrogation to try to stop it.

      Certainly these are extreme measures performed only in extreme circumstance and should require multiple levels of approval, which appeared to have occurred in this situation., Her superiors, the justice department, members of Congress, the president.

      And the terrorists? They will fear us more and their successes will be fewer, if we utilize these techniques. Not the other way around.

  15. I guess Lizzie the Lezzie took a couple too many opioids again last night.

  16. Perhaps it would be better if Trump just cleaned the CIA of anyone who was employed during the prior administration.

  17. “Haspel’s personal involvement in torture?she ran a CIA “black site” in Thailand, was involved in the waterboarding of at least one detainee, and later ordered the destruction of videotapes showing the waterboarding of another?should draw significant scrutiny from senators.”

    Weren’t these accusations found to be false? Wasn’t this a big fiasco after the NYT/NPR report came out, that fake news was provided by Dem operatives? That Haspel ran that site in Thailand….but only after the detainee issues occurred. That she was never directly linked waterboarding activities, let alone “torture”.

    1. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-wa…..aterboardi

      Yes, they were proven to have no basis in fact.

  18. I’ve been going after Reason staff for being all over the place on the Constitution, especially in regards to the enumerated powers of congress. On the one hand, the want to fault Trump for not getting a congressional authorization to attack Assad in retaliation for the chemical weapons use, but on the other hand, they want to ignore congress’ enumerated power to set the rules on immigration. On the other hand, they want to ignore that Obama’s Iran agreement was completely unconstitutional because it was never ratified by congress.

    We need to be careful not to make the same mistakes ourselves.

    On the one hand, we support the Second Amendment–even if some people abuse their rights. On the ine hand, we expect our First Amendment religious rights and freedom of association to triumph over the SJWs support for gay marriage when it comes to the government forcing fundamentalists to bake cakes for gay weddings or forcing nuns to provide their employees with the tools to fornicate.

    On the other hand, we only believe in the Fifth and Eighth Amendments when it’s convenient?

    Our credibility when defending the constitutional integrity of the First and Second Amendments depends on our willingness to defend the Constitutional rights of people we don’t like. “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” pretty much sums it up. Don’t expect other people to overlook their own personal preferences in regards to your constitutional rights if we aren’t willing to do likewise.

    1. Readers will recall that Ken is the altruist philospher who distinguishes between good and evil based on the distribution of sexual favors by female bonobo monkeys.

      1. I guess Hank Williams is the guy whose mind was blown by the concept of social adaptation.

      2. Or maybe his mind was blown by the fact that altruism arose in the natural world as an evolutionary adaptation–like language and religion . . .

        Either way–his mind was blown.

    2. Well said Ken.

  19. Whether Haspel can win support from a majority of the U.S. Senate remains to be seen. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has said he will oppose Haspel’s confirmation, but he previously threatened to torpedo Pompeo’s confirmation as secretary of state before reversing his position on the day of the vote.

    So we all know what his word is worth at this point. If he does vote to confirm her it’ll be strike three as far as I’m concerned.

    (Strike 1 was his vote to confirm Sessions, strike 2 was Pompeo.)

  20. I’m gonna play a little game where I don’t look at the comments first but guess that John a) expresses approval of torture and b) says criticisms of Haspel are sexist.

  21. What Reason is calling a war on terror is mysticism’s war on Reason. The Republican-Prohibition Party coalition hates communists and the Saracen berserkers haunting the Ottoman ruins for reasons that have nothing to do with economics or rational ethics. Christianofascists murder Islamofascists and vice versa because they OBEY THE WRONG PROPHET! Here is an object lesson on how superstition absolutely requires the initiation of deadly force. Keep this in mind as conservatives come sidling up to demand the return of coathanger abortions and the Comstock laws rifling the mails for illegal condoms, diaphragms, plant leaves or “disloyal” race-suicide pamphlets on feminine hygiene.

  22. This isn’t a tough call for anyone who is libertarian (or even libertarianish).

    Haspel appeased torturers and abused government power by destroying evidence to evade accountability.

    She still seems unwilling to hold torturers to account for their wrongdoing, relying on hollow promises that she would do something differently next time.

    Even a half-decent faux libertarian should oppose Haspel’s nomination.

    1. Exactly. It’s not all R vs. D. Some of it is good vs. evil.

  23. Who cares about known terrorists being water-boarded. My only issue is they were not immediately taken out an shot when the sessions were over. Those opposed to this technique are the same ones who created the situation that allowed 9/11 to happen by trying to appease those who seek to destroy this country. Boo-hoo….

    1. Since any professional interrogator will tell you that torture is counterproductive (because it produces false confessions), you’re the one who wants more terrorist attacks. That makes you a terrorist. Guards, take him away!

      1. I’ve never been convinced of that. Oh, I believe “professional” interrogators will say that. Just not convinced that a ton of good intel can’t come with torture. Particular the more brutal tortures, not phony drownings. The real talent is cross referencing the intel, to weed out the false statements.

      2. Tony, you think Khalid Sheikh was waterboarded to get a confession?

        1. Was it done to diminish the reputation of the US? That’s all it seemed to accomplish. Why do Republicans keep doing that? And why do people keep voting for it?

  24. Was it legal at the time she waterboarded. . . .was involved in a wterboarding? Could the destroyed video tapes show up on Hillary’s hard drive? How many others involved in these questionable tortures been approved by our Senators? How many Senators were involved in torture briefings and are complete hypocrites now. Her approval is to be! Problems a non issue merely political hacks at work.

    1. And if it was legal, why destroy the tapes? Anyone who thinks it was limited to waterboarding is being gullible, again.

  25. Eric, 10 minutes on Google will show that the torture accusations against Haspel are in question. The primary source for the Daily Beast “scoop” was a book written years ago by an ex CIA lawyer, who in recent interviews as said he was imprecise in words, that Haspel was not involved, she came later, and he fully supports her nomination.
    Daily Beast refuses to retract, even though the one non-anonymous source they supposedly have has retracted the claims. Everything else is from “secret sources”.

    You really should do some research and post an update/retraction. This reeks of Fake News and could be deeply unfair to Haspel.

  26. Among my disappointments with respect to Pres. Obama was that he refrained from prosecuting anyone involved in torture conducted by the United States government.

    Cruel authoritarians do not deserve leniency, no matter how much they could whine that they were overmatched by events and frightened beyond the bounds of decency. What do we have to show for the attempt to effect bipartisan, undeserved mercy in this regard?

    1. He didn’t prosecute anyone with regard to torture because Bush prosecuted the soldiers involved in Abu Grahib. We have know water boarding didn’t amount to torture since Obama released the memos in April 2009. Move on with your life?go get gay married or smoke marijuana legally just stop obsessing over a faux controversy trumped up Democrats to win the 2006 and 2008 elections.

  27. Her confirmation hearing to a cushy job is a reckoning?

    A real reckoning would be her and many of her co-conspirators in federal prison awaiting trial.

  28. The bad guys are explicitly denied rights of prisoners of war by the Geneva conventions because they are terrorists who do not fight in uniform or under a flag among other reasons.

    They post videos of beheading journalists, of pouring gasoline on caged prisoners and setting them afire, of drowning others confined to cages…and the Democratic Senators are aghast because the CIA poured some water on KSM’s face.

    Misplaced outrage, anyone?

  29. The arguments against Haspel are, frankly, dishonest and specious. The facts are irrefutable:
    1. The program was vetted at the highest levels of our government
    2. The top democrats were fully informed of the program, in every detail
    3. One such democrat expressed the program did not go far enough
    4. John Brennan was confirmed to the same position, and he held a decicion making position at the time the program was initiated

    The “good soldier” analogy is simply not germane. Gina Haspel did not “do” anything to be ashamed of or that was illegal; except to hypocrites.We have the CIA and the military to protect our Nation; people in those positions do things that others are unwilling, or incapable of doing. Had the reservations and complaints of the program of any of the demcorats been honest and truthful; they would have expressed them when John Brennan was on front of the committee, or when voting for his confirmation. Obviously referring to those in office at that time.

  30. “It says that it’s OK to engage in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and if you do it, you’ll get promoted.”

    Well, first you have to survive, never a certainty in an Existential Conflict.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.