In Utah Senate Race, Evan McMullin Has To Reckon With an Ugly History

In a campaign where much of the focus has been on Donald Trump and January 6, McMullin's CIA career deserves more interrogation.


As he works to unseat two-term incumbent Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah), Republican-turned-independent Evan McMullin has been eager to frame himself as the good guy.

In campaign ads, McMullin promises to be a "compassionate, selfless, and independent" candidate who won't get caught up in partisan extremism. Lee sold out his reputation and his values by engaging with former President Donald Trump's attempt to subvert the results of the 2020 election, McMullin argued to Politico a few months ago. "That's not what a constitutional conservative does," he said. On his campaign website, McMullin outlines 12 principles that he promises to adhere to if elected next month—including "reaffirm our founding beliefs," "defend the constitution," and "seek and promote truth."

And how better to illustrate all that than to have Luke Skywalker—that is, actor Mark Hamil—endorse McMullin's plucky underdog effort during the home stretch? "The Force is with us!" McMullin declared after the announcement.

Framing the race that way might work. In other Republican states, having Trump's endorsement and tenuous connections to the January 6 riot might be a boon for Lee. But in a place where Trump has never been very popular and where the other sitting senator is the famously Trump-skeptical Mitt Romney, that's not necessarily the case. Polls show Lee holding a slim lead, but McMullin is closing ground. The two candidates are scheduled to debate tonight at Utah Valley University.

But that frame should inspire a closer look at McMullin's own biography. McMullin's claims of being the morally upstanding character in this contest—not merely the Never Trump choice in this race, but the good guy—sit somewhat uncomfortably alongside his connections to one of the ugliest scandals in recent American history.

McMullin joined the CIA while still an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University, and he claims in campaign videos to have been at the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on September 11, 2001. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, he was deployed to Southwest Asia on an assignment of "gathering information on the Taliban, developing intelligence for strikes on terrorists and searching for high-value al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden," according to a Washington Post profile published while McMullin was running for president in 2016. Though the details of his deployment are classified, several former CIA officers have vouched for his track record as an exemplary agent.

Fair enough. But McMullin's career as an intelligence officer during the War on Terror overlaps with the CIA's clandestine torture regime, which was detailed in an explosive report assembled by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2014. According to a 500-page executive summary of that report—the full report remains classified—CIA officers subjected detainees to waterboarding, forced feeding (including anal feeding), sleep deprivation, and other physical and psychological tortures at secret prisons known as "black sites." The Senate report also found that torture "was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees."

McMullin did not know about the torture, says Kelsey Koenen Witt, a spokesperson for McMullin's campaign.

"Though he was aware of 'black sites' where some captured terrorists were held, he never visited any of the installations and was unaware of the enhanced interrogation program," Koenen Witt writes in an email. "He was never involved in the program and was never read into it."

That's subtly different from how McMullin explained things when he was running for president six years ago. Then, in an interview with Buzzfeed, McMullin said he was "aware of" the CIA's torture program, though he similarly denied being involved.

"I was aware of it by virtue of where I was," he said. "I was serving in a place that was the kind of place where people entered that program from that place, but I never participated in it, I never went to a black site, never met with a detainee."

The shifting explanation is at once subtle and telling. Claiming to be unaware of what was happening at those CIA "black sites," as McMullin now says he was, might absolve him of some moral culpability. It might also be an easy way to avoid obvious follow-up questions about what exactly he knew and when he knew it.

On other aspects of the CIA's torture program, McMullin's answers have similarly evolved over time.

In that same 2016 interview with Buzzfeed, McMullin said that he did not support the use of torture against suspected terrorists—but he made a distinction for waterboarding.

"I don't believe in taking it easy on terrorists when they're incarcerated. But I also don't support the use of torture. There are gray areas," he said. "I believe that waterboarding is in a gray area."

To be clear, there is no gray area when it comes to waterboarding. The United Nations considers it a form of torture. It is prohibited by the U.S. Army Field Manual, which governs soldiers' behavior on the battlefield. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed a law forbidding the use of torture by the military—though the bill deliberately exempted the CIA.

McMullin offered that opinion of the technique two years after the Senate Intelligence Committee report had described the use of water-boarding as "physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting," two years after the report detailed incidents where suspects were waterboarded until they passed out or required medical attention. One prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, was waterboarded at least 83 times.

John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer and one of the first whistleblowers to inform the Senate of the CIA's use of torture against Al Qaeda prisoners, tells Reason that McMullin's 2016 description of waterboarding is "utterly disingenuous."

"At the time that he made this statement, the Senate Torture Report already had been published. It was crystal clear, even to waterboarding supporters, that the act was a form of torture," says Kiriakou. "It was crystal clear that not only was waterboarding illegal, immoral, and unethical, it simply didn't work. McMullen makes a lot of his faith. I highly doubt that his faith would mandate waterboarding a prisoner."

McMullin's opinion on the matter has now changed, Koenen Witt tells Reason.

"Evan opposes torture including waterboarding and believes it is critical for the United States government to respect basic human rights at all times," she writes.

McMullin has not read the Senate's report on the CIA's use of torture, Koenen Witt writes, but he "believes the CIA and its vital mission is strengthened with strong congressional oversight and when it respects basic human rights."

That's exactly the answer that you'd expect from the current iteration of McMullin, the patriotic conservative who defends the constitution. But voters will never know anything more than McMullin is willing to share about his CIA career. His history will remain classified, even though the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over.

The one thing we do know is that, unlike Kiriakou, McMullin didn't blow the whistle about the CIA's torture regime. Is that because he didn't know, or because he didn't care? More vital to this campaign might be a slightly different version of that same question: If McMullin wins, can Americans count on him to be an impartial investigator in the event of another CIA scandal?

"While Evan served as an undercover CIA operations officer, he was committed to the duties of that role. If he prevails in the Utah Senate race, he will approach his new role with the same commitment," Koenen Witt tells Reason. "Evan has always believed that the Agency and the nation are well-served when the intelligence community has strong congressional oversight."

One last thing worth noting is how much media coverage of the Utah Senate race is seemingly uninterested in McMullin's history with the CIA and his connections to the torture scandal—even though it drew scrutiny from the Post, Buzzfeed, and others during his quixotic presidential run in 2016.

The New York Times and Politico recently dedicated long feature pieces to the Utah Senate race, and both naturally included significant detailing of Lee's texts with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in the run-up to January 6. But neither piece even made a passing mention of McMullin's CIA tenure or his previous wishy-washy responses when asked about waterboarding and the use of torture in America's post-9/11 wars.

In a recent interview with the Times, McMullin said Lee's involvement with the January 6 protests was "one of the most egregious betrayals of the American republic in its history." But history did not begin in January 2021. There's no need to downplay or dismiss Lee's involvement in Trump's attempt to cling to power, but a proper perspective on the Utah Senate race would show that both leading candidates have stains on their records.