Torture tells us nothing about the accused, but plenty about the accuser

 Gina Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985, has been chief of station at CIA outposts abroad. President Donald Trump tweeted March 13, 2018, that he would nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to be the new secretary of state and that he would nominate Haspel to replace him. (CIA via AP)

Gina Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985, has been chief of station at CIA outposts abroad. President Donald Trump tweeted March 13, 2018, that he would nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to be the new secretary of state and that he would nominate Haspel to replace him. (CIA via AP)

The president fired Rex Tillerson from his position as Secretary of State and nominated Mike Pompeo, the incumbent CIA Director, to assume Tillerson’s post two weeks ago. Pompeo will need to be confirmed by the Senate, as will his replacement, Deputy Director Gina Haspel. The confirmation process will be somewhat unpleasant for her, though she will likely be confirmed. Democratic senators, along with the eccentric Rand Paul, are planning to ask Haspel some uncomfortable questions about her complicity in the torture of those detained by the United States government. During the Bush years, Haspel oversaw a black site in Thailand where CIA operatives regularly waterboarded prisoners. In 2005, she destroyed video recordings of the torture which was performed under her watch. Thanks to an executive order from Barack Obama and a bipartisan ban issued by Congress in 2015, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is illegal in the United States. If senators are willing to outlaw the practice altogether, they should be willing to prevent torturers from entering the highest ranks of the Central Intelligence Agency.

From the very beginning, White House and CIA officials have tried their hardest to keep the public ignorant of what was going on inside their black sites. When Michael Hayden, Director of the CIA, spoke to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2007, he told the senators a colorful variety of lies. One of those lies was, “Waterboarding cannot take place any more than five days out of a total of 30 days.” CIA interrogators waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed five times in twenty-five hours. Hayden also said “no one” died in CIA custody, but Gul Rahman did. He was chained to the wall of his cell wearing nothing but a sweatshirt and died of hypothermia. The CIA autopsy report declared Rahman’s cause of death was “undetermined,” and the black site’s head officer was given a $2,500 bonus for “consistently superior work” four months later.

Haspel is not the only person who oversaw torture and got away with it. The CIA purposefully designed the program so that no one involved in any black site’s operation would be held accountable for the treatment of prisoners. Robert Baer, a case officer who was once Gina Haspel’s supervisor, was correct when he claimed, “an individual CIA officer does not get to decide what is legal and what isn’t.”  That decision was made for them by the highest-ranking staffers in the Bush administration; including White House lawyers, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice President Chene, and the president himself.

It was, in effect, a choice among senior officials in the United States government to violate national and international humanitarian law. In April of 2005, Deputy Attorney General James Comey reluctantly informed White House lawyers that the new interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, were legal. John Brennan, who served under President Obama as Director of the CIA, lied when he claimed his agents had never spied on the Senate Intelligence Committee as the senators were compiling their torture report. As Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller ordered bureau employees to not participate in CIA interrogations. Still, Mueller coincidentally chose to ignore allegations made by FBI agents, that they had witnessed CIA men commit “war crimes” while dealing with prisoners. During the War on Terror, every federal agent who knew about torture was expected to either go along with it or keep his or her mouth shut.

For this reason, it is not easy to draw a red line when it comes to the acceptance of those who participated in or enabled the enhanced interrogation program. If any facilitation of such crimes is morally unjustifiable, then senators should have been more hesitant to confirm James Comey as Director of the FBI in 2013. Torture was carried out by CIA agents in dark prison cells across the world, but it was only allowed because of the actions and inaction of several hundred government officials. Gina Haspel was one of those officials. Several writers have incorrectly claimed that she was director of the black site in Thailand where when a man named Abu Zubaydah was nearly killed after dozens upon dozens of waterboarding sessions. In fact, Gina Haspel took over the black site where Zubaydah was detained only after his interrogation was over. She is only culpable for overseeing the waterboarding of other prisoners, and for making sure that the evidence of her subordinates’ crimes was fed into an industrial strength shredder.

In an article in which he called Gina Haspel a “great choice for CIA director,” Robert Baer admitted that Haspel “could have resigned and found an avenue of protest” but “the real protesting should have been done in the halls of Congress and the Department of Justice.” Even if one is to accept the fact that Haspel was only following orders, she is still complicit in some of the foulest crimes which have ever been performed in service of the United States government. Was she, the head of a secret prison in Thailand, among the worst offenders of the Bush era? Not by a long shot. Anyhow, the time for reckoning with past misdeeds in a legal way is long over.

There is still time, however, for senators to veto the nomination of Gina Haspel for Director of the CIA. This is a post which should not be held by someone so integral to the CIA’s great superstructure of torture. The recent nominations of Haspel, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton indicate that the president was not very earnest when he called the War in Iraq a “big, fat mistake.” In fact, their nominations suggest that the people running this country learned absolutely nothing from the terrible “American carnage” which marked the beginning of the 21st century. The United States has a longstanding tradition of punishing other nations’ war criminals and promoting its own.


Alex Klein is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus and can be reached via email at alex.klein@uconn.edu.