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Haspel nomination clouded by her past – but also by today’s context

Senators questioned Gina Haspel, nominated by President Trump to lead the CIA, about her role in overseeing ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques. Although she now says she opposes the methods, Trump himself has voiced support for them.

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Gina Haspel, President Trump's pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency, is sworn in during a confirmation hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee May 9 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Alex Brandon/AP

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Gina Haspel says she will not resume the Central Intelligence Agency’s brutal interrogation programs of the past. As a CIA official in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ms. Haspel supervised waterboarding and other questioning techniques considered by many to be torture. But now she is President Trump’s nominee to head the CIA, and she pledges the agency will never resume that activity if she can help it.

“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,” Haspel said at her confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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Will this be enough to get her over the hill and win Senate approval of her nomination? After all, the waterboarding issue is major, plus one – and critics have focused on it as a possibly fatal flaw in her otherwise admirable intelligence-community record.

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Or will her apparent change of heart not be enough? Often in politics, opponents pick and choose, opting to emphasize positions they find most advantageous to their own arguments.

The problem in this case is the context, say experts. Whatever Haspel herself believes, she would be serving a president who has said he would resume waterboarding and worse, if possible. That changes the criteria for evaluating her own conversion – and raises questions about what she might do if pushed by Mr. Trump on a wider array of possibly problematic activities.

“A confirmation is more than a character judgment about the nominee,” wrote Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, yesterday in a Lawfare post on the Haspel nomination.

Haspel’s own resume is stellar. A 33-year agency veteran who has been serving as acting director since Mike Pompeo’s nomination as Secretary of State, she worked undercover for decades as a spy and spymaster around the world. She appears to have the support of much of the intelligence community bureaucracy. Some former intelligence officials who have been highly critical of the Trump administration, including John Brennan and James Clapper, publicly back her for the top CIA post.

Her biggest problem remains the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” used for questioning prisoners in the tumultuous period following 9/11. Haspel ran a covert site where such questioning took place, reportedly in Thailand. She also later supported the action by her then-boss to destroy videotapes of the use of the “enhanced” techniques, which many consider torture, and which have subsequently been outlawed by Congress and banned by presidential executive orders.

A 2014 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee raised doubts about whether the enhanced interrogation techniques were effective, and detailed the harsh methods used, ranging from punching and slamming prisoners against walls to severe sleep deprivation and near drowning.

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Republican Sen. John McCain, who endured severe treatment while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said at the time, “I have long believed some of these practices amounted to torture, as a reasonable person would define it, especially, but not only the practice of waterboarding, which is a mock execution and an exquisite form of torture.”

Haspel has said she would never use such techniques again. But at her confirmation hearing, she defended them as having provided useful intelligence in some circumstances, and evaded efforts from Democratic senators to weigh in on whether they were immoral or not. She noted that President George W. Bush had authorized their use at the time she ran the Thai prison. A number of times, she referenced the Army Field Manual as the determining text of instructions for future interrogations.

It was not a full-throated rejection of waterboarding and all it entailed, notes Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault, an assistant professor at the Georgetown University Security Studies Program.

“My concern is that she did follow orders that were violative of her Constitutional oath,” says Dr. Arsenault in an email.

“In addition, she recently said that it is a tragedy that the controversy around the rendition, detention, and interrogation overshadows its contribution to our country,” she adds. “In my opinion, the tragedy is that these techniques were considered in the first place.” 

That said, it is unlikely they will be used again, according to Arsenault, given the web of prohibitions now in place against them. Trump might revoke his predecessor’s Executive Order banning them, but Congress in 2015 passed an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act limiting interrogation to techniques outlined in the aforementioned Army Field Manual.

Of course, Trump might ask for waterboarding, anyway – pushing the power of a president as commander-in-chief. Haspel, at Tuesday’s Senate hearing, said she did not believe the president would do that. Pressed, she appeared to indicate that she would not carry out such an order.

And that is the dilemma facing her critics. On the one hand, some Democrats find her somewhat bureaucratic, unwilling to look the moral implications of waterboarding fully in the face, and overly protective of past colleagues who destroyed taped evidence of the interrogations. On the other hand, Haspel is an experienced woman who has the support of Langley staff and past colleagues. Any other Trump nominee would almost certainly be more political and perhaps more willing to work with the president on his demands.

That’s why Benjamin Wittes of Brookings says that on balance he supports Haspel for the post.

“For me, at least, the call of professionalism and analytical seriousness and the desire to insulate a major intelligence component against the predations of the president takes precedents over optimizing senatorial moral and policy messaging on interrogation,” he concluded in his Tuesday analysis.