May 7, 2018 / 2:24 PM / in 2 months

Commentary: What the Senate should ask Gina Haspel before she heads the CIA

The Senate’s confirmation hearing for Gina Haspel to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency will be the last chance for the United States to confront its history of torturing terrorist suspects.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director nominee Gina Haspel (R) attends Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's ceremonial swearing-in at the State Department in Washington, U.S. May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Haspel got cold feet a few days back as she prepared for her first public appearance representing the CIA. Who wouldn’t? She was contemplating a confession to countenancing violations of the laws of war.

But I suspect that when Wednesday’s hearing is done, the record of denial and deception will be largely intact. No one will be held to account. One of the darker chapters in 21st-century American history will be shoved farther down the memory hole.

The CIA, having acted with impunity and then absolved itself of wrongdoing, now likely will be led by Haspel, who both oversaw brutal interrogations at a CIA prison in Thailand and then drafted an order to destroy 92 videotapes recording these and other horrors.

"I've said to the people that we don't torture, and we don't," President George W. Bush insisted in 2006. But we did. “Torture works,” Donald J. Trump proclaimed in 2016. But it doesn’t. If Haspel isn’t compelled to say otherwise, these lies someday may be seen as truths.

The spy service conned Congress over the efficacy of torture; CIA’s counterterrorism chiefs held steadfast to the idea that torture worked. It didn’t. The agency’s inspector general found that the torture program failed to produce any significant intelligence.

Those subjected to torture, including the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, never can be prosecuted; the evidence against them is fatally tainted by waterboarding, beatings, and death threats at the point of a handgun and a hand drill. Nor can the CIA officers who oversaw and conducted torture be brought to trial; Bush granted them all immunity.

The senator uniquely qualified to bear witness against torture is John McCain, the Arizona Republican, who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “To make someone believe that you are killing him by drowning is no different than holding a pistol to his head and firing a blank,” he once wrote. “It is torture, very exquisite torture.”

McCain wrote those words in 2005, in a debate over America’s compliance with the United Nations Convention on Torture. He wrote an amendment into law banning torture, and it passed, 90-9. Among those opposed was Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, now the attorney general.

Saddam Saleh, a former prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison shows how U.S. soldiers pointed their rifles at his head during an interview with Reuters, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on May 17, 2004. REUTERS/Oleg Popov

At that time, the horrors of the prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq had come to light. But the full facts regarding the CIA’s “black sites” for prisoners still were a very dark secret.

And Haspel, with her boss at headquarters, Jose Rodriguez, was trying to make sure they stayed secret. She drafted an order, sent by her superior, to destroy all videotapes recording torture. Rodriguez wrote in a memoir that he reviewed Haspel’s work, then “took a deep breath of weary satisfaction and hit Send.”

It was just as George Orwell described the memory holes in “1984,” situated throughout the Ministry of Truth, where history was rewritten to match state propaganda: “When one knew that any document was due for destruction…it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.”

The CIA’s destroy order was executed immediately after the Senate proposed an independent commission to investigate the black sites. Into the fiery furnaces went the evidence.

An epic showdown would be certain if McCain, who is fighting brain cancer, were well enough to attend Haspel’s confirmation hearing. In any event, he already has sent her detailed written questions about the techniques which, in his words, “compromised our values, stained our national honor, and threatened our historical reputation.”

“Did you advocate for…the destruction of tapes or any other material containing potential evidence of the torture of, or the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on, detainees in the custody or under the effective control of the CIA?” McCain wants to know. “At the time, what were your personal views of the legality, morality, and effectiveness of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’? What is your assessment today of the effectiveness of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and their impact on the United States’ moral standing in the world?”

I would add a few questions of my own for the nominee.

President Donald Trump’s first CIA director, Mike Pompeo, now newly sworn in as Secretary of State, said last October that the CIA needs to become a “much more vicious agency” in its covert operations. Does she agree?

President Bush’s White House lawyers argued that it would be unconstitutional for Congress to outlaw torture if the commander-in-chief said it was needed to protect national security. If Trump secretly ordered the CIA to get back to the business of waterboarding, would she follow that command in the face of American law and the Geneva Conventions?

These questions go to the heart of who we are as Americans. Haspel can disavow her past, or embrace it. Her nomination accordingly should stand or fall on that point.

About the Author

Tim Weiner has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for reporting and writing on American intelligence.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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