The subject of torture was always going to cast an ugly shadow over the confirmation process for President Donald Trump’s nominee for head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel.
In the years following the 9/11 attack, Ms Haspel was deeply involved in the hunt for the terrorists who organized the attack and ran one of the CIA’s secret foreign “black sites” where captured suspects were interrogated and subjected to what was euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
But the public portion of her confirmation hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee panel on Wednesday (May 9) needn’t have been overwhelmingly about torture if it wasn’t for Trump’s disquieting enthusiasm for the use of brutal methods.
Ms Haspel, 61, has been with the agency for 33 years. And despite her deceptive Miss Marple-ish appearance, she honed her skills at the gritty end of undercover intelligence work in often dangerous Third World countries for much of the time operating against the Soviet KGB. She joined the CIA’S Counter-Terrorism Center the day before the 9/11 and rose to become deputy, then acting-head of the male-dominated organization.
If confirmed, she will be the first woman CIA director. Apparently the vast majority of her colleagues want her as their leader because she would also be the first chief in decades that was one of them rather than an outside appointee with limited intelligence experience.
Certainly many suspected terrorists were subjected to – effectively torture. The most notorious was waterboarding – simulating the sensation of drowning for the victim. Other tortures included long periods of sleep deprivation, soaking suspects in freezing water and using hoses to pump water through a detainee’s rectum.
The US Department of Justice gave legal clearance to the techniques but many Americans never accepted methods normally associated with sinister, human rights-trampling regimes out to be used.
Most Americans though felt limited torture was a justified evil if it could prevent other tragedies like 9/11 or in a ticking-bomb scenario. However by 2007 the CIA had ceased using the methods and in 2009 President Barack Obama banned the practice. A 2014 Congressional report condemned the techniques as not only contravening American values but it turned out they were of questionable effectiveness in eliciting correct information.
Many Trump nominees have faced intense scrutiny because of the bitter party political divisions with Democrats opposing for the simple reason that a Republican president had proposed them.
In Ms hassle’s case both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that she is supremely well qualified. But Trump’s gleeful advocacy of torture meant that questioning repeatedly centered on whether she would reinstate torture if ordered to by the president.
During his election campaign Trump frequently contrasted Obama’s objection to the use of torture to his strident advocacy of it to portray his opponents as soft on terrorism and to convince his supporters he was not some rich milksop from New York City who had five times dodged military service in Vietnam on spurious medical grounds.
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He reveled in advocating torture because it allowed him to burnish the tough-guy image Trump craved in order to appeal to his core supporters, many of whom really are tough, hard-drinking, fist-fighting folk out of a Johnny Cash song.
Trump has frequently wanted to convey he is a hard bastard, not squeamish about waterboarding a few bad guys himself. He seems to harbor a need to project himself as a physically tough and courageous person for purposes of his own self-esteem. Earlier this year after a gunman killed 17 pupils in a Florida school, Trump mused before TV cameras that he would have rushed in to the rescue even if he had been un-armed.
Before Wednesday’s hearing Trump went out of his way to portray anyone who wanted to hear reassurances from Ms Haspel that she would never use torture as being soft on terrorism.
He tweeted: “Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists. Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror.”
Many people, myself included, have discussed, over a few drinks, inflicting gruesome punishment on terrorists that have raped, tortured, and murdered, including turning a victims agonized last moments into a video as they are burned alive or their head is sawed off.
Personally I don’t mind if known terrorists are removed to a secret location, tortured and then quietly disposed of in order to avoid new Guantanamo Bays, which serve as PR for Islamic extremists. That applies to American, British and other European passport holders who fought for ISIS.
I think there’s a case for doing such things but they should all be done secretly. The last thing we need is a president publicly joining in such macho fantasizing.
Senators asked about Ms Haspel’s role at the black site she oversaw in Thailand, and where 92 tapes recording interrogations were destroyed after the Congressional investigation into torture began. She admitted she had passed on an order to do that but hadn’t been in the tapes herself.
Some Democrats were displeased that she bucked against labeling the past use of torture as immoral and she said that the methods had contributed to successes such as the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who bragged he masterminded 9/11.
In a bizarre twist, Mohammed wants to give evidence to the senate committee but there’s no sign anyone wants to hear him.
Ms Haspel made clear torture methods belonged to another time and under her leadership would never be used.
When asked whether she would disobey an order by Trump to use torture she said she possesses a very strong moral compass and “I would not allow ……activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.”
Ms Haspel probably will be confirmed even though Trump’s enthusiasm for torture increased her grilling about that subject.
A trustworthy CIA with a leader strong enough to resist Trump’s attempts to bully the agency is needed more than ever. It is one of the few mechanisms available to the White House to correct a view of the world warped through a Trumpian prism of ignorance, prejudice, distortion and possibly traitorous ties between the president’s associates and the Kremlin.
Greater than the distaste some might feel at Haspel’s torture connections is the anxiety that if she is not confirmed Trump would nominate someone from his stable of dodgy wackos with no moral compass at all. That fear will likely push waverers to vote for her.