Trump's CIA pick is a torturer. How can any Christian support her?
Gina Haspel is President Trump's pick to replace his new secretary of state nominee, Mike Pompeo, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
She is also a torturer.
This is not a label I use to be inflammatory. It as a simple statement of fact.
As was widely reported when she took her current role of deputy CIA director in 2017, Haspel is a career spook who supervised the fruitless torture of two suspects at a CIA black site in Thailand 16 years ago and helped destroy video evidence of the brutality. (Update: After this article was published, ProPublica retracted the specific claims that "Haspel was in charge of a secret prison in Thailand during the infamous interrogation of an al Qaeda suspect" and that she "mocked the prisoner's suffering." The publication stood by its other torture-related reporting on Haspel.) She has participated in extraordinary rendition, sending suspects abroad so foreign intelligence agents could torture them on the CIA's behalf. So grim is her record of abuse that in Haspel the United States could have a CIA director unable to travel to Europe without risking arrest thanks to an ongoing legal complaint against her. Had former President Obama prosecuted those responsible for the torture he prohibited, she might be in jail today.
This nomination is unlikely to cause much angst among the president's most analyzed class of supporters, white evangelical Christians. Why would it? The president himself is a torture enthusiast. Haspel was selected for her present job without much uproar last February, and in that position she already runs the bulk of the CIA's operations. And anyway, if the president's wilder escapades — the alleged porn star dalliance, the confirmed boasts of sexual assault, the implied and explicit racism, and so on — can't tip the scales against his empty lure to values voters, a little-known official getting a big promotion certainly won't do the trick.
That's unfortunate, because Gina Haspel is a torturer, and following Jesus means rejecting torture.
To be a Christian is to worship a God who chose to be tortured himself to save his enemies. It means pledging our allegiance to a Lord who told us to love our enemies self-sacrificially, to be merciful and return good for evil. Christians have long debated how these commands should influence our ethics in the realms of criminal justice and war, but torture is not subject to debate. You cannot love someone while you torture them, and as followers of Jesus we affirm that anything not done in love is worthless.
"Any thoughtful person, no matter their religion or non-religion, knows that you cannot support torturing people and still claim to be a follower of the one who commanded his disciples to love their enemies," writes author and pastor Brian Zahnd. "Those who argue for the use of torture do so because they are convinced it is pragmatic for national security," he continues. "But Christians are not called to be pragmatists or even safe. Christians are called by Jesus to imitate a God who is kind and merciful to the wicked."
For anyone who has committed their life to Christ, torture is categorically unacceptable.
It also doesn't work. Torture is deplorable regardless of effectiveness, but its abysmal record at extracting useful intelligence should remove all temptation to its use. "For harvesting information," says Darius Rejali in Torture and Democracy, a book considered the "most thorough investigation and analysis" of torture on offer, "torture is the clumsiest method available to organizations, even clumsier in some cases than flipping coins or shooting randomly into crowds. The sources of error are systematic and ineradicable." Torture produces bad intelligence, costs valuable time, and distracts from better investigation techniques. Torture is not only morally appalling — but in practice actually counter-productive.
It is true that there is a gruesome sense in which Haspel is the perfect choice to lead the CIA, as we are naïve if we picture the agency as a heretofore noble outfit that her leadership will newly corrupt. This is not a case of a devil given charge of angels. The CIA has a sordid history of regime change, assassination plots, drone warfare, and mass surveillance.
It also has a horrific record of torture, a portion of which was described in the Senate Intelligence Committee's 2014 report on CIA torture practices in the war on terror. Detainees were subject to week-long sleep deprivation, "rectal feeding" (every bit as awful as it sounds), extreme temperatures, and near-drowning. They were forced to stand on broken legs and feet. One died of hypothermia, half-clothed and chained to a floor. Another was told by an interrogator that he wouldn't receive due process in court because "we can never let the world know what I have done to you." A mentally challenged prisoner was tortured and his cries for help recorded so they could be played to coerce his family member's cooperation. CIA techniques "induc[ed] convulsions and vomiting" plus "hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm, and self-mutilation."
The sum of this brutality — some meted on prisoners who should never have been detained at all — was nothing. It produced not a single major piece of intelligence. It did not save lives. It did not keep Americans safe. On the contrary, in the words of the Senate summary, the CIA's torture was an ineffective "means of acquiring intelligence" which "repeatedly provided inaccurate information" and "complicated, and in some cases impeded, the national security missions." It flouted U.S. and international law and served as an invaluable propaganda tool for terrorists.
The CIA's hands are not clean. They never have been. That makes Trump's selection of a torturer to lead the agency no less egregious, and it should make Christians' objections to the choice no less noisy.
Justifying or excusing torture is not and cannot be compatible with a life given to Jesus. When Washington condones torture, we of all people should scream, "No!"