Opinion

The banality of Gina Haspel

When you don't enforce laws prohibiting gravely immoral acts, you get gravely immoral leaders

Gina Haspel appears, at first, to be very unthreatening. During her confirmation hearing to become CIA director on Wednesday, she wore a modest tan jacket, spoke in a flat, Midwest-inflected tone, and resembled nothing so much as a kindly public school principal giving a budget presentation.

Don't be fooled.

Let us be absolutely clear: Gina Haspel was deeply involved in the illegal CIA torture program, and especially the ensuing cover-up. In 2002, Haspel oversaw a "black site" — that is, a secret torture dungeon — in Thailand which at least one person, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was brutally tortured.

A duly enacted treaty (and thus the United States Constitution) and U.S. law clearly and categorically ban torture. Punishments can be up to 20 years in prison, or even the death penalty for fatal torture, which did happen on multiple occasions in the CIA program.

Abu Zubaydah was also infamously waterboarded at the Thailand location 83 times in a single month before Haspel arrived. So were others after she left. A Libyan woman named Fatima Boudchar describes fleeing from then-dictator Moammar Gadhafi, only to be kidnapped in Malaysia and turned over to CIA thugs in Thailand in 2004. She was pregnant at the time, chained up and then brutally tortured — including bludgeoning her midsection. It's a miracle she didn't miscarry, but when she gave birth in March 2004 (after the idiot CIA "interrogators" figured out she was completely innocent and released her, whoops!), the baby weighed only four pounds.

Now, according to the timeline of her career released by the CIA to boost her nomination (funny how cavalier these intelligence agencies can be about secrets when the classified information in question doesn't involve their war crimes), Haspel was not then in Thailand. Instead, she was working for CIA counterterrorism chief Jose Rodriguez, during which time she helped him destroy the recordings of interrogations of Zubaydah and al-Nashiri, many of which showed torture. She drafted the memo later issued by Rodriguez ordering the tapes to be shredded.

Remember too that the CIA torture program produced no good intelligence whatsoever. This is a major conclusion of the Senate torture report, which fits precisely with extensive historical investigations of the use of torture for intelligence. As Darius Rejali writes in his sweeping history of the practice, "For harvesting information, torture is the clumsiest method available to organizations, even clumsier in some cases than flipping coins or shooting randomly into crowds." Sensible dictators understand that torture is good for intimidation, punishment, or extracting false confessions — not intelligence.

Haspel bizarrely tried to have it both ways on this question in the hearing, first saying "I don't believe torture works," then reversing herself to say they got "valuable information" from the torture sessions. Elsewhere, as Marcy Wheeler points out, Haspel straight-up refused to answer multiple key questions, including if she has given Trump a loyalty oath, if she oversaw torture before working for Rodriguez, if she would recuse herself from declassification decisions bearing on her nomination, and most notably, whether she believes torture is immoral. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pressed her hard on that last question, and she squirmed like a Trump lawyer trying to weasel out of an IRS audit.

At still other points, Haspel's arguments and those of her apologists (notably including the CIA itself, which has been lobbying hard for the appointment) were the Nuremberg Defense. On the question of torture and the law, she said: "CIA follows the law, we followed the law then, we follow the law today," later adding, "I was told interrogation experts designed the program and the president of the United States had approved it as well as a trusted leadership at the CIA." On the question of destroying evidence of crimes — which would incidentally be prima facie evidence of obstruction of justice for any non-elite person — CIA propagandists insist she was just following orders as Rodriguez's chief of staff.

She did repeatedly insist that she would not restart the torture program, but we have zero reason to take her word on that. President Trump, after all, is a big torture advocate — and we already know what Haspel does when given an illegal order.

All American public servants have a duty to disobey unlawful orders — and especially ones about torture. As the Convention Against Torture reads: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture … An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture."

For many in this country, American exceptionalism basically boils down to "if the American government does it, that means it is not illegal." The direct result of that view is now up for a Senate vote: a war criminal running the national intelligence service.

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