Ordinary Americans – those of us not allowed to know the secrets of high-level espionage work – at this point find it hard to judge accurately the accomplishments of Gina Haspel as she climbed through the ranks of the Central Intelligence Agency.
President Trump, in nominating Haspel to head the agency where she now is deputy director, of course painted her in glowing colors. (It seems that Trump, as he goes about cementing his bid to become the most problematic chief executive in our history, believes all his nominees are great until he fires them or they quit in exasperation. Reference Rex Tillerson, ousted a few days ago as secretary of state and slated to be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.)
None of that has stopped North Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and thus a key figure in Haspel’s confirmation process, from obligingly echoing his fellow Republican in the White House:
“I know Gina personally and she has the right skill set, experience, and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies,” Burr said in a statement. “I’m proud of her work, and know that my committee will continue its positive relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency under her leadership. I look forward to supporting her nomination, ensuring its consideration without delay.”
What’s wrong with that picture? Plenty.
Most notably, Haspel is linked to one of the CIA’s darkest chapters of recent years – the torturous interrogation of terrorism suspects following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Prisoners were made to suffer mightily in the misguided hope that they would disgorge information about ongoing terror plots. It was an approach that dragged the United States down toward the level of its cruel adversaries, undercut its moral standing and violated international codes.
So was the person now in line to direct the agency herself guilty of torture? Did she order others to engage in torture? Does she believe the right decisions were made? And given similar circumstances, would she make those decisions again?
Trump, after all, has declared his support for the use of waterboarding – simulated drowning that is one of the most abusive “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Would Haspel tell her agency to put waterboarding back in play as a counter-terrorism tool?
These are the kinds of questions Burr and his committee must publicly address. Burr, who’s in the loop with all manner of classified information, may think he already knows the answers and may find them satisfactory. But that’s nowhere near good enough for the country as a whole to be confident in Haspel’s judgment and her ability to set a proper example for her agency –whose actions of necessity take place largely out of public view. If there’s to be accountability, Burr and his colleagues must take the lead in enforcing it.
Fade to black
Burr already has blundered in suppressing the full version of a report by the Intelligence Committee into the CIA’s interrogation tactics. The report was prepared when the committee was under Democratic control; the abuses occurred during the administration of Republican President George W. Bush.
Even if the report had partisan overtones, Burr put more importance on being a Republican team player on defense than in getting the full truth about CIA conduct into the light where the public could assess it. Now, with Haspel’s record a matter of critical interest and significance, he should ensure that relevant material in the report is taken fully into account and that Americans know the details – specifically, the details of what occurred at the CIA’s “black sites” where terrorism suspects were held.
Haspel was in charge of one of those secret prisons, in Thailand, for a time in the latter months of 2002. What occurred there during that period has yet to be conclusively reported, but it appears that at least one person, Abd al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, endured the kind of treatment that can fairly be described as torture, including waterboarding.
It would be a travesty if Burr and his committee allowed Haspel’s confirmation to proceed without her full, public explanation of what she did in Thailand, why she did it and the lessons learned. And a key lesson would have to be that the CIA must never go down that road again.
Unfortunately, since a considerable portion of Haspel’s CIA career was conducted undercover, it may be that the public will be deprived of significant information about her record. It could well be that she has done her best work operating in the shadows and that details cannot be disclosed without jeopardizing the agency’s mission. Her critics should take that into account.
Still, those critics have every right to single out another highly troubling episode in which she was involved. It turned out that interrogation sessions with al-Nashiri and another brutalized al-Qaeda suspect, Abu Zubaydah, were videotaped. The dozens of tapes thus became evidence that torture or something very close to it had been committed.
Abu Zubaydah’s mistreatment apparently took place before Haspel arrived at the prison. In any case, when she later was working as the CIA’s chief of staff for the director of clandestine operations, she is reported to have drafted a cable ordering personnel in the field to destroy the tapes, which they did.
That’s another issue Burr’s committee must explore. Even if she herself were following orders, how could she not have realized that shredding the tapes amounted to the destruction of possibly incriminating evidence? Of the various things in her record for which Haspel will have to answer, her role in getting rid of those ghoulish tapes could and perhaps should be the show-stopper.
North Carolinians have good reason to pay extra-close attention as Haspel attempts to navigate the obstacle course on Capitol Hill – and not simply because the agency she has been chosen to lead bears such a heavy responsibility for helping protect the nation.
As it happens, our state played a tangential role in the CIA’s so-called rendition program, in which terrorism suspects were taken after their capture to places where “enhanced interrogation” could be used. Aircraft operated by a CIA contractor flying out of the Johnston County Airport near Smithfield accounted for some four dozen rendition flights – making at least some North Carolina residents and public officials complicit in prisoner mistreatment.
A group of experts and activists empaneled as the N.C. Commission of Inquiry On Torture held hearings late last year aimed at documenting the activities of CIA-linked Aero Contractors and holding accountable all those involved in the renditions and abusive interrogations. Sen. Burr so far has seemed to let the group’s findings go in one ear and out the other.
Now the Haspel proceedings give Burr a chance to take a more open-minded approach to the CIA’s troubling record of abuse, including not only Haspel’s role but also the roles of some of his constituents, even if indirect.
The N.C. Council of Churches stands with the commission in opposing torture on moral, legal and practical grounds. We urge Burr to make sure Haspel is held to high standards as someone who can lead the CIA with honor and integrity. She should have every chance to make her case. Too bad there are ample grounds to be skeptical – not the least of which is that the loose-cannon president who chose her thinks the use of torture is just fine.
Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches .