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If Gina Haspel is going to be confirmed as the next CIA director, a post she was nominated to fill by President Donald Trump on Tuesday, she will have to disavow the interrogation techniques that made her famous.
That also means contradicting Trump’s own oft-stated belief – one he discussed, repeatedly, before and after taking office – that waterboarding “works” and falls short of “real torture.”
This is not a popular opinion – at least not anymore – with most Democrats and a large enough chunk of Republicans that should Haspel do anything less than foreswear its use, her rise within the agency might run into a brick wall on Capitol Hill.
Outgoing CIA Director Mike Pompeo has some experience with what’s in the offing. During his confirmation hearing in January 2017, he was asked by Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who’s a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, whether he would follow orders by Trump to use torture tactics.
“Senator, absolutely not,” Pompeo said. “Moreover, I can’t imagine that I would be asked that by the President-elect.”
Haspel will face that question, for sure, but also more personal ones – related to her own actions. Unlike Pompeo, a former businessman and House member, Haspel is an agency veteran who was intricately involved in the execution of George W. Bush-era CIA interrogation programs, including those carried out at the “black site” prison she reportedly ran.
Trump and Haspel, who took part in the decision to destroy tapes of those interrogations, would seem to have more in common. During the 2016 campaign, Trump said, “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” – a nod, it seemed, to the tactics overseen by people like Haspel after 9/11.
Those techniques, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation, were outlawed in 2015 – months after a report detailing some of the more gruesome tactics was made public – with a bipartisan amendment spearheaded by Feinstein and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
“She’ll have to answer for that period of time, but I think she’s a highly qualified person,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told CNN. “That was an authorized program at the time, that would no longer be legal. The problem I would have is if she somehow tried to suggest you could still do that.”
Which brings us back to the specter of Trump. And the wild card here: Defense Secretary James Mattis. Days after taking office, Trump told reporters at a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May that it was only Mattis’ resistance to torture that stood between him and backing its reinstatement.
“I happen to feel that it does work. I’ve been open about that for a long period of time. But I am going with our leaders and we are going to win with or without,” Trump said. “But I do disagree.” As for his own beliefs, here’s how Trump summed them up during a Fox News interview around the same time:
“I mean, torture is real torture, OK? Waterboarding is – I’m sure it’s not pleasant, but waterboarding was just short of torture.”
What happens, then, if Mattis leaves and there is no one in the administration to, as Trump put it, “override” him? Given the pace of turnover in this White House, and Trump’s position – consistently stated – that alarm over waterboarding is misguided, the stakes are climbing.
Pompeo’s confirmation hearing took place before Trump was sworn in; he was confirmed days after. Anxiety over how the new President would behave, at least on this issue, might have been higher, but Democrats were less inclined to oppose his first round of nominees.
Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, explaining his vote for Pompeo, said then, “I have also been reassured by the multiple responses he has made under oath to comply with the law banning torture.”
Days later, The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, writing after Haspel was named to her current post, detailed her record – and the kind of reckoning she had avoided by accepting the deputy role: “Because Haspel’s new job is exempt from congressional confirmation, it’s doubtful she will ever have to publicly answer questions about her role in what amounts to America’s dirty war.”
There will be no hiding this time around.