Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a CNN contributor and adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
When the next pick to head the CIA comes before the Senate and the nation for her confirmation hearings, it will not just be Gina Haspel – a three-decade veteran of the agency – in the witness seat. It will be the entire history of America’s effort in the post-9/11 intelligence-gathering arena.
And with it also the question, far bigger than any one individual, of whether the United States has yet reckoned with what it asked of its intelligence officials in the immediate aftermath of the September, 11, 2001, attacks.
In that shadow of the ashes of September 11, intelligence officials were asked to do whatever they needed to prevent another attack on US soil. A bewildered nation seeking vengeance and accountability wanted to understand who had perpetrated the attack. And, right after that, it asked why those charged with protecting America had failed to do so. How had this happened?
In the wake of that fear and anger and recrimination and a desire to make certain another tragedy did not occur, America veered onto a path it had not previously tread. And it began what became known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” – what former FBI special agent Ali Soufan called “an Orwellian euphemism for a system of violence most Americans would recognize as torture.” Haspel oversaw a “black site” during this time.
Today, more than a decade later, her nomination to head the CIA has become a Rorschach test for the country. For those who think the United States engaged in torture and has not yet reckoned with that, Haspel is the embodiment of an America that shed its values in the pursuit of expediency – and must face the consequences. She is an example that must be made for a break with the past to be possible.
John Kiriakou, a former CIA counterterrorism officer and senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in The Washington Post: “Putting Haspel in charge of the CIA would undo attempts by the agency – and the nation – to repudiate torture.
“The message this sends to the CIA workforce is simple: Engage in war crimes, in crimes against humanity, and you’ll get promoted. Don’t worry about the law. Don’t worry about ethics. Don’t worry about morality or the findings that torture doesn’t even work. Go ahead and do it anyway. We’ll cover for you. And you can destroy the evidence, too.”
Soufan, author of “Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State,” echoes these sentiments: “(T)oday, the candidate for the top job at the agency is someone who willingly participated in both the program and the attempted cover-up. We need to consider what kind of message this sends to people in the intelligence community and the wider government. Do things right, stand up for American values, and you will be ignored. Flout them, and you will be rewarded.”
Yet for those who served in the agency alongside Haspel, including her former bosses, she is a long-serving agent who did what her superiors asked – work that was legal at the time. And some see gender bias at play.
“I don’t agree with the standards that were put in place, but at the same time, I think we just need to think about that time,” said former CIA Director Leon Panetta, explaining that concern over preventing future terrorist attacks against the United States was prevalent.
“Just judge that and look at her entire record, that’s all I ask,” he said. And he praised Haspel, the first woman to be nominated to lead the agency, as “someone who really knows the CIA inside out.”
Indeed, harkening back to that time, some of Haspel’s colleagues say it is not only unfair to pin the responsibility for the “enhanced interrogation” program on her, it is also inaccurate.
“Those who represent American values, that is the President, the vice president of the United States, elected by the American people, Democrats and Republicans in Congress, not only were told about this, but the CIA was directed to do this by the President,” said former CIA official and now CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd.
“The CIA then went to other people who respect American values, the Department of Justice and said do that – does this comply with US law because it can’t be the CIA being the only ones interpreting law. (The) President, vice president, Democrats, Republicans, Department of Justice said, this not only complies with the law, but we represent the American people, and we want you to do this.
“And people today in this country are now saying Gina Haspel is responsible. Nonsense,” Mudd said.
It is hard for people to remember what that time was like, as Panetta and others have noted. The United States wanted to make certain the attacks of 9/11 did not repeat themselves. That no more Americans died in any next round of terror. And the nation – including Congress – wanted to understand how America’s intelligence services allowed the attacks to happen on American soil against some of America’s most visible – and, it turns out, vulnerable – landmarks.
Fear was the word of the day. As the Congressional Research Service noted, “(C)ongressional intelligence committees responded by launching an unprecedented Joint Inquiry to investigate the Intelligence Community’s record in regard to the 9/11 attacks and make recommendations for further legislative action.”
No one wanted a repeat attack on his or her watch.
None of this is to excuse torture. But it is to explain the context in which Haspel served at that time in her now 33-year-long career. And it is that piece, the context, which is largely absent from the current discussion.
One former CIA official I spoke with said to me that a collective amnesia is at work. Haspel, this official and others told me, was one of many people who carried out a policy her government at the time had sanctioned. And several people I spoke with raised the issue of gender. They asked me how Haspel, who they say was senior middle management at the time, is taking the fall for a policy that did not stop the nomination of a male leader, John Brennan. Brennan served in the Obama era as the CIA director even after facing questions about his involvement in CIA detention and interrogation programs.
So far, Haspel has not spoken for herself. Her hearings will offer an opportunity for her to emerge from the shadows and speak about her thoughts on torture. On security. On service. And on how to confront the threats now facing the United States.
The answers will provide some shape to the Rorschach test her nomination has become.
For while there are clear lines as to how Haspel’s nomination is viewed, one thing is clear: Her hearings offer an opportunity. An opportunity for America to get clear about what once was considered OK by its elected officials and senior leaders. An opportunity for America to come clean on what it will be OK with in the future in service to the nation’s security. And an opportunity for people to return to that time, just after 9/11, and see what we, as a nation, have learned since about keeping the country safe. What we ask of those charged with doing so. And what we want to see from those leading the fight ahead.