Was the CIA’s use of torture immoral?
Don’t ask Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the agency, because she doesn’t have a clear answer – or, at least, not one she was willing to offer publicly and under oath on Wednesday.
Called upon repeatedly during her confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill to address whether the CIA’s post-9/11 detainee interrogation techniques were morally objectionable, Haspel demurred, refusing over and over again to address the question directly and without qualification.
“My parents raised me right,” she said, at one point, after being scolded by a Democratic senator for addressing “fundamentally moral questions” with “very legalistic” explanations. “I know the difference between right and wrong.”
Haspel, who has spent more than three decades with the CIA, entered the room with a clear plan. First, she pledged that the agency, under her leadership, would not “restart … a detention and interrogation program” like the one since banned by Congress. But Haspel, who reportedly led a CIA black site in Thailand in 2002 where harsh interrogations now considered torture were conducted, and served as chief of staff to the CIA’s top operations officer, Jose Rodriguez, in 2005, when he ordered the destruction of hundreds of hours of videotaped interrogations, often hedged her remarks when quizzed about her own feelings and some very specific potential challenges up ahead.
Supportive Republicans, including Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, anticipated the focus on Haspel’s controversial past and sought to steer the discussion toward the future.
“I’d like to set the record straight and make clear to those in attendance, and the American people, that this hearing is not about programs already addressed by executive order, legislation and the court of law,” Burr said, “it is about the woman seated before you.”
In this, he was unsuccessful. There was, less than 24 hours after Trump announced the US would leave the Iran nuclear deal, little discussion of its implications. The coming presidential summit with North Korea, too, was an afterthought. This was about the American use of torture – what happened after 9/11, why, and whether Haspel would consider reviving the outlawed programs.
But even as she gave her assurance that waterboarding would not make a comeback on her watch, Haspel left at least four key questions – one with a very sharp eye on her past actions – either unanswered or open to some interpretation.
Would Haspel follow a direct presidential order to waterboard a detainee?
Most of the more persistent questioning came from the Democrats on the committee, but it was Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins who first presented this particular scenario.
Noting Trump’s campaign trail support for waterboarding and comments that the US should “go beyond” it, she asked, would Haspel follow a “direct order” from the White House to waterboard “a high value terrorism suspect” in CIA custody?
“Senator, I would advise — I do not believe the President would ask me to do that, but um, we have today in the US government other US entities that conduct interrogations,” Haspel said, then naming the Department of Defense and FBI as better venues for interrogating detainees. “I would advise anyone who asked me about it that CIA is not the right place to conduct interrogations.”
One word she did not say: No.
Immediately after Collins’ time expired, her Democratic colleague from New Mexico, Sen. Martin Heinrich, took up the baton, noting that Haspel “didn’t actually answer the question,” and asked what she would do if Trump “ordered you to get back in the business (of waterboarding)?”
“Senator, the President has selected me to give him advice,” Haspel said, adding: “I would not restart under any circumstances an interrogation program at CIA, under any circumstances.”
It was a clearer response than Collins got, but still a bit fuzzy. The initial question centered on an order, straight from the President, about the treatment of a specific individual, not the reinstatement of a “program.” On the latter point, Haspel had said she was opposed earlier on, during an exchange with Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the committee’s vice chairman and top Democrat.
“I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it,” Haspel said. “CIA must undertake activities that are consistent with American values. America is looked at all over the world as an example to everyone else in the world and we have to uphold that.”
Haspel acknowledges that torture is now illegal, but does she believe it is — and was — immoral?
Heinrich moved on from there to follow up, again, on an unclear answer from earlier. Citing Haspel’s “legalistic” response to Warner, Heinrich gave it another go: “Let me ask you again,” he said, “were these the right thing to do? Are they consistent with American values, fundamentally? What do you believe?”
But Haspel, again, sought to distance herself from the issue at hand, saying, “I believe very strongly in American values and America being an example to the rest of the world. That is why I support the fact that we have chosen to hold ourselves to a stricter moral standard.”
What remained unclear is how Haspel herself — a relevant point given the power she is in line to assume — views the behavior of the CIA during that time under the Bush administration.
Later on in the hearing, California Sen. Kamala Harris, also a Democrat, returned to the point and asked again if Haspel thought “the previous interrogation techniques were immoral?”
After a few seconds of tense silence, Haspel said, “Senator, I believe that CIA officers to whom you referred—”
“It’s a yes or no answer,” Harris said, breaking in. “Do you believe the previous interrogation techniques were immoral? I’m not asking if you believe they were legal, I’m asking, do you believe they were immoral?”
Here’s the exchange that followed:
Haspel: “Senator, I believe that CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools that we were authorized to use —”
Harris: “Please answer yes or no. Do you believe in hindsight that those techniques were immoral?”
Haspel: “Senator, what I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to —”
Harris: “Would you please answer the question.”
Haspel: “Senator, I think I’ve answered the question.”
Harris: “No, you’ve not. Do you believe the previous techniques, now armed with hindsight, do you believe they were immoral, yes or no?”
Haspel: “Senator, I believe that we should hold ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the Army field manual (which prohibits torture).”
Harris noted one more time before moving on that Haspel had not, in fact, given a clear answer.
But she hadn’t left the public empty-handed. By refusing to condemn waterboarding and related tactics, Haspel made it clear that, while she would follow the law, her decision-making would not be guided by any feeling of personal or professional opposition to its practice.
What would Haspel do if Trump asked for a loyalty pledge?
At a very different hearing in June 2017, former FBI director James Comey told the story of a now infamous meeting with Trump at the White House.
“The President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,’” Comey recalled, as he has so many times since. “I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.”
That in mind and citing Comey’s account, Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed presented to Haspel a similar scenario.
“If you were ever approached by the President and asked for a personal pledge of loyalty,” he said, “what would you respond?”
“Senator, my only loyalty is to the American people and the Constitution of the United States,” Haspel answered. “I am honor-bound and would work very hard to deliver to this President and his administration the best performance and intelligence CIA can deliver.”
Reed followed up: “And if you were approached in such a way and such a demand was made of you, would you inform this committee and Congress that you had been so approached?”
“Senator, I’ve worked very closely with this President, I don’t – I don’t believe such a circumstance would ever occur. CIA has been treated with enormous respect and our expertise is valued for what we bring to the table.”
Reed pushed on, to no avail, with Haspel dismissing the scenario as “a hypothetical” she was confident would never come to pass.
Does torture “work”?
The issue of Haspel’s “moral compass,” which she described as “strong,” was set aside at points for discussion on the actual value of intelligence obtained through torture.
Again, it was Harris trying to wrench a straight answer from the nominee on what remains, though not as prominently as during the Bush years, a lingering debate in national security circles – and was, during 2016, a talking point for then-candidate Trump.
“The President has asserted that torture works,” Harris said. “Do you agree with that statement?”
“Senator, I don’t believe that torture works,” Haspel said. But she added what sounded like a caveat: “I believe that in the CIA’s program – and I’m not attributing this to enhanced interrogation techniques – I believe as many people, (like) directors who have sat in this chair before me, that valuable information was obtained from senior Al Qaeda operatives that allowed us to defend this country and prevent another attack.”
To underline the mixed messaging, Harris asked, “Is that a yes?”
“No, it’s not a yes,” Haspel shot back. “We got valuable information from debriefing of Al Qaeda detainees and I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”
Her answer, at this point at least, was clear: Maybe, maybe not.