Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, faced a clear test when she appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. After a 33-year career at the agency, she may be, in many respects, the most qualified person ever nominated to the post, as one Republican senator contended. But she has a dark chapter in her past: her supervision of a secret prison in Thailand where al-Qaeda suspects were tortured, and her subsequent involvement in the destruction of videotapes of that shameful episode.
As Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, made clear from the outset, Haspel needs to clearly repudiate that record. She must confirm that techniques such as waterboarding — now banned by law — were and are unacceptable, and she must make clear that she herself will never again accept orders to carry out acts that so clearly violate American moral standards, even if they are ordered by the president and certified by administration lawyers as legal.
Haspel did not meet that test. She volunteered that the CIA would not on her watch engage in interrogations; she said she supported the "stricter moral standard" the country had adopted after debating the interrogation program. Pressed by Warner and several other senators, she eventually said she "would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal." What she would not say is that the torture she oversaw was immoral, or that it should not have been done, or that she regretted her own role in it — which, according to senators, included advocating for the program internally.
That ambiguity matters at a time when the United States is led by a president who has cheered for torture, who lacks respect for the rule of law and who demands absolute loyalty from his aides. Unfortunately, it makes it impossible for us, and others for whom the repudiation of torture is a priority, to support Haspel’s nomination.
Haspel’s very commitment to the CIA and its people seems to inform her resistance to a clear condemnation of the torture record. "I’m not going to sit here with the benefit of hindsight and judge the very good people who made hard decisions who were running the agency in very extraordinary circumstances," she said. She said that those working in the counterterrorism center "had been charged with making sure the country wasn’t attacked again, and we had been informed that the techniques in CIA’s program were legal and authorized by the highest legal authority in the country and also the president."
Those are honorable sentiments, and it is not our view that all in the CIA who were involved in excesses after 9/11 should be barred from senior positions in perpetuity. Haspel’s principal justification for saying that she would not allow the CIA to return to interrogations is that the agency is "not the right place to conduct interrogations. We don’t have interrogators and we don’t have interrogation expertise." That’s true enough, but Haspel would have served herself better had she offered a principled argument, rather than a pragmatic excuse.