Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel’s nomination to be the next director of the CIA disturbs both of us about the direction of U.S. leadership, and America’s commitment to fundamental values. We approach the questions her nomination raises from separate vantage points but ones that are fundamentally complementary: One of us served as a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy, while the other most recently was as a deputy assistant secretary within the State Department’s human rights bureau. That collective experience leaves us with profound concerns about the signal her confirmation would send to the rest of the world.
Haspel built her career in the last decade during one of the darkest periods in the agency’s history, when the CIA undercut long-standing human-rights principles in favor of security expediency. Ideally, nobody responsible for devising or implementing the torture program during President George W. Bush’s administration would be eligible for such a prestigious promotion. It is unfortunate that Trump has nominated her to lead the agency, and it will be even more unfortunate if and when the Senate confirms her, as it has confirmed every Trump-nominated cabinet secretary who has received a vote to date.
Her ascent will send a troubling message to the world that the United States does not truly consider torture a crime, and that there will be minimal long-term accountability for those who have committed or facilitated it. If Haspel’s nomination can’t be defeated, her confirmation process represents one of the few opportunities for skeptics to lay out their concerns and attempt to limit the damage her directorship may inflict.
In particular, we believe Haspel should be obligated to answer three key questions: What was the full extent of her involvement in torture during her tenure? Why did she sanction the use of torture—what was her reasoning? What is her current view on torture and how will this affect her decision-making as CIA director?
We have limited insight into the first question. We know that she oversaw a CIA “black site” prison in Thailand. While in that position, she oversaw the enhanced interrogation and waterboarding of at least one al-Qaeda operative, Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri. It has also come to light that Haspel drafted and signed a memo on behalf of her boss, Jose Rodriguez, authorizing the destruction of dozens of videotapes depicting the torture and interrogation of Nashiri and a second operative, Abu Zubaydah. According to reporting, Haspel “was a strong advocate for getting rid of the tapes.” Both of these episodes represent huge ethical and legal lapses. But what else is out there? We simply don’t know.
Haspel built her career in the clandestine service, which leaves gaping holes in her resume. At this point we can only speculate whether other parts of her record contain similar transgressions. The CIA is selectively declassifying information about her service as part of a public relations campaign to help her win confirmation. The agency has only released uniformly positive supporting memos and documents, painting a very one-sided picture. What’s the other side? Did she preside over and authorize the torture of other detainees? Are there other periods in her tenure, in addition to her management of the Thailand black site, where she oversaw enhanced interrogation practices? And why was she such a big advocate for destroying video evidence of torture committed by the CIA? Did she think it was appropriate that the agency should evade responsibility for torture, including acts which occurred under her watch?
Second, why did Haspel subject detainees to torture in the first place? Did she believe that authorizing torture was the right thing to do? Or did she feel compelled to follow orders even though she had personal reservations about this course of action? The former would raise grave questions about her suitability to run the CIA. The prohibition against torture is firmly codified under international law, such as in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. If Haspel fundamentally disagrees with these enshrined international legal principles, and is willing to violate them, she can no more legitimately run the agency than any other public office-holders who simply dismiss laws they don’t like.
On the other hand, if Haspel oversaw torture because she felt obligated to by the chain of command, this also raises deep concerns. Why did she not push back against what she should have recognized as unlawful orders? Did she express her reservations about using these techniques to her supervisors? In the U.S. military, if an enlisted soldier obeys an illegal order from his or her platoon commander, chain of command is no excuse; the soldier is guilty of the crime, just as much as the commander is. The U.S. applied the same principle when it held Japanese and German militaries to account after World War II: rank-and-file soldiers were just as responsible as their commanders for atrocities inflicted on U.S. POWs, and they were punished accordingly. Whether Haspel believes that torture was the right call in 2002, or whether she claims she was merely following orders, she owes a fuller explanation than we have so far received.
Third, what would Haspel do today? What is her current perspective on torture and how will this affect her decision-making? These questions are particularly salient given that she will be serving a president who has spoken bluntly about reintroducing torture. Haspel needs to provide insight into her current thinking, and to publicly apologize for her past conduct. But even that would only be a starting point. She would also need to provide a thorough intellectual accounting of why she believes torture is inappropriate under any circumstance, how her reasoning has evolved, why she adopted a contrary position earlier in her career, and how she will react if ordered to reinstate torture. So far all we have received from Haspel, at least in public, is silence. That is not close to sufficient.
The global optics of confirming a person with Haspel’s record are terrible. The international public has a long memory. We have had lengthy discussions with counterparts who have raised tough questions about prior U.S. conduct, including during the chapter in question. We have had to publicly respond to accusations that the U.S. is hypocritical for espousing human rights on the one hand, while sanctioning torture on the other hand. Our response has been to acknowledge past mistakes, and note that we have rectified them. But we will flush away this goodwill and sow even greater doubts about our integrity if we backslide. Let’s assume that the international community has forgiven the U.S. for past misdeeds. We were scared, mad. We learned our lesson. We have moved beyond it. We acknowledge our sins. How credible does that message sound if we promote a person so deeply involved in torture to run the CIA?
Haspel has not yet come clean about her involvement in torture. Nor has she expressed appropriate remorse for her actions. While she may be a fine officer and well respected by the CIA’s rank-and-file personnel, this doesn’t excuse puzzling lapses in her record, her ethical lapses, and or the fact that she has left so many questions unanswered. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a victim of wartime torture, recently tweeted, “The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history. The Senate must do its job in scrutinizing the record & involvement of Gina Haspel in this disgraceful program.”
That is precisely what we are calling on the Senate to do. Senators need to ask hard questions, and Haspel needs to provide real answers. If there are 50 senators prepared to risk the credibility we’ve rebuilt since our torture practices came to light 13 years ago, the least they can do is try to limit the damage.
John Hutson is a former United States Navy officer, having attained the rank of Rear Admiral. He is an attorney and a former Judge Advocate General of the Navy.
Steven Feldstein is an associate professor and holder of the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor at the State Department.