An Important Test for the “Keep Walking” Theory

Gina Haspel’s nomination for CIA Director belies the idea that the country has “moved past” the torture era.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Bush AdministrationTorture

In recent days, President Trump has made the alarming decisions to appoint John Bolton as national security advisor and to nominate Gina Haspel for CIA Director. Each played a key role in some of the worst Bush-era policies: Bolton was one of the Iraq War’s most aggressive promoters and defends it even today. Meanwhile, Haspel not only oversaw a CIA black site where prisoners were waterboarded; she was later involved in the CIA’s destruction of 92 videotapes depicting its treatment of detainees. Bolton’s appointment has understandably received more media attention, since his unparalleled bellicosity is just about the worst possible match with Trump’s susceptibility, short attention span, and need to turn everything into a quest for animal dominance. But Haspel’s nomination is also cause for deep concern. Unlike Bolton, she has to be confirmed, and her confirmation is a test of how far the rehabilitation of Bush-era officials has proceeded.

The results of this test are unlikely to be reassuring. Haspel’s nomination is the predictable result of the 2009-era consensus that the best way to reckon with the Bush torture regime was to try and forget it. This attitude was widespread among politicians, pundits, and other public leaders, many of whom agreed that Bush’s presidency had been a disaster (or rather, a series of disasters), but were nonetheless made profoundly uncomfortable by the thought of holding any of the responsible parties to account, even when it came to their worst abuses. Obviously, “accountability” can refer to a wide range of measures affecting a wide range of actors, but this general attitude was more than just hostile to the notion of legal accountability. It also applied to the more modest suggestions that bad actors should be professionally sanctioned, or that post-9/11 abuses should prompt serious collective soul-searching (instead of exculpatory hand-waving about regrettable but understandable excesses). Even these more informal steps were frequently portrayed as an unseemly partisan desire for score-settling, or as simply impolite. When it came to torture, some of the country’s leading political voices were urging Americans to not look back, to “keep walking.”

On this issue as with so many others, alumni of the Bush disasters might have been disgraceful, but they nonetheless managed to avoid disgrace. Some, like Haspel, have continued to serve in government, out of the limelight. In either case, the “keep walking” argument relied on the vague notion that a dark chapter had closed in American history, and that declining to dwell on these unfortunate missteps would allow the country to move forward without the danger of endless recrimination.

This represents a complete misreading of the situation. The belief that the country could move on without accountability presumed that a disapproving consensus of Bush-era abuses did, in fact, exist. But the absence of real accountability sends a very different message: Many of us might dislike what you did, but our distaste for conflict and controversy outweighs our desire to rectify these wrongs. In other words, declining to seek accountability doesn’t prove that a consensus exists (making forward-looking preventive measures superfluous); in fact it proves that no such consensus exists. Conservative media learned this quickly and used the threat of partisan rancor to their advantage. Barack Obama’s 2009 statement that the country needed to look forward, not backward, was probably the result of a (very plausible) calculation that a decision to “look backward” on this issue could easily imperil the rest of his agenda.

We are now living with the results, but little seems to have been learned in the near-decade since that time. How else to explain the credulous reporting on Haspel’s nomination, which includes nuggets like this, from CNN:

Haspel, who is under scrutiny because of her past oversight of a CIA ‘black site’ in Thailand, has told senators over the past two weeks that she understands waterboarding is illegal and that she would follow the law if confirmed, according to two sources with knowledge of the conversations.

She has also distanced herself from the destruction of CIA tapings of harsh interrogations, saying she didn’t order the tapes to be destroyed, the sources said. And she has argued that the post 9/11 mindset in the CIA and federal laws over interrogation tactics are far different today.

The language here suggests that this is reassuring information. Haspel, now chastened, “understands” that waterboarding is illegal, even though there were laws prohibiting it when the CIA last engaged in the practice. She has “distanced” herself from the destruction of the torture tapes, even though she served as the chief of staff to the CIA official who ordered their destruction, and—according to his memoir—wrote a draft of the order. And she claims that the agency’s “mindset” has changed, as if another serious terrorist attack wouldn’t generate the same panic that led the Bush Administration to flout the law in the name of national security. (A 2016 New York Times analysis optimistically suggested that barriers constructed in the wake of Bush-era abuses would make it difficult for Trump to revive torture, as he has publicly said he would like to do. But the article did not suggest that it would be impossible.)

Since a return to the torture regime remains a live possibility, lawmakers who are genuinely opposed to torture should take this opportunity to signal that even if abuses won’t result in legal accountability, they at least might obstruct an official’s promotion to agency director. I’m not optimistic that this will happen; recent experience suggests instead that complacency and arrogance will prevail. That seems like an apt way to characterize the belief that our officials would never again torture or cover up torture, since they can evidently count not only on legal impunity, but—as we may soon see—professional impunity as well.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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