Gina Haspel and the Revival of the Torture Era

Trump’s nominee for CIA Director puts in a positively Bushian performance during her confirmation hearings.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Bush AdministrationCIADonald Trump

Earlier this spring, I wrote that Gina Haspel’s nomination for the position of CIA Director was yet more evidence (if any were needed) that there will probably never be meaningful accountability for Bush-era torture. In light of Haspel’s confirmation hearings this week, it’s tempting to broaden that argument: Her appointment not only represents a failure to grapple with the Bush era; it has actually revived certain aspects of it.

On Wednesday, Haspel appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee to answer (or, more precisely, to not answer) a series of straightforward questions, and her performance was positively reminiscent of the glory days of the Bush era. (Score one more for the continuity-not-anomaly theory of Trumpism.) In response to questions about the immorality of torture, she deflected with paeans to the “extraordinary work” of CIA officers “to prevent another attack on this country” while also declaring her fealty to “the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves [to].” Pressed by Senator Kamala Harris on this completely meaningless response (“Can you please answer the question?”), Haspel responded with a dismissive, self-satisfied terseness worthy of Dick Cheney: “I think I’ve answered the question.”

Haspel’s invocation of the He Kept Us Safe defense was not the only Bushian moment of her hearing. Not since the breathless reports of Iraq’s splendid liberation have high-ranking government officials appealed so nakedly to American credulity. When Jack Reed broached the question of loyalty pledges like the one Trump requested of James Comey, Haspel seemed at first to understand his meaning while hoping to answer diplomatically, saying that “my only loyalty is to the American people and the Constitution of the United States.” But Reed pushed further, asking whether Haspel would report such a request to the Senate Intelligence Committee, to which Haspel responded, incredibly: “Senator, it is a hypothetical. I don’t think it is going to occur. I am very confident about that.” When Reed noted that this was, in no way, a hypothetical situation, Haspel claimed to be ignorant of one of the biggest news stories of the past year: “I don’t know anything about that conversation.” Perhaps someone can furnish her with a certain bestselling book that might fill her in.

Still, neither of these moments could match Haspel’s response about waterboarding for that sheer indifference to reality that characterized the Bush Administration at its most surreal. Asked by Susan Collins how she would respond if given a direct order to waterboard a suspect, Haspel replied: “I do not believe the President would ask me to do that.” (As BuzzFeed drily noted, this was met with “grim laughter in the public gallery.”) It is simply unthinkable that Haspel is unaware that Trump has repeatedly said, both during the campaign and since his inauguration, that he believes torture works and that he wants to bring it back. To the extent that Trump has qualified this view even slightly, it is in his vague suggestion that he would also listen to what advisers like James Mattis and Mike Pompeo have to say—and of those two, Mattis is the only one definitively known to oppose torture. So to take comfort in this offhand qualification requires a person to i) take Trump at his word, ii) believe that he would, in a fit of pique, defer to Mattis (including in situations where Mattis and Pompeo disagreed) and iii) hope that Mattis sticks around for the duration of his presidency in a cabinet where few competent people seem to last long.

It is worth emphasizing that this response is a step back even from what Haspel was reportedly telling senators several weeks ago—that “she understands waterboarding is illegal and that she would follow the law if confirmed.” This simple declaration of fealty to the law was supposed to be reassuring; it shouldn’t have been necessary to say out loud. But in public, Haspel proved unwilling even to be that straightforward. She clearly sensed that it might well have been a nomination-killer to simply say: “Senator, an order to waterboard would be an illegal order, and I would not obey it.” Her decision to simply deny an obvious reality was insulting, but familiar. The torture regime was, it is increasingly apparent, merely dormant for eight years. Haspel’s appointment would confirm that its familiar qualities—mendacity and evasiveness, manipulation of language, and indifference to truth—have merely found yet another outlet in daily political life.

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

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