Gina Haspel, President Trump's choice to take over the CIA, is a well-respected figure within the intelligence community, by most accounts. But she is inextricably tied to two very dark elements of the spy agency's past: She ran a secret, post-Sept. 11 overseas "black site" where detainees were subjected to torture, and she participated in the willful destruction of 90 videotapes of some of those interrogation sessions.
Her role in those shameful moments in American history must be central to the questioning she faces during the Senate confirmation process. She must not be confirmed unless she clearly and convincingly explains her actions and involvement, and unless she unequivocally repudiates future use of torture by CIA agents and their proxies.
This would be vitally important under any circumstances — but it is especially so given the ignorant pronouncements of the man who selected her. During the campaign, Trump emphatically endorsed waterboarding and other inhumane practices. "Torture works," he said at one point. "OK, folks? You know, I have these guys — 'Torture doesn't work!' — believe me, it works."
But it doesn't, as psychologists and interrogators have come to recognize. Information gained under torture often is fabricated, for obvious reasons. And even if torture did elicit reliable information, that would hardly justify the use of inhumane and morally repugnant techniques that violate U.S. and international laws and treaties, including the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Haspel joined the CIA in 1985 and spent a lot of time overseas for the agency, including stints in Central Europe, Turkey and Central Asia (much of it covert). In 2002, she was present at the CIA's secret site in Thailand when Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times and at one point seemed on the verge of death, with water bubbling up from his lungs. He was revived and tortured again, details of which are contained in the executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's still-classified 2012 report on the CIA and its torture programs. (The entire report ought to be released so the American people can be fully aware of what was done in their name.)
After Haspel was promoted to oversee the black site, another detainee was waterboarded at least three times; American officials slapped his head, threatened to rape his mother and brought a gun and a power drill into the interview session.
Despite the immoral nature of the CIA's actions at the dark sites, the agency, and Haspel, were at least operating under a dubious stamp of approval: Government lawyers had told them they could. But Haspel's later involvement in destroying videotapes documenting waterboarding at several interrogation sessions was without sanction. Haspel, as chief of staff to the head of the agency's counter-terrorism operations, wrote a memo that ordered the tapes' destruction, even though she and her boss had been instructed to preserve the material as possible evidence in an ongoing investigation. Her boss, Jose Rodriguez, was later reprimanded by the agency's inspector general. Haspel was not; the Justice Department decided not to press criminal charges.
Haspel's involvement in the willful destruction of evidence of torture is as much an assault on the law as the torture itself was on its victims. It is worrisome, to say the least, that the president wants to put in charge of the agency someone with a history of overseeing torture, and then of destroying evidence of what occurred. Is Haspel a different person now? Did she believe in what she was doing at the time, or was she just following orders in a post-9/11 moment of fear? That's unknown, at least to the public. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, intervened in 2013 to try to keep the CIA from appointing Haspel head of clandestine operations. But Feinstein recently has tempered her opposition and said she plans to meet privately with Haspel before deciding whether to oppose the nomination.
Here's a clear line: The Senate needs unequivocal assurances from Haspel that she knows torture is indefensible — and that even if Trump were to order the resumption of these odious and rightly illegal practices, she would refuse to comply. If senators can't get that commitment from Haspel, then the decision on whether to approve the appointment is an easy one: no.