Gina Haspel’s nomination to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency is running into the buzz saw of the Senate’s confirmation process that is now the standard operating procedure for any Trump nominee for any important position (and some not so important positions) in the administration. Democrats seem to oppose almost every person President Trump nominates no matter how qualified they are primarily on the basis that they were nominated by President Trump (of course, the Republicans did much the same to President Obama’s nominees).
Ms. Haspel, however, does carry some baggage that creates a cause for concern. She was a field operative for much of her 33-year CIA career including clandestine actions and black ops. Much of her career is classified and so cannot be revealed. But it is known that she ran a black site in Thailand where al-Qaida terrorists were water boarded in order to obtain information. It is not known if she participated in the interrogations. She later destroyed tapes of the interrogations because, she said, the tapes showed the faces on the CIA interrogators such that they could be identified.
In her Senate hearing testimony, Ms. Haspel stated “clearly and without reservation” that the agency wouldn’t restart such a program. She further stated that the agency was ill prepared and did not have the expertise to perform the “enhanced interrogations.” But her disavowal of enhanced interrogations did not quite ring true. Angus King, I-ME, said her answers were “narrowly crafted and evasive.” And Senator John McCain, R-AZ, said, “Her refusal to acknowledge torture's immorality is disqualifying.”
But while Ms. Haspel agreed with the Democratic led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report (2012) on the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program that the agency was ill prepared to deal with the aftermath of 9/11, she disagreed with one of the main conclusions, that, “#1: The CIA's use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.”
This is the dilemma we face. Torture, at least in certain cases, works. Perhaps this is why her rejection of the use of enhanced interrogation in the future sounded so hollow. It sounded like Bill Clinton’s, “It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.” Her answer was legalistic, not moral or ethical.
There has been a lot of discussion regarding the use of enhanced interrogation (labeled torture by many) to extract information from terrorists. Progressive pundits assert that enhanced interrogations provided no actionable information to our security forces, while pundits on the right assert that the use of enhanced interrogations is essential to our security and that it has saved American lives and led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. They are both wrong.
Unless our security forces are lying (in which case we have even bigger problems), the use of enhanced interrogation or torture clearly provided information that saved lives. But that's not the point. The use of torture is not in keeping with our American principles. Our principles prevent us from the use of torture or enhanced interrogations. What makes America exceptional is our principles, and the use of torture makes us no better than the terrorists we are fighting (they have no qualms about the use of torture).
What progressives who favor banning the use of torture won't tell you is that banning torture of terrorists will cost American lives. What the rightists won't tell you is that there is a cost to standing by our principles and that cost is American lives. We are accustomed to sacrificing American military lives when our armed forces fight our enemies, but balk at losing American civilian lives. It is an evil world we live in that forces us to make this choice.
There is no front line in the war on terror. Afghan civilians (many of them relatives of the terrorists) have been killed and have been given the euphemism of "collateral damage". They die because they stick to their principles of placing family or tribe above acts of evil. Our civilians will be at risk because of the ban on torture. But that's what we do, what we must do. We are Americans.
The point here is not to highlight specific instances of the application of our principles around the world, but rather to show that there is a cost to maintaining our ethical position. Sometimes the cost is relatively minor, lost business opportunities or reduced profits, but sometimes the cost is dear.
American exceptionalism is based on principles and a life based on principles means a life based on sacrifice. Rejection of torture will cost American lives. But it is the right thing to do.
It appears likely that Ms. Haspel’s nomination will be approved. I am sure she will be a capable administrator of the agency. But if she has any understanding of the true meaning of America and its role in the world, she kept it hidden from the politicians in the committee hearing (not that many of them would have understood).