I’m having a hard time making up my mind about Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
On one hand, after 33 years of dedicated service to our country in some of the world’s darkest, most dangerous corners, Haspel seems qualified and deserving to lead the agency.
On the other, during her testimony last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee, she failed to reject torture as an interrogation technique as emphatically as some of the senators might have wanted.
For the most part, Republican senators asked Haspel supportive, accommodative questions. But some Democrats were interested in Haspel’s supervision of a secret prison in Thailand in 2002, where at least one Al Qaida suspect was waterboarded.
They were interested, also, in Haspel’s role in the suspicious destruction of videotapes that documented the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the U.S. after 9/11.
Eventually, Haspel rejected the use of torture in the future: “I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”
Nevertheless, she failed to categorically renounce the use of torture in the past, and she declined to assert that torture is essentially immoral.
But my ambivalence about Haspel reflects our nation’s ambivalence about torture.
On one hand, many Americans reject torture as a matter of moral principle. Haspel’s assertion, however, that the “CIA historically has not done interrogations” didn’t sound right. It prompted me to look up “interrogation programs” in the index of Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.” Haspel is mistaken.
Weiner documents the CIA’s establishment of clandestine prisons in the early 1950s to coax confessions from suspected double agents. Two were located in Germany and Japan, but the biggest prison was in the Panama Canal Zone, a place where, according to one source, “It was anything goes.”
Wiener documents also the CIA’s Vietnam-era Phoenix program, which involved the detention and torture of suspected enemy combatants, as well as other programs that used torture, often in violation of U.S. law.
But the CIA has no monopoly on American torture. In his history of the Spanish-American War, James Bradley quotes First Lt. Grover Flint, who described to a Senate panel the regular waterboarding of Filipinos: “A man suffers tremendously; there is no doubt about that.”
So when President George W. Bush authorized the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques after 9/11, the move over to the “dark side,” as Vice President Dick Cheney put it, wasn’t a very long trip.
Furthermore, for many Americans, the “dark side” isn’t completely indefensible. Haspel and her colleagues at the CIA were desperate to prevent another horror like 9/11. If waterboarding could save thousands of innocent lives, many Americans would wholeheartedly support the practice. I might, myself.
It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: We abhor torture, until we think we need it.
Our American ambivalence toward torture is embodied in the perspectives of two men:
If we think America despises torture, it’s worth noting that we’ve elected a president who is an unequivocal proponent of its use. Trump said, if elected, “I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse.”
Trump contrasts sharply with the gravely ill Sen. John McCain, who called upon his Senate colleagues to reject Haspel’s nomination because of “her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality.”
Trump is mistaken about McCain’s hero status. Any pilot with enough courage to fly off an aircraft carrier is already well past halfway to being a hero. Then McCain endured a combat shootdown and 5½ years of captivity with his honor and spirit intact.
But McCain’s moral authority derives from the torture he suffered at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors. He had more than five years to consider the worst moral outrages that men (or women) are capable of inflicting on one another.
McCain proved that a man can survive torture. What isn’t clear is whether the U.S. can survive if we become unashamed torturers.
John M. Crisp, a columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.