Gina Haspel Debate Spotlights America's Soul Sickness
Editor’s note: John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will hold hearings Wednesday to decide if Gina Haspel should be the next CIA director. The vote in committee and on the floor of the Senate is going to be close. And if Haspel wins, we will have the Democrats to thank for it.
You remember “Bloody Gina” Haspel. She’s already the CIA’s acting director and has had just about every high-level job in the building. She’s the godmother of the CIA’s immoral, unethical and illegal George W. Bush-era torture program. She was the chief of a secret prison, where she oversaw the implementation of the torture program and was personally responsible for directing the torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing. Nashiri’s attorneys say the torture of their client was so severe that he has lost his mind and can no longer participate in his own defense.
I had personal experience with Haspel. She was my boss in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC). She worked directly for the notorious Jose Rodriguez, the creator of the torture program, who trusted his protégé and confidante to implement it.
I chose to go another direction. In May 2002, a senior CTC officer asked me if I wanted to be “trained in the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.” I declined. I’m sorry to say that I was the only one to decline out of 14 people approached. A few months later, the CIA began to torture Abu Zubaydah, the first high-value detainee.
In December 2007, I decided to go public. I told ABC News that the CIA was torturing its prisoners, that torture was official U.S. government policy and that the torture had been personally approved by President Bush. Three years later, I was charged with five felonies coming out of that interview, including three counts of espionage. I later took a plea to a lesser charge and served 23 months in a federal prison. It was worth it.
The Trump administration wants you to forget the CIA’s sordid history of torture. It wants you to believe that the torture program was legal, that it was patriotic, that it was necessary to protect Americans—lies that were dispensed with before the Bush people even left office. The Trump administration wants you to believe that Haspel is the only perfect candidate for the job. And the Washington chattering class has jumped on the bandwagon.
The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, the CIA’s favorite journalist, said that, sure, Haspel may have overseen the torture program. But she’s a Russia expert. That’s why we need her. Apparently, there are no other people in Washington who are Russia experts and are qualified to lead the CIA. And White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted Monday that anybody who opposes Haspel’s nomination but supports women’s rights is a hypocrite. Let that sink in. Just because she’s a woman. No matter that she’s a torturer.
In my view, a decision on Haspel’s nomination is an easy one. She had the opportunity to say no when she was asked to head the secret prison. She didn’t. She had the opportunity to say no when asked to oversee Nashiri’s torture. She didn’t. She had the opportunity to say no when asked to destroy taped evidence of the torture sessions. She didn’t. I don’t care how smart she is, how friendly she is, what a good officer she is or how much she knows about Russia. Her actions on torture ought to be disqualifying.
But the lemmings on Capitol Hill don’t necessarily see it that way. Some Democrats, both on the Intelligence Committee and in the caucus as a whole, are publicly opposing Haspel. But many aren’t. Dianne Feinstein of California has said that she will decide on Haspel after she has heard the testimony. Mark Warner of Virginia has said the same thing.
The real danger, though, is elsewhere. First, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said weeks ago that he would not “whip” votes on Haspel. That means that all Democrats are free to vote however they want. They will not be asked by party leaders to vote no. Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia has said only the most laudatory things about Haspel. She should expect him to vote in favor of her nomination. And there are other Democratic senators running for re-election in states Trump won in the general election who tremble at the thought of being called weak on national security. We probably should expect yes votes on Haspel from Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., John Tester, D-Mont., and perhaps Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
With that said, the Republicans aren’t necessarily unified either. Rand Paul of Kentucky announced that he will oppose Haspel. Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Maine’s Susan Collins and Tennessee’s Bob Corker are undecided. Arizona’s John McCain spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, where he was tortured mercilessly. He knows what it does to a person. He’s a likely no vote on Haspel, although he is so sick with brain cancer that he may not make the vote at all.
The bottom line is that we really don’t know what will happen with Haspel. I’m not optimistic, though. This is an uphill fight. A clear majority of Americans—nearly two-thirds—support torture. It makes me sick even to say it. I fear that we’re fighting for nothing. Is this really the country we want to be?