Why the Confirmation of Gina Haspel to Head the CIA Is a Huge Loss to Our Nation

Two weeks ago, a bipartisan Senate panel voted to confirm Gina Haspel, former head of perhaps the most notorious “black site” in U.S. history, as the new head of the CIA. As her name and face flashed across the screen of my television, I kept thinking instead about other faces—those of the men and, sometimes, women—who had been tortured under her watch. The faces that we, as the American public, will probably never see, whose stories we do not know.

Despite a 549-page “Senate Report on Torture” (Melville House Publishing) that was released in 2014, and an outcry of public condemnation for the CIA’s treatment of both foreign and American citizens in its custody, this Senate voted to confirm Haspel, who played a leading role in the brutal interrogation program. Defending the confirmation, many Democratic senators pointed to a letter Haspel had sent disavowing torture, and to statements made in her confirmation hearing explicitly promising that torture would not be used again under her watch.

These are just words. They are words employed for bare political purposes, to protect the political careers of the senators in that confirmation hearing. But Haspel stands accused of destroying the tapes that showed the worst of the torture, at the black site in Thailand where she worked. The record of what happened there is lost to all of those who were not actually present. Her role in the destruction has been discussed at length, and was a sticking point in her confirmation hearing. Yet she was confirmed anyways. The mere words that she spoke were apparently politically sufficient to erase the actions she took, to cover the blemish of the destroyed tapes.

It made me wonder whether even the tapes themselves, and what they showed—whatever brutality that may have been—would have mattered, or would have prevented her confirmation. I worry they would not. I worry they would not because I worry that in the post-9/11 America, we have decided to accept torture and brutal treatment of those in our custody because we have deemed it better than the alternative.

The first steps down this road happened under George W. Bush, when the administration kidnapped and tortured those it deemed to have information about al Qaeda and its allies in a program known as the rendition and enhanced interrogation program. Bloodless terms for a brutal plan. While Obama explicitly rejected continuing the program, Guantanamo remains open today, housing men subjected to the program who still have yet to have access to the justice system. Donald Trump has promoted the program, shouting to cheering fans at rallies about its success and benefits.

These all seem like policy discussions, and yet, the basis for our explicit refusal as a country to condone torture is more than just a debate over how to fight a war. In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt helped write and pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specifically states, in Article V, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Continuing down the path that we are on means explicitly rejecting the terms of this international agreement, and walking away from a promise forged in the dark aftermath of the Holocaust. By promoting someone like Haspel, by allowing lip service to an ideal to suffice, we are doing just that. Former ‘important’ CIA and intelligence folks are lined up to support Gina Haspel to head the CIA. Does that mean they approve of torture as well? Much like the corrupt police who steal and plant evidence, the blue line holds true to its violators.

The question must be asked: Are we going into an era of approval of torture in our chase of the bad guys? Our history now shows G.W. Bush and Donald Trump approved of torture. The new secretary of State Mike Pompeo approves of it as well.

I worry that in the onslaught of attacks on civil and human rights by this administration has meant that these discussions of torture seem naive and childish, useless in the current climate.  There are so many things to contend with, so many battles to fight—why this one? Yet I think this one is one we simply cannot afford to stop talking about, to stop disavowing. When America approves of torture and then prosecutes no one, then we become a banana republic. More importantly, the other torturers feel free to keep up this destructive behavior.

As I watch Senator John McCain struggle at the end of his life, I find myself mourning the loss of a warrior against torture, as someone who reminded us that politics and policy aside, there are certain things that simply transcend those limits. Standing against torture, fighting its use in every corner of our own country and the world, is fundamental to who we are as a nation. It is something that can be embraced by the bitter right and the most virulent left, and everyone in between.

My suggestion is this: honor John McCain in something he knows and cares about; honor him with a law which guarantees no one will ever be tortured again by American forces.

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