Why Can't We Talk About the T-Word with Trump's CIA Pick?

How torture became unspeakable yet defensible in Washington.

Gina Haspel
Photo Credit: Central Intelligence Agency / Wikimedia Commons

The key to defending the practice of torture is never to use the word.

When the Bush administration wanted to torture suspected terrorists after 9/11, it adopted "enhanced interrogation techniques." When President Obama decided not to investigate Bush's torture regime, he said it was "time to look forward, not backwards."

Now that deputy CIA director Gina Haspel, a leading participant in the torture regime, has been nominated to run the agency, this linguistic evasion is returning with a vengeance. As AlterNet and other news sites provide abundant documentation of Haspel’s role as a torturer, the word recedes from the Washington debate over her nomination. 

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The Cipher Brief, a blog run by former U.S. intelligence officials, solicited comments on Haspel’s nomination from six former U.S. officials. All of them praised her. All but one alluded to her record of torture. All avoided using the T-word. 

One cited a "confirmation issue.” Another predicted she would be challenged on her “connection with the CIA rendition and black site program.” A third referred to her “managing a detention facility.” A fourth said Haspel had “hurdles to overcome.” A fifth cited her role in the “former detention and interrogation program."

None disputed Haspel’s role in torturing suspected terrorists, because there is no dispute. The executive summary of a still-classified Senate Intelligence Committee report describes the torture regime in (literally) agonizing detail at “Detention Site Green,” the code name for the CIA detention facility in Thailand that Haspel ran starting in July 2002.

Haspel, the agency now says, did not oversee the torture of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi member of al-Qaeda who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002. But she knew about it and destroyed evidence of it. What did she know?

A declassified CIA memo, obtained by the ACLU, details the torture techniques that the base proposed for Abu Zubaydah before Haspel arrived. They included:

“attention grasp, walling technique, facial hold, facial or insult slap, cramped confinement, wallstanding, stress position, sleep deprivation, waterboard ONE LINE REDACTED and mock burials. To this was added the placement of harmless insects in the confinement box (based on AZ’s apparent discomfort with insects).”

"Cramped confinement" means stuffing an adult male into a box 30 inches tall, 30 inches wide and 21 inches deep. After consulting with the Justice Department, baseofficials eliminated “mock burial” as a torture technique and adopted all of the others, including the insects.

CIA officials knew the torture might kill Abu Zubaydah and planned accordingly. According to the Just Security blog, one CIA official wrote:

"If subject develops a serious medical condition which may involve a host of conditions including a heart attack or another catastrophic type of condition, all efforts will be made to ensure that proper medical care will be provided to subject. In the event that subject dies we need to be prepared to act accordingly keeping in mind the liaison equities involving our hosts. If subject dies, we plan on seeking [redacted] assistance for cremation of the subject."

In 2005, Jose Rodriguez, the head of the agency’s clandestine service, ordered the destruction of videotapes of Abu Zubaydah waterboarding sessions. Haspel, who had since been promoted to be Rodriguez’s chief of staff, advocated getting rid of the tapes, according to CIA officers quoted by the New York Times.

'No Evidence'

The argument that the participants in the 9/11 attacks have no rights and thus can be tortured, even to death, is politically popular, but political popularity is a poor tool for intelligence professionals seeking to obtain timely and accurate information. 

The same CIA memo, written by the chief of the agency’s Office of Medical Services (OMS), concluded:

"In practice, however, AZ's cooperation did not correlate that well with his waterboard session. Only when questioning changed to subjects on which he had information (toward the end of waterboard usage) was he forthcoming. A psychologist/interrogator later said that waterboard use had established that AZ had no further information on imminent threat—a creative but circular justification.

"In retrospect, OMS thought AZ probably reached the point of cooperation even prior to the institution of 'enhanced measures'—a development missed because of the narrow focus of questioning. In any case, there was no evidence the waterboard produced time perishable information that would have been unobtainable.”

The failure of torture, like the word itself, is unspeakable to Haspel’s defenders.

Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden: "She’s got a confirmation issue, and they will be coming out of the woodwork with her previous history. But that’s a fight I think the president wouldn’t mind having. 'I’m tough on terrorism. These people aren’t.' So it may be personally difficult for Gina, but I do think she gets confirmed.… Gina Haspel did precisely what the agency and the nation asked her to do.”

Former DNI James Clapper: "She will, I think, ultimately be confirmed, but will be challenged by some Democrats (notably California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein) about Gina’s connection with the CIA rendition and black site program."

Former CIA deputy director of intelligence Carmen Medina: "I think Gina Haspel would do quite well as director of CIA. She is a thoughtful professional who has a balanced understanding of CIA’s role: she knows firsthand the operator’s world but also understands the importance of analytic rigor and objectivity.”

Former director of CIA’s National Clandestine Service John Bennett: “She is one of the most accomplished officers of her generation, having held a series of major field commands and headquarters positions.... I suspect she will face the same issues in confirmation that were raised when she was named as deputy director of the CIA, specifically her role as Jose Rodriguez’s chief of staff when he ordered the tapes destroyed and her time managing a detention facility.”

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, and CIA officer Mary Beth Long: “Gina will do a fantastic job. She knows how the building works. She will have some hurdles to overcome. Some issues were raised when she was nominated to do the deputy job.… Most importantly, she has the admiration and respect of the workforce."

Former CIA Acting General Counsel and Senior Deputy General Counsel Robert Eatinger: “If confirmed, Gina will be a great CIA director. She is a very experienced and thoughtful operations officer who has held a series of leadership posts.… I anticipate a tough confirmation hearing since the 'right' or 'wrong' of the former detention and interrogation program continues to stir strong feelings on both sides.”

The underlying assumption of all of Haspel’s defenders is that, even if torture is immoral, illegal or ineffective, U.S. intelligence officials must be free to do whatever they want in defense of “national security.” That was the attitude that launched the torture program 17 years ago, and neither failure nor disgrace seems to have dispelled it.

In hindsight, Obama’s decision in 2009 not to investigate or indict those who engaged in torture, perhaps understandable at the time, left a legacy of impunity that renders the unspeakable defensible and paves the way for torturers to return to positions of power.

Those who have been tortured speak more plainly.

“The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history,” said Sen. John McCain. “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process.” 

She can start by saying the word torture.

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Jefferson Morley is a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. He is the editor the JFK Facts blog and author of The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press). Follow him on Twitter @JeffersonMorley.