The US Senate Again Grapples with the CIA Torture Program During Haspel Confirmation Hearing

Protesters at Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearing. Source: SJAC

The rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program is again making headlines in the United States with the nomination of Gina Haspel to be the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) due to questions surrounding the nature of her involvement with the program. On Wednesday, the US Senate Intelligence Committee had the opportunity to question Haspel on her record to determine whether she is fit for the position of CIA Director. Several Senate Democrats asked Haspel whether, in hindsight, she viewed the CIA’s torture of terrorism suspects as immoral, and she repeatedly avoided the opportunity to offer an unequivocal denunciation of torture. While she did, with some prodding, state that torture does not work, immediately afterwards she suggested that the CIA’s interrogation program may have been effective, implying that she does not consider the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques employed by the CIA to be torture. Her responses during the hearing led US Senator John McCain of Arizona to issue the following statement: “Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.”

Given the CIA’s rendition of suspects to Syria, a country that was known to employ torture, and the worrying trend of torture being normalized globally, SJAC also urges Congress to reject Haspel’s nomination based on her obstinance at Wednesday’s hearing. Haspel cannot be trusted with the responsibility of directing an agency that operates with so little oversight, and her confirmation would hamper the United States’ ability to be a global voice for human rights and justice, including in Syria.

In addition to her moral stance on torture, much of the debate about Haspel’s nomination centered on who is ultimately responsible for the RDI program. In his opening statement in support of Haspel’s nomination, former senator Evan Bayh argued, “Responsibility for these programs lies with the commander in chief.” Aside from the fact that international law has generally rejected the superior orders defense – otherwise known as the Nuremberg defense, there is no doubt that the greatest responsibility lies with those who authorized the program, including President George W. Bush and the Department of Justice’s Attorney General’s office, which produced the memos that offered the legal justification for waterboarding. However, the United States never undertook investigations to hold high-level officials accountable or to expel CIA officials who were deemed most culpable; thus, every individual who may have been involved in the program remains tainted.

Moreover, given the legacy of the program, it is vital that the CIA Director possess the fortitude to reject orders by a president to lead the CIA down the same path. During the RDI program, there has been no indication that Haspel ever spoke out against the CIA’s action’s internally, and, again, she failed to clearly criticize the program publicly in hindsight.

Moreover, Haspel’s opinion on the rendition of suspects to countries that practice torture remains unclear, as senators failed to inquire about this aspect of the RDI program at Wednesday’s hearing.  A decision to block Haspel’s nomination should not be viewed as an attempt to punish her, nor would it be a statement that she is more culpable than high-level Bush administration officials. Rather, it should be attributed to the country’s lack of accounting for past crimes that could have otherwise assured the American people as to Haspel’s record, as well as to her own demonstrated lack of judgment both then and now as to the absolute prohibition on torture. With current US President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric in support of torture, such judgment is absolutely critical in a potential CIA Director serving in this administration.

Aside from what actions Haspel may or may not take as CIA Director, her confirmation would be a message to the world that the United States still refuses to repudiate past mistakes. During her remarks Haspel repeatedly stated that the United States, and by extension the CIA, had decided to “hold itself to a stricter standard” when making the decision to end the interrogation program. Restraining from the use of torture should not be considered a “stricter standard.” It is a basic requirement of international and US law, as well as the moral values that the United States represents on the world stage. If the United States is to play a role in promoting human rights and justice around the globe, it must start at home. Again, SJAC urges the US Senate not to confirm Haspel’s nomination.

For more information or to provide feedback, please post a comment below or contact SJAC at info@syriaaccountability.org.

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