05/15/2018 12:12 EDT | Updated 05/15/2018 12:17 EDT

Trump CIA Pick’s Refusal To Condemn All Torture Is Canada's Moral Problem, Too

Gina Haspel was involved in the CIA's torture apparatus and has repeatedly backed away from calling techniques like waterboarding immoral.

Each time the United States' political and legal systems refuse to pursue any form of accountability for key participants in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pentagon torture programs, it puts another nail in the coffin of the global struggle against impunity for torture.

Each time U.S. impunity is confirmed, the torture apparatuses of other states are emboldened. They know it makes U.S. criticism of them that much less likely and they also know that their governments can push back with charges of hypocrisy if the U.S. does try to get righteous with them about their own uses of torture.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters
CIA director nominee and acting CIA Director Gina Haspel is sworn in to testify at her Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on May 9, 2018.

This global moral impact is amongst the stakes if the U.S. Senate confirms Gina Haspel as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Senate Intelligence Committee has announced it will vote on U.S. President Trump's nomination of Haspel on Wednesday.

Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, Gina Haspel was assigned to the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, and became chief of staff to the head of that unit. The unit coordinated the rendition, detention and "enhanced interrogation" program that was run by the CIA alongside other U.S. actors, and that received cooperation from various states around the world. It was, for example, this program that saw Canadian Maher Arar detained in New York, flown to Jordan, and passed on to suffer horrific torture in Syria.

Canada is not immune from our own versions of, and connections to, the legacy of torture in America.

Haspel also was sent in late 2002 to run a CIA secret detention station in Thailand, a "black site" at which torture had taken place before her arrival and continued during her time there; she oversaw the interrogation — including the use of the torture method of waterboarding — of a detainee named Abd al-Rahim al-Nasiri. Later, in her chief of staff role, she drafted the order that led to the destruction of the videotape evidence of the 83 instances of waterboarding torture used against Abu Zubaydah at the same CIA black site in Thailand before her arrival. When nominated by President Trump to be CIA director, Haspel had risen to become the CIA's deputy director.

Canada is not immune from our own versions of, and connections to, the legacy of torture in America. On the overarching issues of morality and accountability, successive Canadian governments — including the present Trudeau government — have refused to call a commission of inquiry to look into the policy and practice of the Canadian military sending detainees in Afghanistan to the substantial risk of torture at the hands of Afghan security agencies widely known to use brutal interrogation methods as standard procedure.

Francois Lenoir / Reuters
Syrian-born Canadian citizen Maher Arar was sent to Syria for interrogation after being arrested at a New York airport in 2002.

Canada also has direct connections to the CIA rendition and torture program. This is demonstrated not simply by the involvement of a key Canadian intelligence agency in the supply of information to the U.S and Syria that led to Maher Arar's torture, but also by the fact that Canada transferred prisoners to the Americans in Afghanistan while the U.S. torture system was at its height. The extent of Canadian officials' knowledge of the U.S. employment of torture remains a closely held secret to this point, the details of which will hopefully soon emerge.

Impressive and accomplished as Gina Haspel clearly is as an intelligence official, the question is: should someone centrally involved in an "enhanced interrogation techniques" program, which used techniques that included torture, become the head of the CIA?

Haspel had deftly avoided any statement that the use of torture techniques like waterboarding in 2001 to 2002 was immoral.

We must be mindful that no one has a right, as a matter of fairness to them as an individual, to be promoted to run such a consequential public institution as the CIA simply because of her high competence or because of the achievement her appointment would represent in terms of breaking the glass ceiling — or even a combination of the two. If such an otherwise meritorious person's appointment would simultaneously reflect state sanctioning of a brutal code of ethics, then such an appointment must not be made.

This is why the testimony of Gina Haspel on Wednesday, March 9 before the Senate Intelligence Committee was so important. Would she take refuge behind law, orders and security imperatives, or would she acknowledge that what was done was as wrong in 2001 to 2002, as it would be wrong now? If she were to make such an acknowledgement, then perhaps the case could be made for turning a page. I say "perhaps" because, while I am not personally convinced such an acknowledgement would be sufficient, I recognize that others like U.S. Senator Mark Warner have taken the position that such open and public acknowledgement is the lynchpin for her candidacy — as the senator made clear in his opening remarks as vice-chair during the hearing.

But the result of the hearing was that Haspel backed away from any such clear acceptance of moral responsibility.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Protesters gather prior to acting CIA Director Gina Haspel's testimony at her Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on May 9, 2018.

The most we got was:

  1. A view that the law (and its current embrace of the U.S. Army's manual on interrogation) sets a "higher moral standard" now than was the standard when she was involved in administering a torture program (which view, it is important to realize, does not mean that previous standards were immoral — only that they were less moral);
  2. A promise that she would not do something that she considered immoral, whatever the legality, if asked by the president (all the while refusing to say that she considered what she did in 2001 to 2002 to have been immoral); and
  3. A statement that she would not support the reinstatement of a "program" of detention and interrogation at the CIA (saying nothing, for example, about such things as the ad hoc conduct of individual intelligence debriefings outside such a formal interrogation program).

By the end of the hearing, Haspel had deftly avoided any statement that the use of torture techniques like waterboarding in 2001 to 2002 was immoral.

She emphasized her supreme obligation was to the U.S. constitution — and more broadly to the law (seemingly, this meaning whatever legal authorities tell her the law is at any given time) — along with the people of the U.S. Repeatedly but in various ways, she fell back on the claims that waterboarding had been lawful (under U.S. law — international law was never mentioned once, by anyone, during the entire hearing) and believed to be necessary to protect Americans from a follow-up 9/11 attack of some sort.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, center, and ranking member Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, left, arrive to a confirmation hearing for Gina Haspel, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) nominee for President Donald Trump.

She said she did not want the reinstatement of such a program because of the jeopardy it could create for the CIA as an organization or for CIA officials — not because it was immoral.

She skirted the question of whether she would obey a presidential order to subject a person to "enhanced interrogation" (or worse, since Trump said on the campaign trail that he has no problem with torture beyond what he called the "minor" technique of waterboarding) — whether or not there was a formal program. All she could say — anemically — was that she would inform the president that agencies other than the CIA now have the role of detention and interrogation.

She never once indicated whether she even accepted that some of the "enhanced interrogation techniques," like waterboarding, constituted torture. That said, the fault may be less hers than that of the Senate: somehow, not a single senator managed to ask her that question directly even though they had to know that former CIA directors and acting directors, like George Tenent, Mike Hayden and Michael Morrell, refuse to accept that waterboarding constitutes torture.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump walks out of the Oval Office of the White House.

Clearly, Haspel's audience was not just the Senate and the public at large but also — indeed, mainly — Donald Trump and her CIA colleagues. However, this constraint cannot excuse the fact that Haspel refused to provide the kind of assurances needed to get to first base on the question of whether — despite her own involvement in a torture apparatus — she should nonetheless be given the nod as an acceptable, let alone the best, choice to run the CIA.

Allow me to end on the issue with which I opened — that of moral hypocrisy. This question came up at the very end of the hearing when Senator Jack Reed asked Haspel whether she would have found it morally acceptable if Al Qaeda had captured a CIA officer and waterboarded that officer.

Appointment of Gina Haspel to direct the CIA would be a mistake. A major moral mistake.

Haspel seemed not to understand the question initially, but, when pushed, she said it would not be acceptable for a CIA officer be treated in such a way by such an uncivilized group. When the senator pointed out that her answer had necessarily conceded that what she and the CIA did was equally immoral, Haspel played the "false moral equivalences" card. She adamantly argued that there is no comparison between the CIA where "enhanced interrogation" was conducted under the "guidance" of law and "terrorists who by their very definition are not following anybody's law."

This was a line of argument that was both revealing and deeply disturbing. In Gina Haspel's mind, the line between justified and unjustified torture turns out to be a combination of the distinction between lawful torture and lawless torture, and of the "logic" of good guys versus bad guys: as long as permitted by the grace of law, good actors can waterboard bad actors, while bad actors can never waterboard good actors because, well, they are bad and because their torture can never be "civilized" by law as we know it.

Committee Chair Richard Burr played into this narrative by ending the meeting with an invitation to Haspel to describe the two earlier-mentioned bad guys who were in that CIA torture centre in Thailand. This tag-team performance — which almost certainly had been scripted — screamed, in effect, "These people are so evil that no one should lose sleep that they were tortured."

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Such is the orientation of the "strong moral compass" that Haspel assured the senators had been implanted in her by her parents and that would guide her in handling both the complex world out there and the particular challenges of a president like Donald Trump.

Such is the moral system she would bring to bear if ever Trump comes knocking on her door with a sense of nostalgia for the good old days of post-9/11 good versus evil.

Appointment of Gina Haspel to direct the CIA would be a mistake. A major moral mistake.

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