This post was contributed by a member of Roosevelt @ MSU.
On this Fourth of July, our politics is characterized by the bitter partisanship and outrage which has plagued our politics for the past several years. So, it only seems right to try and return some degree of civility to that politics—hence this piece.
High-profile nominations invite commentary from all sources, clearly our blog is no exception. However, the chaos of our national politics amplified by the 24-hour news cycle means the policy debates which rightly consume our attention one day may be replaced by something entirely different the next. Moreover, the frantic and reactive way we tend to develop our opinions about politics means that the nuance and careful consideration of the arguments for and against a nominee, an obligation of every citizen developing an opinion on these issues, generally get lost.
Gina Haspel’s nomination was another opportunity to have a frank but civil discussion about the direction in which we want our country to proceed. However, we failed to do so. This piece seeks to replicate after-the-fact the analysis we should have done as a nation before and, in doing so, fulfill a civic obligation that we have ignored for too long.
New director? Who?
If you missed it (and it is possible that you did), we have a new Director of Central Intelligence named Gina Haspel. On May 17th, 2018 by a vote of 54-45 she became the first woman to serve as director in the agency’s history. Her experience made her a prime candidate for the job. At the time of her nomination Haspel was Deputy Director of the CIA, before which she worked undercover in Ethiopia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Ultimately, she transferred to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (her first day on the job was Sept. 11th) and, most importantly for the arguments about her confirmation, came to run a CIA “black site” in Thailand. The “black sites” were the secret prisons to which captured terrorists were sent and interrogated as part of the agency’s Rendition, Interrogation, and Detention (RDI) program. Central to RDI operations, interrogators used techniques which, depending on your views, are either known as “advanced interrogation techniques” or, to discard the euphemism, torture.
These techniques were the subject of debate and certain legally binding directives were passed to prevent such deviations from domestic and international law. Indeed, this piece does not attempt to relitigate the RDI program. But, we never came to a consensus about how to consider the agents and decisionmakers at CIA who designed, carried out, and oversaw the RDI program. What should happen to them when, say, they are nominated by the President of the United States to serve as the next Director of Central Intelligence?
Complicating Haspel’s case was the fact that she was chief-of-staff to the director of the Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez, in 2005 when he ordered the Thailand site to destroy tapes of the interrogations. The order followed a possible Senate investigation into the CIA’s treatment of its detainees (the motion was voted down). Haspel, however, denies that the decision was a response to the Senate proposal. As the Washington Post reports, “Rodriguez and Haspel had argued internally that the videotapes showed the faces of the interrogators and if made public could open them up to reprisals; there were also concerns about the propaganda value to al-Qaeda.”
Yae or Nay?
Leading up to the confirmation, there were several arguments, each weighing the facts of Haspel’s career, her participation in the program, and her complicity in the destruction of tapes against the alternatives to her nomination and the imperatives of a professional intelligence community in today’s politicized environment. To better understand the arguments, it is useful to divide them into four categories: the civil libertarian case, the intelligence community case, and two cases in between.
Emblematic of the civil libertarian case is the position of the ACLU, which presented a simple argument: Gina Haspel advocated for and took part in an illegal torture program and then was complicit in covering it up. Dorr Landon’s blog post on the ACLU website contains three subtitles which capture this argument:
- No one could have believed in good faith that the CIA’s torture program was legal.
- Those involved with the torture program were desperate to cover up what they were doing
- Destroying evidence is illegal, no matter how many CIA officials sign off on it.
The ACLU’s case for caution is strengthened by the fact that the president nominating Haspel has publicly advocated a return of the techniques employed in the RDI program. This, the ACLU argues, should give pause to those who supporting her nomination.
The ACLU case also weighs the international ramifications of Haspel’s confirmation. In their statement responding to her confirmation the ACLU said, “Overseas, we expect Haspel’s torture record will raise demands for accountability worldwide.” Certainly, this should be considered.
There is merit to these arguments. If we, as a nation, have truly decided that torture is wrong, should the Senate be allowed to send a message to the country and the world that we are not going to take that history seriously and hold people accountable?
On the other end of the spectrum is the intelligence community’s argument, captured most clearly in a letter cosigned by thirty-six former senior intelligence community officials. They argue that Haspel’s is an exceptionally skilled operative, able administrator, and the most prepared person to lead the CIA in an age of new threats. Notably, her experience in intelligence work against the Soviet Union makes her particularly suited to stand against a resurgent Russia.
Concerning the destruction of tapes, the former intelligence chiefs cite the prosecutors decisions not to bring charges and argue that she was exonerated through an internal review conducted by the former Deputy Director of CIA, Michael Morell in 2011.
Most importantly, regarding her participation in the RDI program, the intelligence community has largely maintained that she followed her orders, as her job required, and was not one of its architects. Therefore, they see her as far enough removed to not to be responsible for its creation and, therefore, should not be punished for following simply orders. These chiefs also see Haspel as a law-abiding professional who will not bring back the RDI program or its techniques under pressure from the president.
There is merit to these arguments as well. The security challenges of the day are real and require an able response from our intelligence community. We need the best person possible to lead the agency. The return of great power competition means that espionage, in the more traditional sense, will return in force. A person who spent their career in the field is, unquestionably, the best qualified to make judgement calls about such operations.
Moreover, if everyone who ever touched the RDI program was considered tainted, it would be impossible to find an experienced person to lead the CIA. When the country faces its greatest international security challenges in decades, given that there are laws and oversight mechanisms in place to prevent anyone reinstating the RDI program, should we not allow the person best prepared to respond to those challenges within the limits of the law to do so?
The arguments which fall between the ACLU and intelligence community’s positions grapple with elements from both the ACLU and the intelligence community. Since there were many, I have chosen two: Ben Wittes’s piece on Lawfare and Mieke Eoyang’s piece for The Atlantic.
I highly encourage everyone to read both pieces. They represent carefully considered assessments of Haspel’s career which ultimately come down on opposite sides of the question, will Gina Haspel protect the intelligence community from Trump?
Wittes does not engage with the idea that Haspel will bring back torture. He writes, “Morality aside, there simply is no serious argument that this country needs an RDI program now.” His reservations about Haspel come entirely from the fact she is nominated by this president. Wittes is rightly concerned about the message that the Senate sends by confirming a nominee who has engaged in torture when the President has advocated it so forcefully. However, he responds to this reservation by arguing that Haspel is important because she will insulate the intelligence community from further politicization under the Trump presidency. He asserts she will “[ensure] the agency’s ability to deliver serious, dispassionate analysis, not precooked conclusions congenial to a president who already knows the ‘truth’ and just wants validation for it.” She can “[absorb] the craziness emanating from the White House so the career folks can do their jobs.”
On the other hand, Eoyang sees Haspel’s loyalty as a “liability” which would lead to her to the very politicization that Wittes argues she will prevent. Eoyang writes, “In this environment…She would be an enabler of a president who would urge her to target his opposition and could push the agency back to the days of the family jewels.”
The intent of this exercise is not that you are completely persuaded by any one of these arguments. If you are a principled opponent of torture, let that be your guide (certainly, it is mine). But before making decisions about our collective security, we must consider the other perspectives. The intelligence community’s support of Haspel is not clear advocacy for torture, nor is the ACLU’s opposition to the techniques indicative of any lack of patriotism or willingness to allow terrorists to continue operations. These groups make different, legitimate arguments about what is most important in a nominee. Similarly, Wittes and Eoyang’s support and opposition, respectively, for Haspel’s nomination does not mean that their arguments can be boiled down to a simple yea or nay. Their conclusions are the product of a careful meditation on the need to ensure security, protect institutional independence, and reconcile with our history.
These confirmation hearings are an opportunity for us to tangle with the difficult questions of this country’s past and future. While it is easy to simply fall into partisanship or resort to extreme arguments and oversimplifications in order to win the debate, our country needs levelheaded discussion, now more than ever. We need to make the effort to cultivate an informed debate on the merits of individual cases, abandoning our ideological entrenchment in favor of a civil, high-minded politics.
That starts, as do all cultural changes, with ourselves.