The Haspel Nomination and the Torture Question

What Her Confirmation Would Mean for Obama's Delicate Bargain

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia, August 2008. Larry Downing / REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump’s nomination of career officer Gina Haspel as director of the Central Intelligence Agency has precipitated a debate about whether her alleged role in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs green-lighted by former President George W. Bush in the months and years after 9/11 ought to be disqualifying. Those who oppose Haspel’s nomination have focused on her role in CIA interrogations that used torture—including as the supervisor of a “black site” in Thailand where enhanced interrogation techniques were used—as a prima facie disqualification. “Gina Haspel Is a Torturer. What Else Does the Senate Need to Know?” asked a recent headline for a Politico opinion piece by Alberto Mora. Other critics point out that Haspel’s role in destroying evidence underscores her culpability, as it suggests that she understood that her actions—and those of others who participated in the program—were at least morally or legally questionable. (Despite ProPublica’s retraction of its report that alleged Haspel had overseen the torture of Abu Zubaydah, serious allegations remain with regard to other interrogations conducted at the site she managed.) Meanwhile, Haspel’s defenders have tried to exonerate her of wrongdoing, arguing that she is a career civil servant who was following the instructions of her superiors and operating within the bounds of what had been declared lawful by Bush administration lawyers.

But if Haspel’s pending confirmation process turns into a kind of unofficial public trial, its result is likely to be unsatisfying. A confirmation process is not a judicial proceeding—it can neither indict nor exonerate, and it provides little space for nuance. If she is denied confirmation because of her alleged participation in the interrogation programs, that outcome will be a facsimile of accountability attached to someone who neither created the programs that used torture nor concocted their legal justifications, while those who did have yet to be held accountable. If she is confirmed, it will be because enough senators found the mitigating circumstance

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