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Gina Haspel: the difference a denouncement makes

Our view: Gina Haspel thinks waterboarding and other forms of torture were wrong; that’s exactly what Americans needed to hear — again

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s 10-5 vote recommending Gina Haspel to serve as the next CIA director means that President Donald Trump’s nominee is likely to get full Senate approval. A week ago, her appointment was in serious doubt almost exclusively because of her role in the intelligence agency’s interrogation and detention program that included waterboarding, a form of torture that forces subjects to experience the panicked sensation of drowning. It was morally wrong and counter-productive after 9/11; it is just as reprehensible and ineffective today.

And while there are still some in the Senate who aren’t comfortable with Ms. Haspel running the Central Intelligence Agency, including Republicans Rand Paul and John McCain and a large number of Democrats, our own misgivings have been eased substantially by two crucial responses from the nominee. The first occurred last week when the 61-year-old career intelligence officer testified that she would not restart the “enhanced interrogation” program of the George W. Bush era nor would she authorize any action that was morally wrong even if she was ordered to do so by President Trump himself.

“Senator, my moral compass is strong,” she testified in response to a question from Sen. Mark Warner. “I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.”

The chief shortcoming in that response, however, was that she was unwilling to say last week that enhanced interrogation was immoral. Why? Most likely because she did not want to condemn the CIA employees working in the anti-terrorism field in that era as evil — as acting without any moral guidance as opposed to simply making a bad choice. “I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to,” was her explanation of where things stood today.

However, more recently, Ms. Haspel has strengthened her position writing to Senator Warner that enhanced interrogation “did damage to our officers and our standing in the world.” She continued: “With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior Agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken. The United States must be an example to the rest of the world, and I support that.”

Considering where President Trump has been on the subject of torture — his platform infamously stated that “torture works” — this is no small concession from Ms. Haspel. Mr. Trump is not known for having great comfort with appointees who stray from his point of view nor for having great confidence in the intelligence community. But it’s possible the president has come to recognize the prevailing view (especially when former Vice President Dick Cheney is not in the room to rewrite history) that soft tactics are just as effective, if not more effective, than torture. As a 2014 Senate Select Committee report noted, torture can impair memory (through sleep deprivation alone) and cause subjects to confess falsely simply to stop the discomfort. Professional interrogators from homicide cops to military intelligence officers have learned that much can be gleaned simply through casual conversation that doesn’t appear oppositional at all.

But Ms. Haspel’s last point is important, too. How can the U.S. convince the rest of the world that we have humanity’s best interests at heart if we operate like thugs? How can we expect the North Koreas or Irans of the world to treat Americans in their custody respectfully if we don’t do the same? How will people living in countries where the U.S. is already viewed skeptically react to news that we embrace torture? Probably not sympathetically. And winning hearts and minds has value, too.

Will Ms. Haspel make a great CIA director? We don’t know. Much of the questioning of her had to take place out of public view because of national security concerns and the secrecy of intelligence work. But, as we’ve noted often before, presidents should have the right to name their top cabinet officials short of a nominee’s obvious disqualification. Ms. Haspel’s denounciation of torture has brought her up to at least the Mike Pompeo standard — the hawkish former CIA director wouldn’t have been our first choice for secretary of state, but he was undeniably qualified. Full Senate approval is the right outcome for Ms. Haspel as well.

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