With CIA nominee, we must draw a line on torture

Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, reportedly considered withdrawing from consideration because she didn’t want to become “the next Ronny Jackson.” That comparison is apt only in that she could and should face difficult questioning from the Senate, as Mr. Trump’s one-time nominee to lead the Veterans Administration would have. But the reasons for that are very different. Dr. Jackson was flagrantly unqualified to lead the second-largest federal agency. Ms. Haspel, a 33-year CIA veteran with strong relationships within the agency, is unquestionably capable of stepping into the top job. Dr. Jackson faced character questions about his personal conduct and treatment of subordinates. Ms. Haspel does not.

The questions surrounding her nomination are more portentous. They speak not to whether the Trump administration can do even basic vetting of its appointees but whether we have learned any lessons from our disastrous abandonment of the moral high ground after the attacks of Sept. 11. Whether Ms. Haspel was an enthusiastic proponent of what the Bush administration euphemistically referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques” or simply following along with tactics that the White House claimed at the time were legal, there is no doubt that she oversaw the repeated waterboarding of a detainee at a secret CIA site in Thailand and that she was later involved in the destruction of evidence related to it. We need to understand not only what she did and why but what her views are on torture going forward.

Waterboarding is a form of simulated drowning that leaves no physical scars but has profound psychological effects on its victims, often lasting for years. It unquestionably is torture, and it is only one of a series of tactics the CIA used to interrogate prisoners suspected of having information about terrorist activities. Aside from the moral implications, its use at a time when the United States faced acute threats from an enemy that disregarded the rules of war was a major strategic blunder. Al-Qaida and similar groups tried to convince recruits that there was no distinction between their actions and America’s. With its torture program, the Bush-era CIA made the case for them.

There is also little evidence that waterboarding and other forms of torture actually produced the intelligence the CIA sought. A 2014 report from the Senate Intelligence Committee found that the CIA repeatedly misled leaders in Congress and the White House about the effectiveness of its torture program and that the techniques were used far more widely than the agency acknowledged. Sen. Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat who was chairwoman of the committee at the time, expressed initial concern about Ms. Haspel’s nomination, and she told the Washington Post that the more material she has reviewed, the more troubled she has become. Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was himself subject to torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has also pressed Ms. Haspel on her record. His vote — already questionable because his health issues might keep him away — is critical, given Republicans 51-49 edge in the Senate.

It’s important to know Ms. Haspel’s views on the Bush-era torture program and particularly to hear her side of the story on the destruction of videotapes of waterboarding. But most crucially, we need to hear her renounce the use of waterboarding and other cruel interrogation techniques because there is no reason to believe the president she would serve would shy away from pressing for their use. On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump declared that “torture works” and at one point advocated for killing terrorists’ families. He recanted that position, but given his complaint on Twitter Monday morning that Ms. Haspel had “come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists,” there’s reason to doubt the sincerity of his earlier pledges to follow international law.

We don’t prejudge Ms. Haspel’s fitness to lead the CIA, but we do have real concerns about the possibility that the agency could return to what Senator McCain aptly described as one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history. This isn’t about politics. It’s about American moral leadership, and we urge the Senate to take its responsibility seriously.

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