Gina Haspel being sworn before the Senate Intelligence Committee / New York Times

The US Senate has approved President Trump’s nominee for CIA director, Gina Haspel, by a vote of 54-45. Ms Haspel, currently the acting director, is a 33-year veteran of the CIA with a distinguished but murky past. It is reported that she oversaw a CIA facility in Thailand where suspected terrorists were waterboarded and subjected to other refinements of “enhanced interrogation”. She will be the first woman to lead the CIA. 

Senator Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, endorsed as Haspel as the best person to lead the CIA, saying she “has acted morally, ethically, and legally” during her career.

Nonetheless, should Americans brace themselves for more reports of torture in the war on terror? After all, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to approve waterboarding “immediately” and “make it also much worse”. “Torture works,” he asserted. He has since backpedalled on this promise, but a revival of torture is what Hapsel’s opponents fear. Physicians for Human Rights issued a stinging press release:

“Torture is illegal, immoral, and profoundly harmful, not only for its victims but for all institutions involved. Promoting Haspel to CIA director would cement impunity for torture and weaken the United States’ longstanding commitment against this crime. To uphold the progress that Congress has made to put this dark chapter to rest, the Senate must now follow through by rejecting Haspel’s nomination.”

Haspel was interrogated by Senate Intelligence Committee as part of the nomination process. She promised that she would never engage in the kind of activities which happened in the years after 9/11:

“Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, C.I.A. will not restart such a detention and interrogation program …

“I would not put C.I.A. officers at risk by asking them to undertake risky, controversial activity again. My moral compass is strong. I would not allow C.I.A. to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.”

But is her moral compass really that strong? At other moments in her testimony she suggested that whatever is “technically legal” determines what is moral. In fact, Haspel was studiously evasive on the topic of the morality of torture. Here is an excerpt from her interchange with California’s Senator Kamala Harris:

Harris: “Do you believe that the previous interrogation techniques were immoral?” 

Haspel: “Senator, I believe that the C.I.A. did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country, given the legal tools that we were authorized to use.”

Harris: “Please answer yes or no. Do you believe, in hindsight, that those techniques were immoral?”

Haspel: “Senator, what I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to.” 

Harris: “Could you please answer the question?”

Haspel: “Senator, I think I’ve answered the question.”

Harris: “No, you’ve not. Do you believe they are immoral? Yes or no?”

Haspel: “Senator, I believe we should hold ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the Army Field Manual.”

It was a master class in evasion. The conclusion to be drawn from this interchange is that the needle of Haspel's moral compass swings towards the North of the Army Field Manual. 

And a master class in legal positivism, as well. This is the notion that society, mainly through its laws, determines what is moral and immoral. It is the theory du jour in most debates about public policy. Same-sex marriage, which was regarded with disbelief and repugnance only a few years ago, suddenly became morally acceptable, even morally chic, upon legalisation. The concept of “marriage” was simply redefined on the assumption that there was no permanent reality underlying it.

Something similar happened with torture when it was redefined as “enhanced interrogation”. And if Haspel’s legal positivism frames CIA debates about how to interrogate suspects, torture will not be out of the question.

Using the Army Field Manual as a moral compass does not inspire confidence that the CIA under Haspel will refrain from torture if it could be shoehorned within its definitions. All that’s needed is to invent techniques of “enhanced interrogation” which are not envisaged or forbidden by the Manual – even if any decent person would go bug-eyed with horror at seeing them imposed upon another human being. Doesn't the head of the CIA also have to measure her decisions by the natural law which ultimately gives legitimacy to the laws and regulations of the state?

Arizona Senator John McCain, who was a victim of torture himself in the Vietnam War, said that Haspel’s “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.” McCain is right.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.