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Discerning Gina Haspel's moral landscape

Discerning Gina Haspel's moral landscape

The height of Western judicial restraint occurred after WWII. Both the Nuremberg and the Tokyo War Crimes trials presented a tremendous amount of principle and self-discipline that the nations of the world wanted to use as a model for the future.

We knew the Nazis and the Japanese were guilty of war crimes. Famously, Robert Jackson, the U.S. Chief of Counsel at the Nuremberg trials, wanted the tribunal to serve as a model for justice in the future: that even the worst criminals received a trial and that similar standards of criminal activity would hold throughout the world. He delivered a powerful opening statement.

Many Japanese officials were prosecuted as well, at the Tokyo War Crimes trials. Among the allegations were extensive accounts of waterboarding and other forms of torture. Jeremy Scahill described it in the intro to his most recent podcast, and I highly suggest it.

Gina Haspel, Trump's nomination for CIA Director, had a hearing Wednesday. The main controversy surrounded her involvement in the torture program in the early 2000s. She gave more than a few troubling answers.

She dodged and dodged and dodged. Most significantly, Haspel refused to answer whether or not torturing detainees was immoral and inhumane, referencing it as good practice more than once.


Haspel "vowed" to never restart a torture program at the CIA. She continuously objected based on legality, stating that it wouldn't comply with current U.S. law (which is true). Laws change, though, in any country with a legislative body, which is why some senators tried to glean a picture of Haspel's inner morality. They were unsuccessful.

Haspel pointed to her moral compass. Senators Kamala Harris and Martin Heinrich asked for clarification on what that moral compass thought of torture. She didn't answer definitively.

Other senators and Haspel invoked "American values" when talking about torture. Doing the best we can with this vapid term, let's assume it means the right to a trial, habeas corpus, and the right to remain silent. She said she would follow "American values," but Haspel certainly didn't object to these unamerican activities in the previous decade.

Senator Ron Wyden asked if she ever called for the torture program to continue as it was winding down after 2005. Haspel answered:

"I think like all of us who were in the counterterrorism center and working at CIA in those years after 9/11, we all believed in our work. We were committed, we had been charged with making sure the country wasn’t attacked again, and we had been informed that the techniques in CIA’s program were legal and authorized by the highest legal authority in our country and also the president. So I believe that I and my colleagues in the counterterrorism center were working as hard as we could with the tools that we were given to make sure that we were successful in our mission."

When pointed back to the question, she deflected.

“After 9/11, I didn't look to go sit on the swiss desk. I stepped up. I was not on the sidelines. I was on the front lines in the cold war, and I was on the front lines in the fight against Al-qaeda. I am very proud of the fact that we captured the perpetrator of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I think we did extraordinary work. To me the tragedy is that the controversy surrounding the interrogation program, which as I’ve already indicated to Senator warner I fully understand that, but it has cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country.”

Wyden’s questioning of Haspel

Haspel tried to excuse the activity because of its supposed outcomes. Later, she acknowledged that those outcomes due to torture were almost zero, consistent with the Senate report on torture released a few years ago. Again, I shouldn't have to point this out, but the outcome of an immoral action doesn't reversely determine the morality of that action. Haspel might not grasp this concept.

Senator Susan Collins asked if Haspel's views about the program ever evolved. She said yes, and added:

“I’m not gonna sit here with the benefit of hindsight and judge the very good people who made hard decisions who were running the agency in very extraordinary circumstances at the time, but as I mentioned to senator warner, this country has had the opportunity to reflect, because we have some space, we’re not fearing another attack, and we have deliberated about the standard we want to use in interrogations, and that is the army field manual. The very important thing to know about CIA is we follow the law. We followed the law then, and we follow the law now. But I would never permit CIA to resume an interrogation program.”

Collins’ questioning of Haspel

Haspel took into account the "extraordinary circumstances at the time" when evaluating the morality of torture. She once again deferred to the law, justifying the actions based on the situation the country was in. The entire point of underlying morals and principles is that circumstances don't change them.  "American values" stipulate the right to a trial and the right against self-incrimination regardless of variables like circumstance and legality.

Senator Martin Heinrich asked Haspel about whether torturous actions were fundamentally right or wrong, and steered her away from legal answers. Their exchange is telling:

Heinrich: "Let me ask you again: Were these the right thing to do? Are they conssitent with American values, fundamentally?
Haspel: "Senator, I believe very strongly in American values, and America being an example to the rest of the world. That is why I support the fact that we have chosen to hold ourselves to a stricter moral standard."
Heinrich: "But that's about Congress and all of us. I wanna know what you think.
Haspel: “I think that we should hold ourselves to a stricter moral standard and I would never allow CIA to be involved in coercive interrogations.”
Heinrich: "Where was that moral compass at the time?"
Haspel: “Senator, that was 17 years ago, and CIA like the US army and the US marine corps, it’s an organization, it’s a large bureaucracy, and when you're out in the trenches, in far-flung outposts in the globe, and Washington says here’s what we need you to do. This is legal, the attorney general has deemed it so. The President of the United States is counting on you to prevent another attack…”

Here, it's worth noting that in the same hearing, Haspel said that she would not go through with a command from the President if she determined the request to be immoral but legal. This directly conflicts with this answer, where she justified the torture program because of legality and presidential order. Continuing:

Heinrich: "I know you believed it was legal. I wanna see, I wanna feel, I wanna trust that you have the moral compass you said you have. You’re giving very legalistic answers to very fundamentally moral questions.”
Haspel: "Senator, we’ve provided the committee every evaluation since my training report since I first joined in 1985. In all of my assignments, I have conducted myself honorably and in accordance with US law. My parents raised me right, I know the difference between right and wrong.”

Heinrich questioning Haspel

Clearly, Haspel believed she conducted herself "honorably" while she oversaw the torture black site in Thailand. Unfortunately, Heinrich moved on after Haspel's answer.

Senator Kamala Harris' questions as well as Senator Jack Reed's. It's important to remember that some of the tortured detainees from the early 2000s ended up being innocent.


In the end, morality is not an outward action, but an inner conception that expresses itself through action. While Haspel might value the legal standards the United States has chosen, that doesn't necessarily mean she values them morally, and I think she made it clear.

Journalist Marcy Wheeler said it best:

"When asked whether torture was moral, Haspel instead repeatedly insisted she has a sound moral compass. Except what her testimony made clear is that her idea of moral compass has everything to do with what is good for the CIA and its officers. It has absolutely nothing to do with traditional moral values. That’s not actually surprising. That’s what we ask of clandestine CIA officers: to break the rules normal people adhere to, in the name of serving our country, and to remain absolutely loyal to those whose lives are exposed in doing so.
Except today, Haspel proved unable to move beyond the fluid moral compass of a CIA officer to adopt a more stringent moral code of an official serving a democracy."
Enemies abroad?

Enemies abroad?

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