In 2001 and 2002, the CIA implemented a series of techniques on three high-value targets—most famously Khaled Sheikh Muhammed, who was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks—in order to extract valuable information. These techniques, referred to as “extraordinary rendition,” included sleep deprivation, stress positions, nudity, and, most controversially, waterboarding. The experience of waterboarding, for those have who have undergone it, is frightening because it simulates the experience of drowning.
Waterboarding was used at the height of the panic surrounding 9/11 and the subsequent belief by the CIA and the Bush administration that another terrorist attack was imminent. Congress was informed and updated regularly on the use of these techniques. The Bush administration told the CIA that these techniques were legal and ordered the CIA to use them on these high-value detainees in order to extract information. When the knowledge of these practices became public, there was an outcry and Congress eventually outlawed the use of waterboarding. End of story. Or so you would think.
Fast forward 16 years to the Senate hearing for Gina Haspel, and you would not be faulted for finding the Democratic posturing on her nomination to be Director of the CIA not a little hypocritical. Why? Some of the very senators and representatives who now so openly denounce waterboarding as “torture” either approved openly or raised no objections when it was in use. The CIA and Gina Haspel have been made into moral monsters and conveniently scapegoated for a program that had broad bipartisan approval. Democrats like to pretend as though they are the moral conscience on this issue when in fact they were not.
Furthermore, Senators Angus King and Diane Feinstein, who both questioned Haspel on the use of waterboarding, voted for former CIA Director under the Obama administration, John Brennan. In Feinstein’s case, enthusiastically. During the crucial years when the questionable interrogation techniques were in use, John Brennan was the Deputy Executive Director, technically the number four position at the agency. At the hearings back in 2013, barely a word was mentioned about these techniques by the Democrats, and Brennan received nearly unanimous approval from Democrats.
Even John McCain, who has been outspoken in his opposition to Haspel, voted for Brennan. Not sure how McCain squares that circle.
Though Brennan was not directly overseeing the enhanced interrogation program, he was part of the senior leadership at the time it was implemented. In fact, Brennan has defended the program and claimed valuable information was extracted from detainees because of waterboarding.
Haspel, by comparison, was working in counterintelligence and had no role in the design of these techniques. She was the chief over a detention prison in Thailand where it was believed a prisoner was waterboarded and received harsh interrogation.
Brennan, who could be credibly blamed as one of the program’s chief supporters, seems to escape with little to no blame, while Haspel, who was carrying out the orders of her higher-ups, gets accused of moral impropriety because she was tasked with implementing their plan. It would be like hauling a mid-level manager from Bear Stearns before a congressional panel to blame him or her for the collapse of the once-vaunted bank, while unanimously praising the CEO as a decent and honest businessman.
If the Democrats wanted to pick a moral issue to grandstand on, why didn’t they pick the drone program, which, according to New America Foundation, killed hundreds of civilians? Apparently, on the Democratic scale of moral purity, being a mid-level field agent who may have overseen the waterboarding of a single terrorist is disqualifying, whereas the deaths of hundreds of civilians is not.
The explanation for their moral blind spot is simple: it happened under their watch and under their president. Barely a peep has been raised on the drone program by Democrats, except for a few peripheral voices. Trotting out the old “torture” program for one more performance is good theater, so why not bring the dead horse out again for another good beating? The more times you can say “torture,” the higher your chances that newspapers will publish headlines that claim Gina Haspel supports torture.
To be clear: I do not think the actions of Brennan or Haspel disqualify them. Waterboarding went too far in my book, but it does not qualify as torture, not if we compare it to the torture that our opponents use. There is a qualitative difference between actions like beheading prisoners, burning them alive in cages, and throwing them off the tops of buildings and the use of waterboarding. One sits on the line; the other is a gross and utter violation of it. The CIA carried out these programs with congressional and presidential approval. If at a later date we judge that these programs have crossed the line, then the blame should be shared by all who endorsed it.
Likewise, the drone campaign, while it sometimes pushed beyond moral and political limits, was and is an important and valuable tool in going after terrorist networks. Many of the leaders of these terrorist networks were killed as a result of these strikes. Its abuses must be reined in, but we would be foolish to throw away a tool that has been so effective in killing the enemy and significantly limiting collateral damage.
Gina Haspel is eminently qualified to lead the CIA and thankfully was sworn in today. She has had a distinguished career and has received broad support from former intelligence leaders. Democrats may earn some political points from these hearings, but there is a cost for these political games, both for themselves and the CIA.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of White House video of Gina Haspel being sworn in as Director of the CIA on May 21, 2018.