President Donald Trump’s pick for CIA director is about to experience a good Borking.
No one doubts her professionalism, and she’s been endorsed by Obama intelligence officials. Yet Gina Haspel’s long career at the agency, including extensive work undercover in the field, is getting blotted out by her reported involvement in the CIA’s black-site interrogation program, which has become a warrant to say anything about her.
Her critics assert she should be in jail, and The New York Times editorial page wrote about her nomination under the headline “Having a Torturer Lead the C.I.A.”
Not to be outdone in demagogic attacks on anyone associated with our national security apparatus, Sen. Rand Paul calls Haspel “the head cheerleader for waterboarding,” and claims she mocked a detainee for his drooling. The only problem is that this anecdote comes from a book by a contractor who worked with the CIA, James Mitchell, and it describes a man, not a woman, making the comment.
Their factual accuracy aside, the attacks on Haspel are ahistorical in that they ignore the context of the CIA program, and unfair insofar as they portray her as a remorselessly cruel prime mover behind it.
The interrogation program began when al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah was captured in March 2002. At the time, we believed another attack was imminent, and preventing it had an urgency fueled by raw memories of an event that was literally yesterday’s news.
In light of this pervasive feeling, it’s unsurprising that a broad political consensus supported doing what was necessary to get information from captured al-Qaida leaders. The CIA repeatedly briefed select congressional leaders, especially the top Republicans and Democrats on the intelligence committees. By all accounts, the program met with assent.
The interrogation program wasn’t a rogue operation. It was approved at the highest level of the U.S. government, and the CIA sought, and got, explicit legal approval from the Department of Justice.
Haspel is connected in the press to the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, although the CIA hasn’t confirmed her participation in the oversight of any particular detainee and insists much of the reporting about her work in this period is erroneous.
But let’s consider Zubaydah’s case. He was not a detainee who had nothing to tell us, as he is often portrayed by critics of the CIA. Shortly after his capture, he identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of 9/11. CIA documents say that “Abu Zubaydah provided information on al-Qa’ida activities, plans, capabilities, and relationships,” as well as information on “its leadership structure, including personalities, decision-making processes, training and tactics.”
The enhanced interrogations were brutal. Zubaydah was struck, placed in stress positions, confined in small boxes and repeatedly waterboarded. During one session, he became unresponsive. By any standard, this was extreme and right up to the legal line.
The CIA didn’t learn of any planned attack in the U.S.; it did become confident that Zubaydah wasn’t holding back anything about one. From his capture to his transfer to the Department of Defense on Sept. 5, 2006, information from him produced 766 intelligence reports.
In the cold light of day, we would have handled all of this differently. The Bush administration shouldn’t have been as aggressive in its legal interpretations. We should have realized that we had more time to play with, and that the program itself would become a black mark in our reputation overseas and such a domestic flashpoint that we would basically lose all ability to interrogate detainees (droning became the preferred alternative).
But this was a national failing, and at a time when we understandably believed we were in a race to prevent another atrocity on our shores. To punish Gina Haspel more than 15 years later for doing what her country asked her to do, and in response to what she was told were lawful orders, would be a travesty and a disgrace.
But so were the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork.
Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected]