Twice I’ve written in opposition to the confirmation of Gina Haspel as our next director of Central Intelligence. And I was heartened to see that she attempted to withdraw her name on Friday. I even liked her reasoning:
A career veteran of the agency, Ms. Haspel told White House officials that she was worried less about her own reputation than about the potential damage to the C.I.A. from a bruising confirmation battle. The C.I.A. has struggled to put the legacy of its interrogation policies behind the agency.
We’re still using pseudonyms for torture here. “Interrogation policies” sounds like we’re talking about the good cop/bad cop routine instead of beating people to death, shoving them in boxes, slamming them against walls, and using “Chinese water torture” on them 266 times. What the CIA has struggled to do is to put their legacy of torturing people behind them. And that means that the United States hasn’t put it behind either.
What the CIA does reflects on all of us. We don’t know and are not supposed to know much about what our clandestine services are engaged in, but when we find out that they’re committing gross violations of human rights it is our responsibility to put a stop to it. If we fail, then we become complicit and the world at large has the right to judge us for it. If we want to have the credibility to criticize other countries for their records on human rights, then we have to be able to clean up our own house. If we don’t want to be a target of those who fight for human rights, we have to maintain an exemplary record.
If we instead choose to elevate Gina Haspel to the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency, then we all lose.
In one sense, it’s already too late. The Bush administration tarnished America’s image and badly eroded our moral standing in the world, and people will still be using their record to dismiss America’s leadership for decades or even centuries regardless of what we do from here on out. We can’t blot out history.
But we can mitigate the damage. Our legacy of slavery and Jim Crow dragged on us all throughout the Cold War, but we were able to build up some moral authority despite this by putting past injustices partially right and establishing an international architecture for resolving conflicts, protecting human rights and helping deal with humanitarian disasters and crises. That’s the record we need to emulate now.
We can’t get started if our Senate confirms Gina Haspel. Her confirmation would send the message that engaging in torture and covering up and destroying evidence of torture are things that will get you a promotion to the top of our intelligence community instead of shameful things that require accountability and atonement.
Haspel seems to recognize this, which is why she’s wavering on whether she can credibly lead the agency she clearly loves. That she has many admirers and defenders speaks well of her broader career and leadership potential, but those details are ultimately irrelevant. She can’t be our new CIA director because of the bad marks on her record, and this is something that no amount of good marks can overcome.
Her nomination offers an opportunity. By defeating it, we can take some meaningful steps in the right direction. The message will be even more powerful precisely because her record is otherwise impressive. It will be clear that she was rejected purely for her record on torture, and for no other reason. That’s the exact kind of message America needs to send to the world.