Published On: Fri, May 11th, 2018

Why John McCain opposes Gina Haspel leading the CIA

Why John McCain opposes Gina Haspel leading the CIA

John McCain, seen here in a Hanoi hospital as a prisoner of war, was shot down over Vietnam during a bombing mission on Oct. 26, 1967

By James Hohmann

With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.

THE BIG IDEA: What’s legal and what’s moral are different. “Right and wrong” are subjective. Not everyone’s “moral compass” points them to the same true north.

Gina Haspel, President Trump’s pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, repeatedly declined to say during her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday whether “enhanced” interrogation techniques were immoral. The controversial methods were used against terrorism suspects during the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Haspel oversaw a secret CIA prison in Thailand.

This is why John McCain, who suffered mightily at the hands of his Vietnamese captors during five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war, is urging his colleagues to reject Haspel’s nomination. “Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” said the Arizona Republican.

— Battling brain cancer, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee is making what might be his last moral stand. “I know that those who used enhanced interrogation methods and those who approved them wanted to protect Americans from harm,” McCain wrote in a statement that referred to Haspel as a patriot. “I appreciate their dilemma and the strain of their duty. But as I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.”

— What precisely are the “values” McCain is referring to? Whatever might have resembled a national consensus on that question has eroded these past few years. That’s why giving definition to something seemingly as anodyne as “American values” became a flash point during Haspel’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“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,” Haspel said. “My moral compass is strong. … My parents raised me right. I know the difference between right and wrong. … I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that is immoral, even if it is technically legal.”

— But every time Haspel was asked to elaborate about the “stricter moral standard” she said she supports, the 33-year agency veteran leaned on the letter of the law like a crutch. Haspel promised she would not revive the CIA’s interrogation program, even if ordered by Trump, because she “fully” supports the current “standards for detainee treatment required by law.”

The Republican-controlled Congress passed an amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, quarterbacked by McCain, which limited interrogation techniques to those contained in the Army Field Manual 2-22.3. That version explicitly rejected practices such as waterboarding, forcing detainees to pose in a sexual manner and placing hoods or sacks over the heads of detainees.

— “For Democrats looking for details, getting a straightforward answer from Haspel was like interrogating vapor,” writes Ben Terris.

“No one should get credit for simply agreeing to follow the law,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chair of the committee. “That’s the least we should expect.”

“You’re giving very legalistic answers to very moral questions,” complained Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pressed harder than any of her colleagues on whether the programs were immoral. “Senator, I think I’ve answered,” Haspel said.

“No, you have not,” Harris countered. “Do you believe the previous techniques, now armed with hindsight, do you believe they were immoral? Yes or no?”

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

— Haspel invoked the Army Field Manual seven times during the public portion of the hearing. But this is a legal standard — not a moral one. It’s enshrined in law. Why is it being treated as so newsworthy that Haspel promised not to break the law? The bigger news was that Haspel said she would not support an order to destroy videotaped evidence of such interrogations if one came today, despite having done so in 2005.

— Our moral standards have evolved considerably during the 242 years since we declared independence from King George III, and so has the law. Over time, the federal government has sanctioned violence against Native Americans, African Americans and many others that was technically “legal” at the time — but clearly immoral, especially in hindsight. Being gay, in the privacy of your own bedroom, was against the law in many places until modern times. So was obtaining birth control. And interracial marriage. “Separate yet equal” was a legal standard, invented by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, until Brown v. Board.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly interpreted the Constitution in ways that any reasonable person would now agree were abhorrent. In the case of Dred Scott, the justices voted 7 to 2 that “a negro,” whether enslaved or free, could never be a U.S. citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in court. With Fred Korematsu, the justices voted 6 to 3 that it was fine for Franklin Roosevelt to send U.S. citizens to internment camps solely because they were of Japanese descent. When the eugenics movement was fashionable among elites in the 1920s, the high court ruled 8 to 1 that states could forcibly sterilize “undesirable” citizens.

“Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Justice Oliver Wendell Homes wrote in the cringeworthy majority opinion, referring to a poor white Virginia woman named Carrie Buck (who historians have concluded was not actually an imbecile — but, more likely, a rape victim). “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”

Because of that ruling, as many as 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized against their will during the 20th century. It was legal then – but clearly immoral now.

— One of the reasons America is great is her historic willingness to reckon with the sins of the past. In 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a detailed report, much of which remains classified, that concluded the techniques used by the CIA were neither useful nor legitimate.

But most Republican members of the intelligence committee were eager to avoid any discussion about the appropriateness of the U.S. government’s conduct during the aughts. “We shouldn’t be talking about what happened 17 years ago,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “We should be talking about what’s going to happen 17 weeks or 17 days from now.”

— Despite McCain’s opposition, Haspel will probably get confirmed in the coming days. The Arizona senator, who has remained at home since the end of last year, is not expected to return for any votes this month. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), just hours after primary results showed that he’s in real danger of losing reelection in a state Trump carried by 42 points, announced that he will vote for her. This ratchets up pressure on other vulnerable Senate Democrats to join him. Other Republican senators who could still vote against Haspel include Rand Paul (Ky.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.).

— Grappling with the morality of the CIA’s conduct after 9/11 is especially important because there are many prominent people who argue that there was nothing wrong with it. In an interview that aired on Fox Business this morning, former vice president Dick Cheney defended the enhanced interrogation techniques. “If it were my call, I would not discontinue those programs,” he said. “I’d have them active and ready to go. And I’d go back and study them and learn. The agency is in a difficult position. The Congress has acted. They have changed the law, and the agency has to act by that statute. But there are a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks in the terrorism business.”

— As a candidate in 2016, Trump pledged to bring back waterboarding and “much worse.”

“The president has asserted that ‘torture works,’” Harris noted during yesterday’s hearing. “Do you agree with that statement?”

“Senator, I don’t believe that torture works,” Haspel said. But she equivocated: “I believe that in the CIA’s program — and I’m not attributing this to enhanced interrogation techniques — I believe … that valuable information was obtained from senior al-Qaeda operatives that allowed us to defend this country and prevent another attack.”

Harris asked, “Is that a yes?”

“No, it’s not a yes,” Haspel responded. “We got valuable information from debriefing of al-Qaeda detainees, and I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”

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