Trump’s CIA Pick Puts Spotlight on ‘Tortured’ Past

Gina Haspel’s alleged personal involvement in a Bush-era interrogation program is revisiting the debate on torture.

Gina Haspel, the CIA’s deputy director
Gina Haspel, the CIA’s deputy director (photo: CIA photo, public domain)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has nominated the first woman to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, but his pick has revived concerns over the U.S. potentially becoming involved once again in waterboarding and other extreme methods of interrogation condemned by many as forms of torture.

Gina Haspel, the CIA’s deputy director, is set to succeed Mike Pompeo, who leaves the U.S. spy agency to replace Rex Tillerson as head of the U.S. State Department. Haspel will face scrutiny in her Senate confirmation hearings over her past CIA involvement with President George W. Bush’s detention and interrogation program. Haspel oversaw a CIA “black site” in Thailand, where at least one terrorism suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was interrogated with waterboarding and other extreme techniques the Bush administration described as “enhanced interrogation.”

Haspel is also directly connected with a CIA memo in 2005 ordering the destruction of videotapes of waterboarding sessions at the Thailand black site with an industrial shredder, days after The Washington Post revealed the CIA was interrogating suspects with waterboarding.

Waterboarding is an extreme method of interrogation in which interrogation subjects are made to feel they are drowning. In a waterboarding session, the person is strapped flat on a board tilted so the feet are elevated higher than the head. The interrogator places a cloth over the captive’s face and breathing passages and pours a quantity of water, which enters the pharynx and trachea, prompting a person to choke, panic and intake some water into his or her lungs.

Following the release of the 2014 Senate report on torture, Congress amended the law to prohibit federal agencies from using waterboarding and some other “enhanced interrogation techniques” regarded as forms of torture in the U.S. Army Field manual.

Haspel’s nomination has drawn bipartisan concerns, with senators on both sides of the aisle calling for a complete picture. Republicans only have a 51-49 majority in the Senate, and, already, both Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have voiced strong reservations.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a moral theologian and former Naval officer, told the Register that the facts of Gina Haspel’s career ought to be fully presented, and the questions about her involvement in waterboarding and other interrogation techniques ought to be answered before a judgment is rendered on her fitness to lead the CIA.

But Msgr. Swetland said that the Church teaches that torture is intrinsically evil and that waterboarding without a doubt was a form of torture. He pointed out that torture was directly condemned not only by the International Committee of the Red Cross and United Nations’ documents, but also by the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes and by St. John Paul II.

In the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which marks its 25th anniversary in August, St. John Paul II affirmed the teaching of the Council and condemned “whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit” as examples of “intrinsic evils” that could never be justified, no matter how good the intention.

“Torture is always and everywhere wrong,” Msgr. Swetland said. “Waterboarding is definitely torture, and for anybody who doesn’t think that is true, if they submit themselves to waterboarding, they will quickly change their mind.”

Msgr. Swetland said some other enhanced interrogation techniques, such as sleep deprivation, noise and confinement, may or may not be torture, “depending on how they were administered.”

“Those are more borderline things, but they’re still highly [morally] problematic, because you’re still treating the person as a means to an end,” he said. “You’re not respecting the intrinsic dignity of the person.”


Evaluating Moral Decisions

Over the past few years, a number of polls have found the U.S. public fluctuating between support for torture or evenly divided. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in November 2016 found 49% of Americans believed torture was never justified, while 48% of Americans believed it was at least sometimes justified.

Raha Wala, director of national security advocacy at the Human Rights First organization based in Washington, told the Register that the Senate should not move forward with Haspel’s confirmation until it has the full picture of her involvement.

“There is also a whole lot we don’t know about what she knew, or what she did, in relation to the CIA’s torture and rendition program,” he said.

Wala noted that, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. recognized that waterboarding was a form of torture because it had prosecuted Japanese soldiers in World War II for waterboarding and other forms of water torture. Only after the Bush administration tried to argue that waterboarding was “enhanced interrogation,” and not torture banned by U.S. and international law, did a domestic debate arise.

Wala pointed out that many professional interrogators have rejected torture as an unreliable form of intelligence gathering that can lead to false information, because people will say anything to end the shock, pain and suffering inflicted on them.

Bradley Lewis, a professor of moral philosophy at The Catholic University of America, said the vast majority of Catholic thinkers hold, as he does, that waterboarding is a form of torture. He said there is a remaining “sliver of doubt among some people” as to whether waterboarding is torture, attributing the belief to the idea that the physical injuries or damage inflicted are not permanent, and the action just produces fear and extreme bodily discomfort.

“There are some people who would make a distinction,” he said.

However, Bradley noted that a larger part of the problem is that many Americans’ approach to torture is wrongly based on a utilitarian, “ends-justify-the-means” calculus, instead of looking at whether an act is wrong in and of itself.

Bradley pointed out that in the Thomist tradition on moral behavior, every act is divided into three parts: the intention or reason the act is being performed, the object or type of action being performed, and the circumstances or facts that surround the action.

“If an act is wrong in its object, then it cannot be justified under any set of circumstances,” he said.

“Whether intelligence from torture is reliable or unreliable, or whether it is done to protect the country or save lives, is beyond the point.

“An act that is wrong in its object cannot be justified by any intention or set of circumstances.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

Pope John XXIII arrives in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, on October 11, 1962 during the opening of the first session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II.

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