OPINION
03/15/2018 05:57 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2018

Democrats' Surrender On Torture Is Nearly Complete

Former CIA Director John Brennan, Senator Dianne Feinstein, CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel and President Barack Obama.
Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Joshua Roberts
Former CIA Director John Brennan, Senator Dianne Feinstein, CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel and President Barack Obama.

In the same tweet he used to unceremoniously fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump announced the twin nominations of CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Tillerson’s replacement and CIA veteran Gina Haspel as the new head of the nation’s premier intelligence agency. Haspel, the CIA’s current deputy director, now stands to become the agency’s first female director, despite the fact that she previously supervised a CIA black site where detainees were tortured and was later implicated in the destruction of video evidence of those interrogations.

The news of her nomination was met with mild skepticism by some Democratic senators, but assuming she doesn’t get bottled up behind an impasse over Pompeo, nothing suggests her eventual confirmation is in serious doubt.

While Haspel might be preferable to some hackish alternatives ― either Pompeo’s continued tenure or the nomination of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) ― her confirmation would also represent the culmination of the Democrats’ failure to categorically oppose torture.

Back in 2002, Haspel oversaw the black site in Thailand, where Abu Zubaydah, the man incorrectly thought to have masterminded Sept. 11 attacks, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was allegedly behind the USS Cole attack, were tortured. It was long unclear whether Haspel oversaw just the waterboarding of Nashiri or also the 83 waterboards that Abu Zubaydah endured, long beyond the time he had agreed to talk, though new reports from ProPublica and The New York Times say the latter man was tortured before her time at the helm.

What’s not in dispute is Haspel’s role in the cover-up: Once Abu Zubaydah and Nashiri were shipped to their next stop in a series of black sites, Haspel started her multiyear campaign to destroy the videos that showed their torture, which indisputably contradicted written authorizations and records. Defying the warnings of multiple Democrats, the director of national intelligence and several judges, Haspel in November 2005, as chief of staff for the director of clandestine services, sent a cable ordering officers to stick the tapes into an industrial-strength shredder.

At key moments, Democrats missed their chance to move the country beyond torture.

America continues to suffer the consequences of those twin acts, the torture and the cover-up. The torture program, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s massive torture report, provided little useful intelligence, and in notable cases sent officers chasing false leads for months. Numerous detainees (including both Abu Zubaydah and Nashiri) were tortured beyond their ability to provide reliable intelligence. The country’s embrace of torture inflamed the same Muslims we needed as allies to fight terrorism.

And because of both the torture and the cover-up, the U.S. has failed to achieve justice for either the USS Cole or for Sept. 11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah remains warehoused in Guantanamo Bay, and Nashiri’s own trial has ground to a halt after his defense team discovered their privileged conversations were being spied on.

But Haspel, who advanced from line manager overseeing the imposition of torture to chief of staff for the cover-up, continues to thrive, now poised to run the agency whose reputation she attempted to preserve by destroying evidence.

To be clear: Republicans bear the bulk of the blame for promoting torturers while those who objected were ousted. Former President George Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney instituted the program, and outspoken torture fan Trump is the guy sponsoring Haspel’s promotion to lead the agency (after she was denied a promotion during the Obama administration).

But at key moments, Democrats missed their chance to move the country beyond torture.

After all, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama was the first to elevate someone with involvement in the torture program. Even after political pressure about torture prevented Obama from naming veteran CIA officer John Brennan director in 2009, the career CIA official rehabilitated his reputation (in part by overseeing the drone killing program from the White House), and ultimately got the CIA director post in 2013.

President Barack Obama nominates John Brennan to direct the CIA on January 7, 2013.
ImageCatcher News Service via Getty Images
President Barack Obama nominates John Brennan to direct the CIA on January 7, 2013.

That same year, Dianne Feinstein ― then chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee ― nixed Brennan’s attempts to make Haspel director of the agency’s clandestine services. But Brennan got his revenge when he, with Obama’s backing, thwarted Feinstein’s efforts for a fulsome declassification of the torture report she fought to complete. Brennan didn’t even face consequences for having staffers from the Senate Intelligence Committee spied on.

Feinstein’s failure to declassify key details of the torture report ― notably, including the real names or even pseudonyms for the officers involved ― is one thing that prevented an airing of precisely what Haspel did when she was confirmed as deputy director last year. Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote a memo for colleagues describing Haspel’s role in the torture program, but the document remains classified, even as Haspel’s champions boast of her successes.

And now not even Feinstein herself is categorically opposed to Haspel’s nomination. “It’s no secret I’ve had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this,” Feinstein said in a Tuesday statement. But she seems inclined to drop her past concerns about a torturer’s continued promotions in favor of competence leading the agency. “To the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with her again.”

It may well be, as her supporters argue, that Haspel is the best, most competent, least politicized nominee we’re likely to get from Trump.

But that’s true as much because of what happened under Obama as under Trump. John Brennan’s success, even as critics were sidelined or imprisoned, paved the way for Gina Haspel.

This column has been updated to acknowledge new reporting about Haspel’s involvement with Abu Zubaydah’s torture.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog and is the author of “Anatomy of Deceit.” Follow her on Twitter at @emptywheel.

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