Reflections on Gina Haspel’s Confirmation
In short, accountability will not come from the top
It is appalling that the Senate would approve for CIA Director someone who was directly involved in carrying out torture. Haspel should have been disqualified from the beginning, no matter what she told the Senators during and after her confirmation hearing. Despite crucial information held back by the CIA, Senators had sufficient knowledge for an informed decision. The majority, which included six Democrats, chose to ignore what they knew.
Torture is a war crime. The Senate is now on record for approving a war criminal to run an agency with a long record of engaging in unlawful acts.
The dangers of this confirmation are multiple–and because our moral and political work is for the long term, these need to be named:
First, there is a long-standing struggle within the national security state over the use of violence. On one side are those who promote violence as the most effective means for extending or defending U.S. global dominance. On the other side are those who, while regarding the use of force as a legitimate way to project power, would impose legal and democratic limits on its use. Haspel’s confirmation, along with John Bolton’s appointment as national security advisor and Mike Pompeo’s ascendency to Secretary of State, is a clear victory for those promoting unrestrained violence. Trump has now assembled a war cabinet that is for the most part unopposed.
Second, the political struggle over state violence has always been partisan and we can expect nothing from Republicans on this score. Though the Democrats also have much to account for, Republicans have a long record of playing on the fears of Americans. Even on the clarion moral issue of torture, only three Republican Senators opposed Haspel, one more instance of the Party’s decision to abdicate political responsibility to the nation by failing to oppose a dangerous authoritarian president. As also demonstrated by their unanimous vote in support of Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State, Republicans have chosen to throw their weight behind a bellicose and militaristic commander-in-chief who is setting the United States on a course to war.
Third, the six Democratic votes for Haspel suggest one of three things: the bankruptcy of an electoral logic that endorses do-anything-to-win strategies, principles be damned; they are part of the camp that has no problem with a torturer running the CIA or no problem with the CIA shielding its “shadow warriors” from accountability; or they simply do not understand what is at stake in confirming Haspel.
Lastly, for many Americans, being “tough on terrorists” is justification enough for torture. Whether for retribution (as Trump recognized during the campaign when he pronounced “even if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway”) or a product of misinformed understandings of what is likely to keep us safe, millions of people embrace torture and “whatever it takes” violence to secure a “strong America.” During the Trump era, the war culture now takes on a populist, anti-Muslim dimension and torture becomes another instance of a politically exploited disposition toward violence against designated enemies. For Trump, Haspel is qualified to lead the CIA not irrespective of her involvement in torture but because of it.
Where are the openings going forward?
Forty-five senators voted against Haspel. These votes were won in part by persistent lobbying by national and local organizations. Senators needed to hear from us and they did. Yes, it would have been more effective if senators who opposed Haspel would have come out earlier with public statements of their opposition in clear moral terms. Clearly, senators voted against Haspel for a variety of reasons—on moral grounds, for her key role in destroying the video tapes, for violations of international law, for the damage to American legitimacy and security, and not least a deep suspicion of Trump’s motives. Remember that most Democratic senators also voted against Mike Pompeo. These votes suggest that we can find Democratic allies on selective national security issues in the future.
It is also important to note that many of the nation’s most important media institutions editorialized strongly against Haspel or published opinion editorials critical of her nomination. Yet, even among critical media commentators, many continued to avoid the “torture” word or did not refer to the CIA’s “torture program;” and fewer still mentioned the entire CIA program: rendition, detention, and interrogation–or as I think many readers might call it: kidnapping, clandestinely and brutally transporting prisoners, arbitrary, secret and unlawful detention, and torture. Few journalists took the opportunity to review and educate the public about the program’s criminality or how the law was manipulated to provide cover. Nonetheless, the Haspel case demonstrates a willingness within the media for engaging moral questions related national security policies.
Whether the Haspel controversy will encourage more Americans to dwell on the morality of state violence or the unlawful and anti-democratic activities of the CIA is to be seen. It is possible that Trump over-reached and that many more Americans will be appalled that the CIA is now being run by a woman who participated in torture and the destruction of evidence of it. Trump’s violent rhetoric and his threats to bring back torture will hopefully alert people to the present danger.
Of course, we must also admit to less favorable possibilities. In addition to those who support Haspel or have no problem with torture, many will accept assurances that America will never torture again; others (including the media) will have a short attention span about Haspel’s history with torture; and still others will be unaware or misinformed about the Bush-Cheney torture program. As always, too many will not pay attention or simply not care.
The coalitions assembled to oppose Haspel and Pompeo’s nominations were surely strengthened–both nationally and at the grassroots. These coalitions included those fighting against Islamophobia and the growing threat of war. In the Trump era, there are indications that single issue politics may give way to movements that link militarism with racism, poverty, environmental degradation, and pervasive violence. It is not enough to be against torture.
Crucially, Haspel’s confirmation, despite her commission of a crime, points to the challenge of accountability. Not one of the principal architects or key participants in U.S. torture has ever been held criminally accountable. The fiction of legality lives on. A bipartisan consensus prevents criminal investigation and prosecution. Efforts to hold perpetrators criminally accountable take place almost entirely outside the United States. Some progress has been made on winning civil cases, as demonstrated by the recent settlement in the ACLU case against the two psychologists who contracted with the CIA to carry out its torture program. However, without criminal accountability, made worse by rewarding the criminals, the expectation of impunity prevails.
The Senate’s investigative approach to accountability continues to be flawed by extreme partisanship and practices of secrecy, such as the suppression of the full Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture. The Senate’s role is also compromised by a bipartisan acceptance of a structure of oversight relying on secret, classified hearings. It appears that only a major legitimation crisis spurs the Senate to a more assertive role.
Senate action can inform the public and lead to meaningful reforms. The Church and Pike Committee investigations in the 1970s and to a certain extent the SSCI Torture Report and the Armed Services Committee report on torture in the military are examples. The problem is that reforms come up against powerful institutions that push back against them and a national security ideology weighted toward tolerance of illegitimate violence. They can only be effective and long-lasting if they have strong public backing.
The decisive domain of accountability is political–the ability and willingness of the American people to hold our government to high moral standards. I include in this category people participating in party caucuses, voters in primaries and general elections, government workers (willing to take risks to become whistleblowers); professional associations, and educational and religious institutions. This is a vast challenge. Yet, it is one for which grassroots organizations are best suited.
In short, accountability will not come from the top. It will come from people taking on the political responsibility of a moral politics, people willing to perceive injustice and then give voice to their opposition.
A big thanks to all who worked to defeat Haspel’s nomination. Once again, we assess, we regroup, and we summon our energy for the next battle.