The Gina Haspel Confirmation and Appropriate American Ruthlessness

 

America is a nation steeped in a variety of contradictions. From its outset, the disconnect between Jefferson’s words penned in the Declaration of Independence…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

…stand in stark contrast to the fact that many of the signatories to that Declaration were themselves owners of human chattel bereft of those rights.

America is a Republic of Ideas and in this and many ways the first of its kind. Frequently imitated but never successfully duplicated, the intellectual heritage to which we are heirs include a huge number of triumphs for mankind. But these achievements did not come without the sort of blots which I’ve already mentioned.

No matter how noble the ideals of the American Democratic Republican experiment are, the fact of the matter is that where the rubber of that idealism meets the road of reality, there is inevitable friction. The United States is, after all, a nation with things like borders, and a military and interests in the world both commercial and political. We are but one half of the equation in any conceivable interaction with the larger world, and our stated, high-minded ideals aren’t shared or universally admired by any stretch of the imagination.

That brings us to the fight over the Confirmation of Gina Haspel to become the CIA director.

For those who do not know, Haspel is the intelligence operative portrayed fictionally by Jessica Chastain in the film Zero Dark Thirty and played a major role in the location and killing of Osama Bin Laden and participated in “enhanced interrogation” techniques used on captured enemy combatants. These techniques have been described as “torture” – which is an inherently problematic word.

Haspel’s critics are in my opinion acting out of one of two motives – one is naked political opposition to the President’s Administration and the other is a good-faith statement about the nature of the ideals that this nation is called to live up to. I want to join the latter and in an ideal world, I certainly would. We do not live in an ideal world.

The actions in question principally involved the waterboarding of two particular enemy combatants — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah — who were waterboarded five times each at CIA black sites after their capture. The question is whether or not such actions constitute “torture” — and this is where that word becomes problematic — and if the use of such techniques should disqualify a person from serving in such a high role in the government. (There is a separate but related controversy about Haspel destroying tapes of the incidents in order to protect the identity of the participants.)

I have little interest in debating the definition of the word torture, so I will stipulate for the sake of argument that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, barking dogs, loud music and various other enhanced interrogation techniques as were employed in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Afghanistan incursion are abnormal and would be unacceptable under normal circumstances. But those circumstances were hardly normal — and even these tactics were not morally reprehensible given the scale of the potential damage such individuals had already inflicted on the country.

Unfortunately, the reality of the world is grubby. Our enemies don’t play by the rules which we might otherwise agree to. They’re only acting rationally in that sense; Al Qaeda and their various heirs know that they cannot defeat the US in a straight-up military conflict, so they employ tactics meant to frustrate or go around our forward strength. Our response to that tactical fluidity cannot be to throw our hands up in frustration and say that there’s nothing we can do because our principles tie our hands.

We cannot also ignore the obvious double standard which comes up when comparing actions taken against malefactors in our custody like Mohammed or Zubaydah in comparison to things like President Obama’s “Kill List” of drone strike targets — a list which included American Citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki — all of whom were incinerated via Drone-mounted Hellfire Rocket sans any manner of due process. It seems incongruous to complain about “torture” while dozens of people are being blown up via remote control. But the Obama Administration mantra “rubble doesn’t make trouble” seems preferable to some in the long run, even in the event that potentially valuable human intelligence is lost in the process.

These sorts of hard choices are nothing new for our nation. A hundred years ago, the “Great War” came to a close, and I’m certain that if you had told a normal observer from that time that the United States would over the next 30 years firebomb multiple major cities, including using nuclear weapons on two population centers they would have been horrified. That horror would no doubt have been put in check once they were provided with the proper context of the other available options. With that knowledge in hand, it becomes obvious why the leadership made the terrible, but understandable choice to engage in the actions they ultimately did.

Annihilating Hiroshima and Nagasaki are surely far less defensible actions in a vacuum than those which Haspel and her compatriots pursued in the War against Terror. But we cannot consider those actions in a vacuum. Truman is thought of today as a great American President who brought the war and all of its attendant horrors to a swift conclusion. That sort of ruthlessness must be demonstrated from time to time if the American ideal is to survive.

President Lincoln once said of U.S. Grant (accused of being a slovenly drunk) “I cannot spare this man; he fights!” and so it has been throughout history. We cannot spare Gina Haspel.

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There are 82 comments.

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  1. Inactive

    And the destruction of the tapes documenting such practices? 

    • #1
    • May 15, 2018 at 8:13 am
    • Like
  2. Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Post author

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    And the destruction of the tapes documenting such practices?

    I agree that it is problematic as well. However, I compare this in some sense to a journalist defending their sources. The CIA and other secret organizations can’t function properly if their agents know that every little thing they do will ultimately come under the scrutiny of some Washington Gasbags on a committee somewhere.

    • #2
    • May 15, 2018 at 8:17 am
    • 8 likes
  3. Inactive

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    And the destruction of the tapes documenting such practices?

    I agree that it is problematic as well. However, I compare this in some sense to a journalist defending their sources. The CIA and other secret organizations can’t function properly if their agents know that every little thing they do will ultimately come under the scrutiny of some Washington Gasbags on a committee somewhere.

    I don’t disagree. My issue is that those that do the business that may be necessary to protect the nation sometimes do things that would disqualify them from higher office. That is the sacrifice they make. 

    • #3
    • May 15, 2018 at 8:19 am
    • 1 like
  4. Member

    Majestyk:

    From its outset, the disconnect between Jefferson’s words penned in the Declaration of Independence:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    Stand in stark contrast to the fact that many of the signatories to that Declaration were themselves owners of human chattel bereft of those rights.

    a) Define “man”.

    b) Define “equal”.

    • #4
    • May 15, 2018 at 8:30 am
    • Like
  5. Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Post author

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    I don’t disagree. My issue is that those that do the business that may be necessary to protect the nation sometimes do things that would disqualify them from higher office. That is the sacrifice they make. 

    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    My preference in this regard is for people who aren’t of a political bent to hold offices which aren’t intended to carry out political calculations. They are meant to carry out policy. If you have agents in the field filtering their actions through the lens of what will advance their career via a purely political calculation, that would be a disaster.

    I’m also in favor of specialists who understand lower level problems coming up through the ranks and taking control of such agencies. Haspel is exactly that person: a specialist disinterested in politics and who carries out the Administration’s wishes.

    Compare this to the inherently political calculations of a Jim Comey, and what a mess was made as a result.

    • #5
    • May 15, 2018 at 8:30 am
    • 14 likes
  6. Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Post author

    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending (View Comment):

    a) Define “man”.

    b) Define “equal”.

    Obviously, some of the Founders meant “men” literally and some of them excluded certain males from the category of anything other than something bestial.

    Equal meaning, “equal before the eyes of the law.”

    • #6
    • May 15, 2018 at 8:33 am
    • 1 like
  7. Member

    I think this is why the war power is separate from the law enforcement power and has a different standard, particularly congressional involvement.

     

     

    • #7
    • May 15, 2018 at 8:34 am
    • 7 likes
  8. Member

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    And the destruction of the tapes documenting such practices?

    I agree that it is problematic as well. However, I compare this in some sense to a journalist defending their sources. The CIA and other secret organizations can’t function properly if their agents know that every little thing they do will ultimately come under the scrutiny of some Washington Gasbags on a committee somewhere.

    I don’t disagree. My issue is that those that do the business that may be necessary to protect the nation sometimes do things that would disqualify them from higher office. That is the sacrifice they make.

    I would rather that the perspective of gritty reality is represented in the decision making process than not.

    • #8
    • May 15, 2018 at 8:36 am
    • 3 likes
  9. Member

    I don’t view any of the reported Haspel negatives as disqualifying. 

    Her career has been spent dealing with enemy ‘groups’ led by and composed of individuals who forego for themselves and work to destroy individual rights as valued by the American ideal. She is needed now in a time when this assault is intense.

    • #9
    • May 15, 2018 at 8:39 am
    • 9 likes
  10. Inactive

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now. 

    • #10
    • May 15, 2018 at 8:48 am
    • Like
  11. Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Post author

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now.

    It’s an argument against what you’re invoking, which is the Precautionary Principle. There’s no reason to believe that Haspel can’t carry out the duties of the job – far from it, she’s probably much better prepared for it as a result of her experience.

    • #11
    • May 15, 2018 at 8:56 am
    • 14 likes
  12. Member

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now.

    I don’t see why pouring water up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nose is a disqualifier for Director of CIA. Does that mean our own John Yoo (who did the legal analysis on the lawfulness of waterboarding) is “disqualified” from being Attorney General, or a Constitutional Law professor for that matter?

    • #12
    • May 15, 2018 at 9:14 am
    • 13 likes
  13. Thatcher

    Majestyk: President Lincoln once said of U.S. Grant (accused of being a slovenly drunk) “I cannot spare this man; he fights!” and so it has been throughout history. We cannot spare Gina Haspel.

    Great summary for a great essay. I entirely agree.

    • #13
    • May 15, 2018 at 9:16 am
    • 10 likes
  14. Member

    Ray Gunner (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now.

    I don’t see why pouring water up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nose is a disqualifier for Director of CIA. Does that mean our own John Yoo (who did the legal analysis on the lawfulness of waterboarding) is “disqualified” from being Attorney General, or a Constitutional Law professor for that matter?

    Indeed, it should be a little gold star. Our intelligence officers, including my brother when he was a USCG captain, experience water boarding in their training. No way that it’s torture.

    • #14
    • May 15, 2018 at 9:41 am
    • 10 likes
  15. Inactive

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now.

    It’s an argument against what you’re invoking, which is the Precautionary Principle. There’s no reason to believe that Haspel can’t carry out the duties of the job – far from it, she’s probably much better prepared for it as a result of her experience.

    I have no doubt she could do the job, I question whether its a good idea to reward behavior that is questionable even if necessary. 

    • #15
    • May 15, 2018 at 9:48 am
    • Like
  16. Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Post author

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    Indeed, it should be a little gold star. Our intelligence officers, including my brother when he was a USCG captain, experience water boarding in their training. No way that it’s torture.

    And see, I don’t even want to engage in the meta-discussion about “torture” vs “not-torture” because everybody is going to have a different threshold for what that consists of.

    Would I want any of this stuff done to me? Hell no… but there are a lot of things I wouldn’t want done to me which are also not-torture. It’s the announcement to our enemies of what we will or won’t do that is problematic because it creates perverse incentives for them to act in as despicable a fashion as possible in full knowledge that we aren’t going to retaliate in kind.

    • #16
    • May 15, 2018 at 9:52 am
    • 4 likes
  17. Inactive

    Ray Gunner (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now.

    I don’t see why pouring water up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nose is a disqualifier for Director of CIA. Does that mean our own John Yoo (who did the legal analysis on the lawfulness of waterboarding) is “disqualified” from being Attorney General, or a Constitutional Law professor for that matter?

    I was not a fan of Yoo’s analysis on enhanced interrogation. 

    • #17
    • May 15, 2018 at 9:53 am
    • Like
  18. Inactive

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    Ray Gunner (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now.

    I don’t see why pouring water up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nose is a disqualifier for Director of CIA. Does that mean our own John Yoo (who did the legal analysis on the lawfulness of waterboarding) is “disqualified” from being Attorney General, or a Constitutional Law professor for that matter?

    Indeed, it should be a little gold star. Our intelligence officers, including my brother when he was a USCG captain, experience water boarding in their training. No way that it’s torture.

    As with most things that are terrible the problem is the dose. 

    • #18
    • May 15, 2018 at 9:54 am
    • 1 like
  19. Member

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now.

    It’s an argument against what you’re invoking, which is the Precautionary Principle. There’s no reason to believe that Haspel can’t carry out the duties of the job – far from it, she’s probably much better prepared for it as a result of her experience.

    I have no doubt she could do the job, I question whether its a good idea to reward behavior that is questionable even if necessary.

    I am comfortable with the idea that she would be in a politically appointed position to influence but not necessarily decide. Again, I think that when making the big/hard/uncomfortable decisions, the perspective and experience is necessary for the consideration of decision makers.

    I would probably would be less comfortable voting for her as the final arbiter of policy, unless she had some very good answers to well intentioned hard questions (I am not sure these exist anymore).

    • #19
    • May 15, 2018 at 9:55 am
    • Like
  20. Thatcher

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    I have no doubt she could do the job, I question whether its a good idea to reward behavior that is questionable even if admirable and necessary. 

    Fixed it for you. It is a very good idea to reward her.

    • #20
    • May 15, 2018 at 10:00 am
    • 5 likes
  21. Inactive

     

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now.

    It’s an argument against what you’re invoking, which is the Precautionary Principle. There’s no reason to believe that Haspel can’t carry out the duties of the job – far from it, she’s probably much better prepared for it as a result of her experience.

    I have no doubt she could do the job, I question whether its a good idea to reward behavior that is questionable even if necessary.

    I am comfortable with the idea that she would be in a politically appointed position to influence but not necessarily decide. Again, I think that when making the big/hard/uncomfortable decisions, the perspective and experience is necessary for the consideration of decision makers.

    I would probably would be less comfortable voting for her as the final arbiter of policy, unless she had some very good answers to well intentioned hard questions (I am not sure these exist anymore).

    My main issue is that she would be put into the position that ordered her to destroy the tapes of the interrogation in the first place. I’m not sure she would have decided differently and I have a major problem with administrative positions deciding what evidence to keep of their actions. 

    • #21
    • May 15, 2018 at 10:02 am
    • 2 likes
  22. Member

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now.

    It’s an argument against what you’re invoking, which is the Precautionary Principle. There’s no reason to believe that Haspel can’t carry out the duties of the job – far from it, she’s probably much better prepared for it as a result of her experience.

    I have no doubt she could do the job, I question whether its a good idea to reward behavior that is questionable even if necessary.

    And just where are these perfect candidates?

    • #22
    • May 15, 2018 at 10:04 am
    • 4 likes
  23. Member

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

     

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now.

    It’s an argument against what you’re invoking, which is the Precautionary Principle. There’s no reason to believe that Haspel can’t carry out the duties of the job – far from it, she’s probably much better prepared for it as a result of her experience.

    I have no doubt she could do the job, I question whether its a good idea to reward behavior that is questionable even if necessary.

    I am comfortable with the idea that she would be in a politically appointed position to influence but not necessarily decide. Again, I think that when making the big/hard/uncomfortable decisions, the perspective and experience is necessary for the consideration of decision makers.

    I would probably would be less comfortable voting for her as the final arbiter of policy, unless she had some very good answers to well intentioned hard questions (I am not sure these exist anymore).

    My main issue is that she would be put into the position that ordered her to destroy the tapes of the interrogation in the first place. I’m not sure she would have decided differently and I have a major problem with administrative positions deciding what evidence to keep of their actions.

    This is a fair concern.

    • #23
    • May 15, 2018 at 10:04 am
    • 1 like
  24. Inactive

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    I have no doubt she could do the job, I question whether its a good idea to reward behavior that is questionable even if admirable and necessary.

    Fixed it for you. It is a very good idea to reward her.

    Yes yes kudos to your wit. 

    • #24
    • May 15, 2018 at 10:10 am
    • 1 like
  25. Inactive

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    And here I would disagree with you by pointing out that people who have done considerably worse things in a vacuum have gone on to hold such office in the past.

    That’s not really an argument for why we should promote this person now.

    It’s an argument against what you’re invoking, which is the Precautionary Principle. There’s no reason to believe that Haspel can’t carry out the duties of the job – far from it, she’s probably much better prepared for it as a result of her experience.

    I have no doubt she could do the job, I question whether its a good idea to reward behavior that is questionable even if necessary.

    And just where are these perfect candidates?

    You don’t need perfect, but I have specific concerns about this candidate. 

    • #25
    • May 15, 2018 at 10:11 am
    • Like
  26. Inactive

    Huh, Gina Haspel seems to agree with me about enhanced interrogation:

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-haspel/trump-cia-nominee-u-s-should-not-have-undertaken-harsh-interrogations-idUSKCN1IG2NU?feedType=RSS&feedName=topNews&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=Social

    That makes me feel better about her. What about the tapes?

    • #26
    • May 15, 2018 at 10:14 am
    • Like
  27. Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Post author

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    That makes me feel better about her. What about the tapes?

    I think much of this is confirmation theater, Jamie. That theater is cranked up to 11 right now because of Trump, which is unfortunate as it produces more light than heat.

    It would be preferable that such nomination hearings (particularly for the head of a secret agency) were conducted in secret so that honest answers (and not politically correct ones) could be given to honest questions. But we don’t live in an environment where serious people are in charge right at the moment, and “secret” is just another word for “leaked to the media in 5 minutes.”

    • #27
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:23 am
    • 2 likes
  28. Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Post author

    Update: Sen. Mark Warner will vote yes on Haspel’s appointment.

    That would seem to seal the deal.

    • #28
    • May 15, 2018 at 1:34 pm
    • 1 like
  29. Inactive

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    which is unfortunate as it produces more light than heat.

     

    Strike that. Reverse it. 

    • #29
    • May 15, 2018 at 2:19 pm
    • Like
  30. Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Post author

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    which is unfortunate as it produces more light than heat.

     

    Strike that. Reverse it.

    More smoke than fire?

    • #30
    • May 15, 2018 at 2:20 pm
    • Like
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