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Gina Haspel and the Enduring Questions About Torture

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About two-thirds of the way through the public part of Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearing, before the Senate Intelligence Committee, for her nomination as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Senator Kamala Harris, of California, asked her a simple question: “Do you believe that the previous interrogation techniques were immoral?” Those techniques—acts of torture adopted by the C.I.A. in the years after the 9/11 attacks—included repeated waterboarding, confinement in a coffin-like box, exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, and forced rectal infusions. After a pause, Haspel began to answer, in careful tones, “Senator, I believe that C.I.A. officers, to whom you refer—”

“It’s a yes-or-no answer,” Harris said. She clarified, “I’m not asking do you believe they were legal. I’m asking do you believe they were immoral.”

There was another pause, and then Haspel, again, dodged the question. “Senator, I believe that the C.I.A. did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country, given the legal tools that we were authorized to use.”

“Please answer yes or no,” Harris again interrupted. “Do you believe, in hindsight, that those techniques were immoral?”

“Senator, what I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to,” Haspel replied. This was a formulation that she had already used repeatedly in answering earlier questions. But all it amounted to was that she didn’t object to the United States being extra-double-plus moral—as when Congress and the Obama Administration both renounced waterboarding—without ever saying that its actions had been immoral before. So Harris kept trying: “Could you please answer the question.”

“Senator, I think I’ve answered the question,” Haspel said.

“No, you’ve not,” Harris said, and asked it again. “Do you believe they are immoral? Yes or no?”

“Senator, I believe we should hold ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the Army Field Manual,” Haspel said—another way of saying that the C.I.A. should follow the current law. Harris, after noting that the question was still not answered, moved on.

But the exchange, and other similar evasions, seem to have been enough for Senator John McCain. In a statement explaining why he would vote against Haspel, he said, “Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.” (McCain is at what may be the decisive stage in his fight with cancer, which may affect whether he can be present for the vote. Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky,


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