The U.S. torture program began under the Bush administration via an executive order in 2002. President Barack Obama ended the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques in 2009 but opted not to pursue accountability for those involved— one of the primary reasons why Haspel was able to remain at the CIA and advance her career. On the same day of Trump’s first State of the Union address, when he talked about “annihilating” terrorists, Trump signed an executive order keeping the controversial detention facility at Guantanamo Bay open. During Haspel’s confirmation hearing, Senators Kamala Harris (D–CA), Mark Warner (D–VA), and Susan Collins (R–ME) asked her what she would do if the president asked her to restart the torture program. Haspel replied that while she doubted that Trump would ask her to do so, she would “never, ever take CIA back to an interrogation program”. Nevertheless, when asked if she thought torture was immoral, she bypassed the question numerous times and instead focused on legal issues related to the program. For example, Haspel repeatedly stated that the torture program was legal at the time and, as an intelligence officer, she was simply following the law. But the legality of the program was always questioned, and the CIA continues to declassify details of the torture program. Nevertheless, Haspel’s phrasing evoked memories of the “just following orders” defense at the Nuremberg Trials following WWIII, when Nazi officials argued they were acting under the orders of their superior. This “superior order” legal strategy was rejected by the standing International Military Tribunal.
Domestically, the Haspel confirmation process has been odd. The CIA is known for remaining silent and out of the public eyes if it can help it. But when Haspel was nominated, the Agency went out of its ways to advocate for her as the director. She also has a great deal of support from the intelligence community, including Doug Wise, the former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The CIA, however, has been selective about declassifying information on Haspel’s career for the Senate Intelligence Committee. For example, the CIA declassified the memo on Haspel’s involvement in the destruction of interrogation tapes, but it redacted all negative information, which should remain a cause for concern.
Haspel is the first female director of the CIA, which is a huge achievement for gender parity. But it is not a reflection of the general female experience in intelligence. Women are constantly overlooked for promotions. The intelligence community is also facing its own version of the “MeToo” campaign, called “MeTooNatSec” that will hopefully influence gender relations in a positive way. More significantly, Haspel’s critics state that her stance on torture negates any kind of gender parity she brings.
Ultimately, the CIA is an intelligence agency that follows orders. One can only hope that if faced with a situation where the president asks Haspel to engage in questionable intelligence practices, she will do what she said in her confirmation hearing, which is to refuse the president. I, however, remain doubtful that she would. Instead I am preparing for the continuation of a poorly informed hawkish foreign policy that will result in misguided hardline approaches, troop increases, and a sidelining of diplomacy. I just hope it does not include torture’s comeback.