The Haspel Confirmation Dilemma

As I’ve previously indicated in these pages, when considering whether a Presidential nominee should be confirmed by the Senate, I follow a pretty simple two-factor analysis (which, admittedly, is ne’er followed in the current hyper-partisan environment):  Is the nominee objectively qualified for the position?  If so, is there any other objective factor that should nonetheless disqualify him/her from the position for which s/he has been nominated (e.g., prior criminal conviction, demonstrated drug abuse problem, etc.)?  Since the Constitution provides our President the power to nominate whom s/he considers appropriate, I don’t believe that a nominee’s subjective leanings (e.g., whether s/he supports or opposes abortion rights, whether s/he is too soft or too hardline in foreign policy) should be part of the equation.  Accordingly, I believe that Judge Garland should not only have received a hearing, but – absent unreported information coming to light – should also have been confirmed by the Senate, and that it was appropriate that Judge Gorsuch and Secretary of State Pompeo received confirmation.

That said, one of the many reasons that I’m glad that I’m not a sitting Senator is that if I was, I would have to consider whether to vote to confirm Gina Haspel as CIA Director.

Ms. Haspel easily passes the first hurdle; she’s been called the most qualified nominee to head the CIA in the Agency’s history, and has received what USA Today has referred to as “glowing accolades” from former Agency directors that have served in both parties’ administrations.  However, Ms. Haspel’s nomination is the rare one that seems – at least for me – to require careful reflection as to whether the appointment should be rejected due to an “other objective factor” as I used the phrase above.  It’s undisputed that Ms. Haspel ran a CIA “black site” that conducted waterboarding in the wake of 9/11; that she thereafter participated in the destruction of videotapes of questionable interrogations (although she was cleared of inappropriate behavior by a subsequent internal CIA inquiry); and that although she has testified that she supports the Congressional ban on and pledged not to conduct the kinds of activities that she and the CIA conducted after 9/11, she didn’t explicitly characterize those activities as immoral.  Given her record, does Ms. Haspel possess the appropriate moral compass to serve in the position that – along with the presidency itself – is arguably the most consistently subject to the harshest morally conflicting pressures?

It has been widely reported that Sen. John McCain, notwithstanding his warm words for Ms. Haspel’s service to our country over the past three decades, considers Ms. Haspel’s unwillingness to call the CIA’s activities immoral “disqualifying” for the CIA directorship.

I have the deepest respect for Mr. McCain in the realm of foreign affairs.  His sentiments, given his own experience as a POW, are understandable.  At the same time, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, in his book, The Assault on Intelligence, called Ms. Haspel’s earlier selection for the Agency’s Deputy Director under Mr. Pompeo an “inspired choice” due to the high regard Ms. Haspel enjoys among CIA personnel.  Mr. Hayden – who makes clear in his book that he is no admirer of President Trump – argues that those (which would include him) that played a part in the government’s “electronic surveillance, metadata collection, renditions, detentions, interrogations, and targeted killings” have a greater sensitivity to lines that should not be crossed than those that didn’t have to face the moral questions implicit in the conduct of such activities.  It’s a point – although one readily subject to skepticism.

I am less concerned about Ms. Haspel’s unwillingness to condemn the CIA’s past activities, given her pledge not to carry on such activities during her directorship.  I consider it a manner of establishing leadership.  I agree with a premise advanced by others that one does not build esprit de corps in an organization that one intends to lead by trashing the group – particularly if one’s comments, given one’s record, are certain to be viewed by the organization as hypocritical means to advance one’s own career.  Interestingly, Mr. Hayden also states that he viewed Ms. Haspel’s appointment as Deputy Director to be “pitch perfect” because it meant neither a repeat nor repudiation of the Agency’s past.

At the same time, I am concerned with her acknowledged participation in the destruction of the interrogation videotapes.  Can she be trusted?  The only responses I’ve seen to these concerns are that she was following orders (so were Nazi enablers) and was found blameless for the inappropriate operation in the subsequent CIA inquiry (perhaps a whitewash for a loyal and diligent employee).  I’m not sure that these would be sufficient responses for me under many circumstances, although I balance this unease against the ringing affirmations of both Leon Panetta and Mr. Hayden that Ms. Haspel will be willing to “speak truth to power” if required to do so in her interactions with the President.

After all of this “on the one hand, on the other hand” (sounding more than a bit like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof):  I reluctantly support Ms. Haspel’s nomination.  My reasons are many, albeit all simple:  the confidence of former Directors that she will speak truth to a President who, in my opinion, has insufficient respect for the rule of law; her undisputed qualifications and knowledge of the Agency; her willingness, based upon past experience, to disavow any return to the activities that she engaged in post-9/11; her steadfastness in being unwilling to cast aspersions upon the CIA’s post-9/11 activities to further her own career; the high regard that the professionals in a vital, but now beleaguered, part of our national defense have for her; the fact that almost anyone that the President nominates in her stead will probably be less qualified, have less respect for and from the Agency, and be more prone to Presidential pressure; and the fact that we, frankly, need someone tough to lead the CIA.  We confront bad state and non-state actors across the globe.  Although most of us live in an ivory tower, the fact remains [now, sounding like Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men  😉 ]:  we need someone who is willing to fight to protect our ivory tower in places and ways that we don’t go to or know about.  Although there is no one alive I respect more than Pope Francis, he wouldn’t be a good fit for the CIA Directorship.  Ms. Haspel is.

I concede that there is more than an element of faith in the expectation that someone that admittedly participated in activities many call torture and in the destruction of videotapes of inappropriate interrogations will be the speaker of truth, guardian of appropriate interrogation practices, and the protector of the rule of law.  Berate me if you wish.  If dilemmas had perfect answers … they wouldn’t be dilemmas.  Thus, although I would vote for Ms. Haspel, I’m glad I don’t have to …

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