Gina Haspel: A Torturer at the CIA

Gina Haspel: Just following orders?

W.J. Astore

President Trump has nominated Gina Haspel to be the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Haspel had an important role in the torture regimen approved by the Bush/Cheney administration, and she worked to destroy videotaped evidence of the same.  What does it say about the United States that Haspel is now being rewarded both for enabling torture and for covering it up?

As Peter Van Buren writes at We Meant Well, “Unless our Congress awakens to confront the nightmare and deny Gina Haspel’s nomination as Director of the CIA, torture has already transformed us and so will consume us. Gina Haspel is a torturer. We are torturers. It is as if Nuremberg never happened.”

Back in December of 2008, I wrote about torture for Nieman Watchdog.  The title of my article was “Cheney says he approved waterboarding. Is that the end of the story?”  The header to my article read: “The vice president gave the go-ahead for tactics commonly regarded as torture. Was that a war crime or not? William J. Astore provides some background on the issue and urges the press to show that it too can do aggressive interrogations. And do them now, without waiting for a new administration or a new Congress.”

Naturally, our Congress and the press did very little, and the Obama administration chose to ignore torture, urging America to look forward, not backwards.  Hence no one was ever held accountable; indeed, it was whistle blowers who came out against torture who were punished.

Here is the rest of my article from 2008.  Sadly, over the last decade nothing has changed in the U.S.  Indeed, the nomination of Haspel to head the CIA proves only that it’s getting worse.

Is our sitting vice president a war criminal because he condoned torture?  In an interview on ABC News on December 15th [2008], Dick Cheney coolly admitted he had approved “harsh” and “aggressive” interrogation techniques, notably waterboarding, in an attempt to extract intelligence from known or suspected terrorists, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Vital intelligence gathered about Al Qaeda, Cheney claimed, vindicated his decision, though this is much disputed. Subsequently, Cheney claimed that waterboarding and other harsh techniques did not constitute torture; this categorical denial was balanced by a counterclaim that he would have been remiss had he not authorized aggressive techniques in an attempt to safeguard Americans.

For approving these techniques and for other practices, The New York Times has attacked Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other Bush Administration officials. Calls have been issued for war crimes investigations. Are such calls warranted? Did Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others authorize techniques that constituted torture, and, if so, are they complicit in the crime?

Here, the Holocaust survivor, Jean Améry, and the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, offer valuable insights. Améry, himself a victim of torture, wrote about it in At the Mind’s Limits (1980). Torture, he observed, was a monstrous immorality because it violated another person’s body, reducing it to a vessel of fear and pain. Under such distress, the victim confesses to anything, even the wildest fictions and fantasies, as Améry himself did when he was tortured.

In its simulation of death by drowning, waterboarding is intended to produce great fear and psychological dislocation. It may perhaps leave no physical traces, but the mental wounds it inflicts are something else altogether. Their insidious effects on victims were captured by Améry in his conclusion on torture:

Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained …. It is fear that henceforth reigns over him. Fear—and also what is called resentments. They remain, and have scarcely a chance to concentrate into a seething, purifying thirst for revenge.

Torture, in short, alienates its victims from humanity and generates (or strengthens) vengeful resentments. Améry carried his own resentments as a burden to remind himself—and us—of the moral enormity of any attempt to demolish another human being’s will through torture. For Améry, such attempts are both crimes and mistakes because they sow the seeds of future acts of vengeance.

A further disturbing insight comes from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964). Adolf Eichmann, desk-bound executioner and “Jewish expert” for the Third Reich, oversaw the deportation of Jews to their deaths during the Final Solution. A bureaucrat who never dirtied his own hands, Eichmann therefore judged himself to be less than fully responsible for the murder of millions. On this point, the judges at Eichmann’s trial reached a far different conclusion: “the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.” In crimes against humanity, degrees of separation from the dirty work only add to the offense.

Waterboarding is torture; Cheney and Rumsfeld approved it; and Améry and Arendt’s reflections suggest the immorality of, and culpability for, the crime. What now? Whether we find this distasteful or not, the press needs to show that it too can aggressively interrogate sources. Rather than waiting a month for an Obama Justice Department or a congressional investigation, the press should challenge incoming Obama administration officials now, together with new members of Congress. Outside legal experts should also be consulted. Does Baltasar Garzón—the Spanish judge who pursued Augusto Pinochet relentlessly—have an opinion? These are obvious leads for reporters.

To strengthen America’s moral authority, we need to reject the idea that demolishing our enemies’ resistance through torture is a necessary price of our safety. Let’s not balk at an expeditious and complete accounting of our mistakes—and of crimes committed in our name.

13 thoughts on “Gina Haspel: A Torturer at the CIA

  1. Perpetrators never faced accountability by either Bush or Obama administartion…. that left the victims without any justice… one does not even know WHAT horrors they are living with now.
    An excellent OpEd by Prof Dorfman
    His powerful play “Death and a Maiden” described what really happens to the victims and what they have to live through.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Given the ongoing — and increasingly hysterical — behavior of the U.S. and U.K. governing “elites” (Corporate/Media/Military/Political) as regards the Russian Federation, Iran, North Korea, and China (just to mention a few of the “usual suspects”), it appears as if naked nationalism has replaced any semblance of genuine “patriotism,” leading to egregious displays of defamation and malignant moralizing by the U.S. and U.K. (and their obedient vassals) while breaking every law they self-righteously demand that others obey. As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “In Oceania, there is no law.” Most certainly not in Airstrip One and its 50 colonial appendages across the Atlantic.

    From, “Notes on Nationalism,” by George Orwell, Polemic (1945):

    … Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality. …

    It is also worth emphasising once again that nationalist feeling can be purely negative. There are, for example, Trotskyists who have become simply enemies of the U.S.S.R. without developing a corresponding loyalty to any other unit. … A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. … He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception [emphasis added]. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.

    …The following are the principal characteristics of nationalist thought:

    Obsession. As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort.

    Instability. The intensity with which they are held does not prevent nationalist loyalties from being transferable. … they can be and often are fastened up on some foreign country. … But the peculiarly interesting fact is that re-transference is also possible. A country or other unit which has been worshipped for years may suddenly become detestable, and some other object of affection may take its place with almost no interval. … What remains constant in the nationalist is his state of mind: the object of his feelings is changeable, and may be imaginary.

    But for an intellectual, transference has an important function which … makes it possible for him to be much more nationalistic — more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest — than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge. … he can wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes that he has emancipated himself. … all the overthrown idols can reappear under different names, and because they are not recognised for what they are they can be worshipped with a good conscience. Transferred nationalism, like the use of scapegoats, is a way of attaining salvation without altering one’s conduct [emphasis added].

    Indifference to Reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. … Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side [emphasis added].

    The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. … A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.

    Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should … and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied. …

    Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening… Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world.

    What a work of timeless relevance.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A bureaucrat who never dirtied his own hands, Eichmann therefore judged himself to be less than fully responsible for the murder of millions. On this point, the judges at Eichmann’s trial reached a far different conclusion: “the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.” In crimes against humanity, degrees of separation from the dirty work only add to the offense.
    The same mindset of the Eichmann excuse is at work with the aspect of torture or war crimes. The My Lai Massacre exploded the myth that American soldiers were incapable of war crimes. Even after the My Lai revelation, it was considered a one off. As the book Then the Americans Came, documents My Lai was not unusual.

    The My Lai cover-up insulated and inoculated the Field Grade and General Officers. A Lt was selected to take the hit from the justice system for My Lai. Please note Bad Apples are always at the bottom of the pecking order.

    At some point after 9/11 the idea of using torture and extraordinary rendition was legitimized in fact and in spirit. Torture was approved as an act of assault, but also in the minds of Americans as an acceptable method of interrogation. The Eighth Amendment concerning cruel and unusual punishment could be trashed since these were not American citizens. Combatants or even non-Combatants could be tortured since they were labeled terrorists rather than POWs. “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”, appear in Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The UN article was ignored.

    Torture to me is the raping of our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as it has evolved since it’s adoption, torture is Un-American in my view.

    A good article – Iraq is a reminder: US crimes against humanity predate Trump. One piece especially note worthy ->> No matter how much they destroy, how many lines they cross, whom they murder en masse, their respectability is unaffected, their leadership de rigueur. This was not the failure of the rule-of-law: this is the rule-of-law in a system in which any attempt to transform power or even challenge it has been silenced. <<

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks RS, MM, and ML for the great comments. Always value your contributions to this site.

    Incredible that even torture can be explained away in the USA today: She was doing her job, just following orders, not her fault, she’s a good woman, and so on and so forth.

    I wonder if the Nazis at Nuremberg talked about “looking forward, not backwards”?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Jon Schwarz — that’s a blast from the past, from the sadly extinct “A Tiny Revolution.”

        Meanwhile, we should note that Obama outlawed torture and re-instituted assassination, which had been outlawed by Reagan. Torture of one suspected “terrorist,” or assassination of a “suspected terrorist” and anyone in his vicinity, it’s so hard to choose. /s


  5. @ Don Bacon.
    Jon Schwarz — that’s a blast from the past, from the sadly extinct “A Tiny Revolution.”
    I miss it… it was great!


  6. Reblogged this on Bracing Views and commented:

    During her Congressional testimony today, Gina Haspel refused to say that torture is immoral. She also suggested President Trump would never order waterboarding, even though Trump is on the record as supporting it (and far harsher methods of torture). Something tells me she’ll gain Congressional approval despite all this. After all, there are plenty of people already in government who lack both a moral compass and the spine to refuse unlawful and immoral orders. (


  7. Followed the hearing live and was choking most of the time. In fact such a hearing is a joke when most of the Senators have far too little knowledge of the GWOT torture background. I may have missed a worthwhile one, but only few (particularly senators Harris and King) stood out by asking pertinent questions and not accepting being sidetracked by Bloody Gina’s endless repetitions of how wonderful the CIA is, how amazingly moral she herself is and how everything she ever did was within the law.
    The senators evidently do not know enough to then remind her, that those laws had been engineered specifically on CIA’s suggestions so as to protect the torturers from legal consequences, therefore purely self-serving scams.
    Not to mention the – was it 6?- millions promised to Jessen & Mitchell for legal fees. Why would that be necessary, if it all was legal?
    The tapes were destroyed after many years of deliberation because there had been leaks and they feared more of those? As far as I remember, leaks did not happen until after those long deliberations …

    Warner was far too smooth and Feinstein was a disgrace. When Haspel claimed to be reformed and having miraculously acquired a moral compass – Torturers Anonimous – she should have asked her whether in that case she would agree to release the full Senate report on torture, even if we know the answers once more would have been that that ‘would endanger the lives of her amazing, decent, patriotic agents’. She preferred to use part of her precious five minutes to stress how much she loves Haspel …
    This hearing was the quintessence of ‘Ich hab’es nicht gewusst’ and ‘Befehl ist Befehl’, unbelievable in a supposedly civilised society after Nuernberg et al.

    In such hearings the chairman should tell the candidat to answer the question with Yes or No and cut short her deft delaying tactics, which in many cases wasted far too much of the precious five minutes of the senators.
    Her claim that she will not allow CIA staff to torture or even interrogate (hear, hear, the CIA never interrogated – let alone tortured – anyone before 9/11?!) is a red herring, for as long as she did not acknowledge that torture is immoral no matter who perpetrates it, she can be expected to have no qualms about the army, police or whatever other armed forces doing the dirty work or – as already happened so many times – outsourcing it to ‘democratic’ regimes such as Egypt, Morocco or the UAE. 30 years of covert operations must have taught her how to very carefully formulate anything she says, so as to suggest something that is not there and to hide that which is – while pretending honesty.

    In view of the lavish bi-partisan praise and her pseudo-modest evident ambition, I doubt that this ‘paragon of CIA virtue’ will be rejected …


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