By Sahar Khan
Gina Haspel was sworn in as the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) first female director on May 21, 2018 following a controversial nomination period and a contentious Senate confirmation hearing. While Haspel is qualified for her new role—she is a career intelligence officer with 33 years of service in the CIA—her appointment is troublesome because of her involvement in the United States’ torture program and endorsement of destroying interrogation tapes of key terrorist suspects.
In the context of U.S. foreign policy, her appointment represents two troubling developments: an erosion of checks and balances on the executive, and a potential “torture redux.”
A president’s constitutional powers are complicated, and law professors are often divided on the issue of the scope and limits of presidential power. Haspel’s advocates argue that she would be in a unique position to restrain President Trump, who publicly voiced support of torture, especially as his inner circle is filled up with like-minded advisors. And she would be able to do so for two reasons. First, her main focus is to improve the CIA’s operational capacity—something former director John O. Brennan also sought to do during his tenure at the CIA. During her swearing-in ceremony she discussed boosting the agency’s foreign-language proficiency, strengthening intelligence sharing with allies, and deploying more covert officers abroad to better serve as a foreign intelligence service. Second, she has a good professional relationship with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, having served as his deputy when he was the director of the CIA before accepting his current position. Yet, there was little discussion on how increasing the CIA’s capacity might impact its tendency to inflate threats. For example, declassified CIA documents from the 1950s and 1960s revealed that the United States significantly overestimated th
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.
Sahar Khan is a visiting research fellow in the Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy Department. Her research interests include militancy, counterterrorism policies, anti-terrorism legal regimes, South Asia, Middle East, and U.S. national security. Her dissertation explored state motivations for sponsoring militant groups, and the role civil institutions play in state-sponsorship within Pakistan. She has published in Newsweek, The National Interest, Huffington Post, The Diplomat, Duck of Minerva, and others. Before starting her doctorate, she was the associate editor of The Washington Quarterly at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Sahar holds a PhD in political science from the University of California, Irvine; a MPP from the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago; and, a BA in International Studies and Economics from Ohio Wesleyan University.