Some 15 years ago, one captured Al Qaeda official reportedly broke under prolonged torture and mouthed bogus intel that Iraq was behind 9/11. Torture subjects often tell the torturers what they want to hear. By believing him, the Bush administration let a sworn enemy influence their decision to invade Iraq. We elevated warped intel over independent judgment.

That is one of the problems that comes with naming Gina Haspel to become new CIA director. Many speak highly of her, but she is dogged by her time as chief of a “black site” in Thailand, where she personally interrogated some prisoners under torture. Many Democratic and a few Republican senators — led by torture survivor John McCain — question her suitability.

Haspel’s nomination reawakens the torture issue, which Washington would rather forget. Guantánamo prisoners sit untried for years because trial would reveal details on torture that would embarrass and block a guilty verdict. Senators could ask some nasty questions during Haspel’s confirmation hearing:

“Which types of torture work best? Oh, you have no opinion? You mean one is as good as another?

“Did you get any actionable information from torture? What, at least approximately, did you report to Langley? Did any of it, for example, help locate Osama bin Laden? Or was it worthless?

“Which countries that accepted our ‘extraordinary rendition’ subjects were the best black sites? Don’t they deserve our thanks and repeat business?”

Well, I certainly wouldn’t pose such questions. They would be impolite and unfair and have no place in U.S. politics.

Haspel could claim she neither invented nor advocated “extraordinary rendition” but was under orders to carry it out. Eichmann tried the “just following orders” defense at his 1961 Jerusalem trial. The court, noting Eichmann’s Nazi enthusiasm in killing Jews, didn’t buy the defense (neither did Nuremberg), and it is now largely inoperative: You did it because you voluntarily signed up to do it.

Other questions remain. Because torture — at least waterboarding (simulated drowning) — was not specifically illegal at the time, those practicing it broke no law. Congress has since outlawed it, and the CIA is now bound by the rules of a military field manual.

On the legality score, Haspel is probably safe. Ditto for her order to shred 92 tapes of “enhanced interrogations.” Without a crime, there was no destruction of evidence. Still, it clouds her credibility. Will Congress and the media ever fully believe her? This could be her biggest liability.



We might, however, temper our criticism. Haspel supports the Agency’s findings that Russia indeed penetrated our 2016 election, although it made no judgment on the impact. Will she stand up to Trump’s claim of a “Russia hoax”? Will she share intel on this subject with Special Counsel Mueller and the Senate committee, the only one left now that the House has concluded its coverup? How independent can Haspel be on this matter?

As a non-lawyer, I sometimes wonder: If the Supreme Court should rule waterboarding acceptable for overseas suspects, would that decision also apply to U.S. domestic police techniques? Why not? The legal reasoning would be identical, and SCOTUS rulings cover the whole U.S. legal system.

Do President Trump’s assertions that torture works and he would authorize far more than waterboarding reopen the door to torture? If the president says he supports and applauds torture, many officials will think they may practice it. Will Director Haspel buck her boss’s expressed desire? Even a direct order at risk of getting fired?

A bigger problem now is the replacement of restrained but ineffective Rex Tillerson by CIA Director Mike Pompeo — effective but unrestrained — as secretary of state. Pompeo, a sworn enemy of Iran, wants to tear up the 2015 nuclear deal, further isolating America from its allies.

Add to that the possible replacement of McMaster by bellicose John Bolton, the UN-hating ambassador to the UN, as Trump’s national security advisor, and we will have two strong, highly placed voices for a showdown with Iran. Of the original “grownups” who reportedly restrained Trump, only Kelly in the White House and Mattis at Defense will remain.

Saudi Arabia wants the U.S. to fight its archenemy Iran, but how closely should we ally with a shaky regime? The real Saudi chief, the impetuous Mohammed bin Salman, age 32, is selling his schemes in the U.S., but many fear his disruptive policies will blow up in his face. He recently arrested some 300 rich Saudis to force them to pay back billions from alleged corruption. His stalled war in Yemen is a human-rights catastrophe.

The Soviets were notorious for torture. One story has it that Soviet construction of Egypt’s Aswan Dam unearthed a mummy that could not be identified. Two KGB officers took charge and a few hours later named the mummy and his age. How did they know? “The mummy talked.” How do we confront, as a nation, being in the same league as Russia?