The bipartisan national security class has united to support a torturer as CIA chief. What will it say about Washington if she is confirmed?
The confirmation hearing for Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, will begin in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday. Haspel’s nomination has become controversial because of her supervision of a CIA black site in Thailand, where detainees were tortured (with heinous methods that extended far beyond “mere” waterboarding), as well as her central role in destroying videotapes of the interrogation sessions at which torture was employed.
Two GOP senators appear unlikely to vote for Haspel: John McCain, whose illness prevents him from attending, and Rand Paul, who has vowed to oppose Haspel (though few things have proven less reliable than Rand Paul’s promises to act on his supposed principles). That means that Democrats have the power to block a torturer and evidence-destroyer from becoming Trump’s CIA director — if they remain united in their opposition.
Will they do so? It is difficult to be optimistic, to put that mildly. The history of Democrats throughout the war on terror is to ensure that just enough members of their caucus join with the GOP majority to ensure passage of even the most extremist pieces of legislation or nominees justified in the name of terrorism or national security.
The ruse Democrats typically use to accomplish these dirty deeds is quite ingenious: The defectors change so that no one member bears the blame for enabling right-wing measures, while the party itself is able to claim that a majority opposed the extremism. In 2010 — as the Bush-era tactic of Democratic defections to the GOP continued under Barack Obama — I referred to this tactic as “Villain Rotation” and described it this way:
The primary tactic in this game is Villain Rotation. They always have a handful of Democratic Senators announce that they will be the ones to deviate this time from the ostensible party position and impede success, but the designated Villain constantly shifts, so the Party itself can claim it supports these measures while an always-changing handful of their members invariably prevent it. One minute, it’s Jay Rockefeller as the Prime Villain leading the way in protecting Bush surveillance programs and demanding telecom immunity; the next minute, it’s Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer joining hands and “breaking with their party” to ensure Michael Mukasey’s confirmation as Attorney General; then it’s Big Bad Joe Lieberman single-handedly blocking Medicare expansion; then it’s Blanche Lincoln and Jim Webb joining with Lindsey Graham to support the de-funding of civilian trials for Terrorists; and now that they can’t blame Lieberman or Ben Nelson any longer on health care (since they don’t need 60 votes), Jay Rockefeller voluntarily returns to the Villain Role, stepping up to put an end to the pretend-movement among Senate Democrats to enact the public option via reconciliation.
If Haspel is confirmed, it will be because a certain number of Democratic senators join with the GOP caucus to support her, while allowing the Democratic Party to claim it tried to stop her by pointing to a majority of futile Democratic votes against her. That’s why the record of the Democratic Party over the last 17 years — providing whatever amount of support is needed for GOP war on terror policies — makes it difficult to believe that Democrats will unite to kill her nomination.
The prospect of united Democratic opposition to Trump’s CIA nominee is further complicated by the vocal support for Haspel coming not only from the CIA itself — which has been running what amounts to a domestic propaganda campaign on her behalf — but also from the most admired Democratic Party intelligence and military officials.
Despite her role in the CIA torture program — or perhaps because of it — Haspel has been showered with praise, and her confirmation urged, by a bipartisan cast of intelligence officials that includes Obama’s two CIA directors (John Brennan and Leon Panetta), Obama’s director of national intelligence (James Clapper), Panetta’s former chief of staff at the CIA and current MSNBC star Jeremy Bash, and a bevy of Bush-era CIA and military officials who have rehabilitated their reputations among liberals in the Trump era (led by Bush’s CIA and NSA chief Gen. Michael Hayden).
It is not difficult to understand why these Democratic national security officials — despite effectively rebranding themselves as #Resistance icons — are so supportive of Trump’s choice of a torturer to lead the CIA. Part of it is ideological and group loyalty: unlike Trump, Haspel is one them, a member in good standing of the intelligence and military world in which they have spent so much of their lives. Part of what motivates their support is standard tribalistic rank-closing: Yes, she is a torturer, but she’s one of our torturers.
Part of the motive is undoubtedly financial. Many of Haspel’s most vocal supporters from the intelligence community make great profit from doing business with the CIA. Few things would be better for business than earning the gratitude of the agency by publicly agitating for their prized nominee and using their credentials as Good Democrats to creating space for, and applying pressure to, Democratic senators to support her.
Jeremy Bash, for instance, is a founder and managing director of Beacon Global Strategies LLC, a private consulting firm led by Obama’s former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell (who, needless to say, also supports Haspel). Beacon is filled with ex-CIA and intelligence officials from both parties — including Panetta and Bush Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend.
Many of the Beacon executives are the same national security officials who last year worked with Bill Kristol and Mario Rubio’s neocon foreign policy guru, Jamie Fly, to create the Alliance for Securing Democracy and its Hamilton 68 dashboard to advocate for a new, more aggressive foreign policy (among those in both groups are Morell, Fly, Julianne Smith, and Adm. James Stavridis). It’s the living, breathing personification of the Revolving Door sleaze that everyone who doesn’t swim in it despises:
Beacon describes itself as “a strategic advisory firm specializing in International Policy, Defense, Cyber, Intelligence, and Homeland Security” and — to clients — touts its “deep experience informed by their years of service in the White House, State Department, Defense Department, CIA, Justice Department, on Capitol Hill.” In other words, it leverages its connections to the intelligence and military agencies for which they worked to generate profits from corporate clients who do business with those agencies or whose business otherwise depends on their good will.
If your income and profit depended on maintaining close relations with the government agencies which you once helped manage — as is true of so many of D.C.’s Revolving Door beneficiaries — wouldn’t you also leverage your public credentials to bolster whatever agenda they were supporting at any moment? For so long, Washington’s national security policy has been shaped by profit motives, fueled by legalized Revolving Door corruption, dressed up as counterterrorism and national security imperatives.
This is one of the problems with having TV and cable networks fill their rosters with former military and intelligence officials: They are ideologically and, so often, financially motivated to support those agencies’ worldview and agenda under the guise of “news” — in other words, to spout state propaganda. Of course they are going to use their Democratic Party credentials to support the CIA’s campaign elevate this CIA torturer: They have every ideological and business incentive to do so.
The primary argument being mounted on Haspel’s behalf is not that it was wise or just to torture detainees (the only one who seems to be making that argument is the president who nominated her and Dick Cheney’s daughter, now a pro-torture congresswoman occupying her dad’s old seat). Instead, the defense is the one proffered by the defendants — and rejected by the tribunal — at Nuremberg: Haspel was just following orders.
As my colleague Jon Schwarz noted when Haspel was unveiled, some Democratic national security officials are unironically using the exact phrase invoked by the Nazi defendants at Nuremberg to justify, or at least mitigate, Haspel’s conduct:
Samantha Winograd, who served on President Obama’s National Security Council and now is an analyst for CNN, likewise used Nuremberg defense language in an appearance on the network. Haspel, she said, “was implementing the lawful orders of the president. . . . You could argue she should have quit because the program was so abhorrent. But she was following orders.”
There is some factual accuracy to this claim: Haspel was not some rogue torturer. It is absolutely true that she was implementing CIA policy as decreed by George Bush, Dick Cheney and the Justice Department. Like most CIA officials involved in torture, not only was Haspel protected from punishment for that, but she was repeatedly promoted. That’s because torturing helpless detainees is regarded by the CIA as a noble and patriotic act.
That’s why it was so predictably disastrous when Barack Obama elevated to the highest national security positions CIA officials such as John Brennan who had supported and advocated for major parts of the CIA’s torture and rendition program, and why it was even worse when Obama devoted himself to shielding all torturers from all forms of criminal and even civil penalty for their war crimes (even in the face of a treaty, signed by Ronald Reagan, requiring all signatory states to prosecute, not immunize, their torturers no matter their excuse for using it).
Indeed, as CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski pointed out today, a central prong of the GOP’s pro-Haspel messaging is “all the support Brennan got for CIA director from Democrats opposing her.” And that is, as he says, a “fair point”: after all, how can Democratic Senators posture now as vehement opponents of empowering torturers when they cheered Obama for naming the torture-and-rendition advocate Brennan as CIA Director, voted for his confirmation, and have now turned Brennan into a beloved #Resistance hero whose every Twitter utterance instantly goes viral?
While the primary guilt for torture lies with those who did it (namely, top officials of the Bush White House and the CIA which obeyed their criminal orders), Obama’s sustained 8-year campaign to rehabilitate, protect and even empower torturers converted torture from what it should be – a criminal taboo that automatically leads to prosecution – into just another partisan political dispute. As a result, those who advocate it or even did it not only remain in decent company but even get Washington Post columns, MSNBC contracts, and hugs from beloved liberal TV icons.
The outcome of that climate is that one of the people who oversaw some of the worst torture the U.S. has inflicted is about to be elevated to lead the world’s most powerful intelligence agency.
The word “normalize” has become a favorite media cliché in the Trump era, but it applies with full force here: Gina Haspel as CIA Director is what happens when you normalize torturers by barring their prosecution and awarding them with high-level positions in media, politics, and the intelligence community. Torture becomes just another good faith political disagreement, something that at worst “taints” someone’s record – to use the remarkable minimizing word chosen by the Washington Post’s long-time CIA defender David Ignatius – but should be weighed against their good points:
This is American Exceptionalism in its purest, and ugliest, expression: war criminals which lead African nations or enemies of the U.S. are sent to the Hague to be prosecuted, while American war criminals are rewarded, empowered, and praised. When an American tortures, it’s not a crime but a mere “taint,” and certainly not one that should result in denial of promotions let alone handcuffs and a prison cell.
During the last Israeli election, when pundits thought Benjamin Netanyahu may lose, I recall many Palestinian activists hoping that Netanyahu would win, because it’s clarifying of what Israel is to have Netanyahu as its leader rather than some prettier, more palatable figure who would support the same policies of occupation, aggression, and illegal settlement.
One could certainly look at Gina Haspel that way: she’s the Director the CIA deserves, an accurate reflection of what this agency really is. Having someone who everyone knows is a torturer at the helm of this agency will make it that much harder to sustain the U.S. media propaganda script – led by CIA spokespeople such as NBC’s Ken Dilanian and Ignatius – about the good and noble work this agency does. On some level, it’s healthy for the CIA to finally wear its true identity on its sleeve.
But it’s also clarifying about the charade of Trump and the #Resistance, about the supposed inability of the parties to agree on anything, of the refusal of people from different ideologies to unite. That Trump chose someone with one of the most gruesome torture histories to lead the CIA is certainly revealing about who he is. And if the Democrats cannot unite to stop that, that will be further evidence of what they are. What kind of #Resistance refuses to stop an actual torturer chosen by Donald Trump from being promoted to head the most powerful spy agency in the world?