Gina Haspel has shown she has all the qualities to become the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, except one.
For 33 years with the agency, Ms. Haspel has been on the front lines of America's greatest security challenges, rising from station chief, to deputy director of the clandestine service, to deputy director of the agency. Former bosses and colleagues from both parties praise her leadership and professionalism.
What's prevented her from being a shoo-in for the top job is her role at the center of one of the federal government's most sickening and indefensible programs, a brutal interrogation regime that used torture against terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks. It wound down during President George W. Bush's second term, then was banned by President Barack Obama after stirring domestic and international outrage.
In 2002, Ms. Haspel headed a C.I.A. detention facility in Thailand where a suspect linked to Al Qaeda, accused of orchestrating the attack on the American destroyer Cole off the coast of Yemen, was waterboarded and brutalized in other ways. And in 2005, under her boss's direction, she drafted a cable ordering the agency to destroy more than 90 videotapes of its interrogation of that man.
At Ms. Haspel's confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, she was pressed on how she now viewed torture and whether she would ever revive the program, even if President Trump ordered her to. That's a vital concern since he's spoken of bringing back waterboarding, in which a detained person is doused with buckets of water to the point of near-drowning.
"Having served in that tumultuous time," she said, "I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, C.I.A. will not restart such a detention and interrogation program."
But she did not declare, flat out, that torture is wrong and that she regretted her role in it. Instead, she defended the torture of terrorism suspects during a fraught time after the Sept. 11 attacks when the agency was focused on preventing more attacks. She said C.I.A. officers should not be judged for their involvement in torture then.
Asked if she would stand up to Mr. Trump if he ordered her to resume an "enhanced" interrogation program, she first said, "I do not believe the president would ask me to do that," then added, "I would not restart under any circumstances an interrogation program at C.I.A."
Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, asked her to define her "moral code." Ms. Haspel said: "I would not allow C.I.A. to undertake activity that I thought is immoral, even if it is technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it. I believe C.I.A. must undertake activities that are consistent with American values."
But she would not say that torture is immoral.
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, asked her whether she had called for the program to be continued or expanded in 2005-7 when the program was winding down. Ms. Haspel did not answer directly.
We are constrained in assessing Ms. Haspel because much about her record is not public. Ms. Haspel controls what of her record can be declassified, and most details released so far have been flattering. She should recuse herself and allow Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, to make the call on declassifying more of her record.
It's unlikely that anyone else Mr. Trump would pick would have Ms. Haspel's experience, knowledge of the agency and intelligence. It is troubling, though, that someone deeply associated with actions so at odds with America's values and international law should lead the agency. What signal would that send to the world?
Ms. Haspel no doubt fears she would be undercutting some of her colleagues by renouncing what she did. But the C.I.A. needs a leader who can reckon openly with the past.
Unless Ms. Haspel takes that step, she will not have demonstrated the most important quality for any official, a strong moral compass. Until then, we cannot support her confirmation.
New York Times (www.nytimes.com)