If Gina Haspel Is Confirmed, Will CIA Torture Begin Anew?

Gina Haspel
Gina Haspel, Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Photo credit: C-SPAN / YouTube

In spite of a Senate hearing in which Gina Haspel repeatedly evaded tough questions about her views on torture, it appears that she will be confirmed as the new CIA director. Enough senators were apparently mollified by her qualified assurances that there will be no more “enhanced interrogation” at the spy agency on her watch.

But John Kiriakou, who as a CIA insider exposed the original torture program — and ironically was the only government official who went to prison over the issue — thinks that Haspel is actually a true believer in torture.

In his conversation with WhoWhatWhys Jeff Schechtman, he reminds us of all the opportunities she has had to renounce torture and the torture regime she presided over. Had she done so, Haspel could have changed her legacy, as well as the legacy of those who supported her in her efforts. But time and again she chose not to.

Kiriakou is still surprised by how few people have come forward to speak out against what happened. He believes that there are still many in the agency who want to recapture its vaunted “cowboy authority.”

Even as director of the CIA, Kiriakou says, Haspel may not be able to turn the clock back to 2001. But with Trump egging her on, anything can happen. And if the CIA does resume torture of any kind, the senators who voted for Haspel will shoulder part of the blame and should be held to account.


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Jeff Schechtman: Thanks for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. The debate over Gina Haspel running the CIA has, like most things, devolved into a partisan political debate: The usual tribes, the usual sides, and the usual arguments. But if we can only step back a bit, we see that it’s so much more. It goes to the heart of who we are as a nation, as a moral society, and whether we can ever again be that shining city on a hill.
As the nomination becomes closer to a vote in the Senate, we’re going to talk about it today with my guest, John Kiriakou, who was the first member of the intelligence community to expose the CIA’s use of torture, and as a result, became one of the very few Americans ever prosecuted under the Espionage Act, for which he served 23 months in federal prison. It’s my pleasure to welcome John Kiriakou back to this program. John, thanks so much for joining us.
John Kiriakou: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Jeff Schechtman: With this vote coming up, and little by little it’s been leaking out who’s voting for, who’s voting against, certainly it doesn’t seem very positive at this point in terms of stopping this nomination. What is your sense of that, first of all?
John Kiriakou: Yeah, I have to reluctantly agree with you. It breaks my heart to say it, but yeah, I think that Gina Haspel probably has the votes for confirmation, with Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana coming out in support of her, and probably, Doug Jones of Alabama. I don’t think that there are four Republicans to vote no. We know that John McCain, of course, is a no-vote, although he’s too sick to return to Washington to vote. And Rand Paul is a no-vote.
There are rumors that Mike Lee of Utah may vote no, from the libertarian perspective, but then, where does that leave us? Do we have to rely on the likes of Bob Corker who may vote no, just because he hates Donald Trump? Or Jeff Flake for the same reason? I heard a rumor today on The Hill, which is just a rumor, but the idea was that Ted Cruz would vote no because his father had been tortured by the Castro regime, and he knows the horrors of torture. I can’t imagine that that’s going to be the case, but that’s how desperate we are for another vote or two.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there anything that Gina Haspel could have done or said in her hearings that might have redeemed her, that might have made people say, “Maybe she learned her lesson”?
John Kiriakou: Oh yes, and that’s such a good question. That’s a question really nobody’s asking. She could have said, in response to Senator Heinrichs of New Mexico, “Senator, I was wrong. We were caught up in the hysteria after 9/11. We did things that, in retrospect, were wrong and were regrettable, and I promise you that we will not go down that path again.” But she never said any of that. She was defensive, she was evasive, and she never apologized or expressed remorse in any way.
I’ve said in other outlets that Gina could have said no when they asked her to go overseas and head the secret prison. She could have said no when they told her to oversee the torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. She could have said no when Jose Rodriguez told her to destroy the evidence of the torture, but she never said no. She only said yes. I think that is very regrettable.
Jeff Schechtman: And in this current decision to say what she said before the Senate committee, is it your sense she didn’t go further because that’s how she feels or because she made a political and personal ambition decision?
John Kiriakou: Well I’ve always believed that Gina was a true believer. That the reason why Gina never said no, the reason why Gina readily accepted those assignments was because she believed in the torture program. There was this sense among so many in the CIA immediately after the 9/11 attacks that we needed to avenge the deaths of these 3,000 people and that … You remember the phrases that were being bandied about-
Jeff Schechtman: Oh yes.
John Kiriakou: … “The gloves are coming off.” “We’re going to the dark side.” “We’ll see bin Laden’s head on a pike with flies on his eyes,” Cofer Black famously said. But there were people who really believed that stuff, and Gina Haspel was one of those people.
Jeff Schechtman: Is it your sense she’s learned nothing since?
John Kiriakou: Nothing. Gina Haspel was a member of the Senior Intelligence Service all those years ago, 16 years ago when these decisions were being made. She has spent most of her career in the Senior Intelligence Service. She knows how to get ahead, and this is how you get ahead. It wasn’t about doing the right thing for her. It’s never been about that. It’s been about getting ahead, and she finally made it.
Jeff Schechtman: If she is in place as head of the CIA, how do you figure that that will impact others in the agency that maybe don’t feel as she does?
John Kiriakou: Another great question. I’ve said publicly a number of times that the message this sends to the CIA workforce is that you can commit war crimes or crimes against humanity and you can get away with it. Not only will you get away with it, but you’ll be promoted, and indeed, you can even be promoted to director. All you have to do is play ball and keep your mouth shut. That’s the message that this sends. Now, the message that it sends to people like me who opposed the torture program or who are still inside is, “Keep your mouth shut, or you’ll end up in prison like Kiriakou did.”
Jeff Schechtman: Why do you think more people have not spoken out?
John Kiriakou: Oh that’s such a mystery to me. I knew, I knew from personal first-hand experience that I was not the only person who opposed this torture program. And indeed, once the Senate torture report was released, we saw that there were dozens of CIA officers who were sickened by this program. Several of them curtailed their positions and returned from the secret site to headquarters. That’s a career-ending move. Several of them resigned or took retirement. I was convinced that somebody would go public, and instead, none of them went public.
Jeff Schechtman: Why not?
John Kiriakou: It’s all about self-preservation. Why throw away a life? I went to prison for two years. I lost my federal pension. I lost the right to vote. I lost the right to own a firearm. I lost my house. I lost my job. As things turned out, I lost my wife. So is it really worth it?
Jeff Schechtman: Do you have a feeling that once she’s in place that torture will begin again, that a regime will come into play that will reinstitute some of these programs?
John Kiriakou: Well I fear that that will be the case if there is not robust, congressional oversight, and there isn’t robust, congressional oversight. What you have instead is a group of both Democrats and Republicans who are nothing more than cheerleaders for the CIA. That’s the real danger, because if there’s no one on Capitol Hill to tell Gina Haspel or any other CIA official, “No,” then they’re going to do anything that they want, because they’ll be confident that they can get away with it.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of this has to do with the current president? How much does that play into this?
John Kiriakou: Oh, I think Donald Trump has emboldened these people. During the transition when he said that he intended to bring back, and these were his words, “Bring back waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse.” That was the green light for these people to move forward and to try to recapture some of that cowboy authority that they had in 2001 and 2002. So, it was a very dangerous thing to say. And as it’s turned out, he meant it. This is the policy.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things we haven’t heard much about or haven’t heard from are former leaders of the CIA, former directors of the CIA haven’t come forward on these issues.
John Kiriakou: That’s a very important point. What we have seen is that former leaders of the CIA, from the period of the torture program, have come forward to endorse her: George Tenet, Jim Pavitt, Mike Morell, Mike Hayden. All these people who, in my view, became monsters post-9/11, they’re all for Gina Haspel. They’re for Gina Haspel because she is a part of their legacy. They are on the record as supporting this program, and they think that if they can tell this lie that it wasn’t torture over and over and over again, that they can finally convince the American people that it’s true, because that’s their legacy.
When their obituaries are written, they’re going to say that they were instrumental in the creation and implementation of the CIA’s torture program, but they don’t want it to use that word. They want those obituaries to say that they were patriots who did it in the name of protecting the American people. We know that that’s not true. So it’s up to us to make sure that the American people understand how this thing really played out.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s also the secondary mythology that was very much a part of her hearings and very much a part of what she had to say, which is creating this illusion that this is what the American people wanted at that time.
John Kiriakou: That may be true, but if you’re a leader, then you lead. I mean, you’re supposed to be the one in the position of authority. You’re supposed to be the one who knows right from wrong, and leadership just collapsed all across government. Whether it was in the White House or in the Justice Department or on Capitol Hill or at the CIA, it just fell apart. You would have thought that there would be someone in some position of authority to say, “Wait a minute. This is wrong. We can’t do this. Not only is it morally and ethically wrong, but it’s also illegal, and we shouldn’t be doing it,” and nobody ever said that.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting. You talk about all those former leaders and directors of the CIA who were part of this same legacy. In a way, if they had been able to convince her, or if she had on her own said those things that you were talking about before, not only might she have cleared her legacy, but she might have cleared theirs as well.
John Kiriakou: I think that’s exactly right. I think that’s exactly right because she would have gotten the job, and she would have shown that contrition works. An apology, even if it was a half apology, works. And you know what? In one sentence, she could have rehabilitated all those other CIA leaders and she didn’t.
Jeff Schechtman: It doesn’t seem there was any pressure on her to do that.
John Kiriakou: No, no pressure at all. If you watch the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearings, the open hearings, the only tough questions came from two or three Democrats. Ron Wyden, Kamala Harris, and Heinrichs of New Mexico. It was a love fest on the other side of the aisle. And then you had the likes of Joe Manchin saying how honored he was that Gina Haspel deems to drop by his office to say, “Hello.” It was sickening.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you think that it’s going to make any difference in the short run? Will we see the impact of her being CIA director in the short run?
John Kiriakou: Probably not. I don’t think that she can make too terribly much of a difference. I think that what we’ll see is a continuation of what these previous, very conservative CIA directors have done before her, and I mean across Democratic and Republican administrations. So, no. I think that the terrible things that we either think or know that the CIA is doing are going to continue, at least for the next two and a half years.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally, from the public’s standpoint, what should the public be looking for? What should it be watching for? If Congress isn’t going to engage in oversight, what should the public be at least looking towards?
John Kiriakou: Look for what the White House calls leaks. I don’t call them leaks; I call them whistleblowing. I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, the American people own this information. The American people have a right to know what the government is doing in their name. If the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee are not going to exercise oversight, then we have to rely on whistleblowers to tell us what’s happening inside.
So pay close attention to the press and look for information that is coming from the inside of the intelligence community. That’s the only way we’re going to know what’s happening.
Jeff Schechtman: John Kiriakou, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
John Kiriakou: It is a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And, thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it, by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from CIA / Wikimedia.

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