Kentucky was center stage recently in the political drama of the Senate’s consideration of a CIA director nominee. Ashland native Gina Haspel was confirmed in the end, but only after being raked over the coals by a line of posturing senators, including another Kentuckian, Rand Paul.
Paul ignored reason by standing in line with Democrats of The Resistance and other grand-standers repeatedly asserting Haspel had served “immorally.” The central issue asserted was that she violated moral codes by participating in what was alleged to have been torture in the interrogations of 9/11 terrorists.
For the uninformed, torture means pulling out fingernails with pliers, cutting off fingers and toes, burning, freezing and hooking up electrodes to various body parts. Torture is prohibited by laws and our national policies and rightly so.
But allowing U.S. constitutional rights to organized terrorists only signals that they need not cooperate in any way. Enter the in-between, called “enhanced interrogation,” under which torture was still not allowed, but limited physical coercion was allowed.
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This mainly included non-injurious physical stress contacts, but also the highly controversial “waterboarding,” where the subject had water continually poured over his face to give the effect of drowning, producing extreme pressure to give information.
Moral or immoral? You decide. But these techniques were certified as lawful by the highest authorities of the current administration. That is important because the detractors today tell you it was unlawful or unauthorized, which is simply untrue, or that Haspel’s actions showed “poor judgment,” which is founded on nothing but opinion.
Still awful, you say? Some perspective: CIA’s operators act much as the military. All are bound by laws, regulations, and rules of engagement. Note that “morals” are not included here, although all rule venues are based in part on moral values.
The main problem with centering on morals is that they are subjective and so varied as to prevent any meaningful standard for action to an individual. Our operators, military and intelligence based, go where ordered by legitimate authority and follow lawful orders (keyword: lawful), as they have sworn to do in their oaths.
Often they are called upon to do difficult things. Examples: the pilot who releases her weapons on a properly designated target. Yet another Kentuckian, congressional candidate Amy McGrath, showed this in her TV ad as she “shacked the target.” Could this be torture? Not for long, as her subjects were blown into small pieces.
Or consider the young Marine who discharges her weapon at the terrorist before her? Her M-4 round drills a nice 5.56 mm hole in his forehead, then tumbles internally and exits the back side leaving an inch-wide cavern. Torture? How about immoral? And what about those drone strikes that take out city blocks?
These events are accepted, horrific as they are, because they are deemed necessary and, more importantly, they are lawfully ordered and executed. Recall also the urgency of post-9/11. We’d just experienced the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century. Would we next suffer a nuclear event in Washington? Massive releases of poisons in water supplies nationwide? More airline hijackings? We needed to know.
Enhanced interrogation seemed the vehicle. The Senate Intelligence Committee called this torture — more than 10 years later, a bit too late to govern Haspel’s actions post-9/11.
The bottom line: Haspel and others kept their oaths, following lawful orders of superiors in compliance with the laws of the time and in very difficult circumstances. For this she deserves our respect, not disparagement from the misinformed, misguided and politically motivated.
In the end, we have someone widely appraised as the best possible choice to lead the CIA, but only after some despicable treatment. I worry about our country: its broken politics, rising unkindness and now a return to bashing warriors who do difficult things to defend us.
We must be better than this.
Brian Engle of Lexington is an Air Force retiree last assigned to the Pentagon with U.S. Special Operations Command.