The Spooks Vs. The Brass: Will This Duel Stop Haspel’s Rise?

As Gina Haspel prepares to face Congress and the press tomorrow in her quest to become CIA Director, there’s a duel underway in the background.

The duel is between two letters: one from a company of former spy chiefs, endorsing her nomination. The other is from a battalion of retired generals and admirals, vehemently opposing it.

Torture is the nub of the clash. Haspel ran one of the CIA’s “black sites” in which prisoners were tortured. She also helped run the whole program, and called for destruction of videotapes of torture sessions, in defiance of court orders to preserve them.

The contrast between the two letters is remarkable, and worth examining.

The Washington Post notes today that 

“To say that she was part of this [detention and interrogation] program, from a management standpoint, and is not qualified to lead the agency, is misguided,” said John Brennan, who served as CIA director under President Barack Obama.

Former CIA Director John Brennan

Brennan joined 52 other former senior national security officials in signing a letter of support for Haspel’s nomination, calling her a “true intelligence professional who brings care, integrity and a commitment to the rule of law to her work every day.” 

The full text of the Brennan letter is here. It is relatively brief, barely 400 words. The money quote:

Ms. Haspel’s qualifications to become CIA Director match or exceed those of most candidates put forward in the Agency’s 70-year history. She has spent more than 30 years of her life quietly serving America and the CIA, routinely stepping up to handle some of the most demanding assignments around the globe. Ms. Haspel is a proven leader who inspires others and has what it takes to make tough calls in times of crisis. . . . She will speak truth to power, offering unbiased intelligence to policymakers no matter how difficult the situation. 

Throughout her distinguished career, Ms. Haspel has received numerous honors, including the Intelligence Medal of Merit, the George H.W. Bush Award for Excellence in Counterterrorism, the Donovan Award and a Presidential Rank Award, the highest award in the federal service. 

Those who have served alongside Ms. Haspel have only the utmost praise and respect for her . . . . 

“Speak truth to power?” A striking phrase. Many others who served on the ground, and have had to deal with the continuing fallout of the CIA’s torture program, have also spoken, and declared a very different kind of truth.  As the Post also reports:

But more than twice as many retired military generals signed a letter opposing Haspel. [The full text of the letter is here.] “We do not accept efforts to excuse her actions relating to torture and other unlawful abuse of detainees by offering that she was ‘just following orders,’ ” they wrote. 

And rejection of the “just following orders,” which is what the CIA case for Haspel comes down to, was just the beginning. Where the spymasters’ letter was fulsome but clipped, the generals are, not to put too fine a point on it, outraged:

We urge [Senators] to examine closely the full extent of Ms. Haspel’s involvement in the rendition, detention, and interrogation program and, should you find that she played any role in carrying out, supervising, or directing the torture or abuse of people in U.S. custody, or the destruction of evidence relating to these activities, we urge you to reject her nomination.

“Any role”? Most of Haspel’s career is still secret; but the facts of her being deep into the torture program, in numerous roles, is one of the few sets of facts even the CIA has acknowledged. And for the generals this is not a quibble, but a matter of “profound concern”: 

We are deeply troubled by the prospect of someone who appears to have been intimately involved in torture being elevated to one of the most important positions of leadership in the intelligence community.. . .

In addition, former CIA general counsel John Rizzo has stated that for some period of time a person we now know to be Ms. Haspel oversaw the CIA’s entire interrogation program—a program that was rife with mismanagement and abuse.

Moreover, the generals flatly reject the excuses & assurances by Brennan and the spymasters:

We understand that some well-respected former senior government intelligence officials have spoken highly of Ms. Haspel’s experience and long record of service to the Agency. However, we do not accept efforts to excuse her actions relating to torture and other unlawful abuse of detainees by offering that she was “just following orders,” or that shock from the 9/11 terrorist attacks should excuse illegal and unethical conduct. We did not accept the “just following orders” justification after World War II, and we should not accept it now. Waterboarding and other forms of torture or cruel and inhuman treatment are—and always have been—clearly unlawful. Individuals in the service of our country, even at the lowest levels, have a duty to refuse to carry out such actions.”

And that’s not all:

Moreover, Ms. Haspel appears to have been involved in inappropriate actions that went beyond what was authorized by Congress or senior officials in the executive branch. Public reports suggest that cases of detainee abuse she supervised or otherwise had an operational role in involved conduct even more abusive than what the discredited legal memos supported. In addition to her role in overseeing and implementing torture, Ms. Haspel also appears to have strongly advocated for and played a key role in carrying out an order to destroy 92 videotapes of individuals in U.S. custody being subjected to torture. She did so despite federal court orders requiring preservation of all records pertaining to detainee abuse, and over the objections of congressional leaders, the Director of National Intelligence, Director of Central Intelligence, two successive White House counsels, Department of Justice officials, and the vice president’s top lawyer. This disregard for lawful checks on the CIA’s power is troubling.

“Troubling,” indeed. More than that: it’s dangerous to the troops they command and the country they have sought to protect:

The torture and cruel treatment of prisoners undermines our national security by increasing the risks to our troops, hindering cooperation with allies, alienating populations whose support the United States needs in the struggle against terrorism, and providing a propaganda tool for extremists who wish to do us harm. It would send a terrible signal to confirm as the next Director of the CIA someone who was so intimately involved in this dark chapter of our nation’s history.

“A terrible signal.” The 108 signers’ names sprawl across three pages.

So there it is: The generals vs the spooks.

Will the brass will get to have their say at Haspel’s hearing?  Regardless, I hope their protest, for that is what it is, will be heard as the Senate works its will.

More about Gina Haspel & her life in the CIA is in yesterday’s post, here



2 thoughts on “The Spooks Vs. The Brass: Will This Duel Stop Haspel’s Rise?”

  1. Thanks for this important reporting.

    There are a lot more readily recognizable names in the letter supporting Haspel than in the one opposing her. And the supporters are bipartisan, a who’s who of the national security establishment. On the Democrats’ side, in addition to President Obama’s CIA director John Brennan, his Secretary of Defense and former CIA director Leon Panetta also signed the letter, as did former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey.

    Is there anything notable that you can tell us about any of the opposing retired generals? Is it the case (as it appears to me) that they have stayed out of any political involvement until now, or am I missing something? Is there anything notable about any of their military careers? How many were in active leadership during the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts? How many served in Vietnam?

    1. Steve: I’m not an expert on biographies of generals, but a couple of points: First, The signers are listed at the end of the letter by rank. And nine of them are four-star generals, which is the highest. So they were important military figures. Second, 21 signers were Marines. Yet the Marines is both the smallest of the fighting services, and the most proud of its hard-fighting image and tradition. That so many of its top officers would join this letter suggests to me that Marine commanders are very sensitive to the argument that torture is counterproductive and increases the danger to their troops, and other U.S. fighters. And third, among the Major Generals is Antonio Taguba, who is known for producing the first real military investigation of torture at Abu Ghraib, and later dared to accuse the Bush regime of committing war crimes.

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