NEW YORK, United States – US President Donald Trumps pick to lead the CIA has become increasingly divisive, as the clock ticks down on a Wednesday confirmation hearing being hailed as a fulcrum moment on whether the US backslides into its post-9/11 torture programmes.
Trumps nominee, Gina Haspel, lived as an undercover officer for much of her 33-year CIA career. Now, in the limelight, she is blasted for her role in the George W. Bush-era harsh interrogation programme and the destruction of videotapes of waterboarding, which simulates drowning and is considered a form of torture by rights groups, among others.
In recent days, Haspel, 61, told the White House that she would step aside to avoid a bruising Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing midweek that could tarnish the CIA, The Washington Post reported.
West Wing officials closed ranks around Haspel at the weekend; she is now expected to field tough questions from the committee. On Monday, Trump tweeted that Haspel was perversely being hounded for being “too tough on terrorists”.
The Senate confirmation hearing will not be easy and Haspel has been preparing for it with mock questioning at CIA HQ. She has reportedly said she would firmly oppose the reintroduction of any torture-like scheme.
A tight 51-49 party split in the upper chamber makes confirmation uncertain. Scott Roehm, from The Center for Victims of Torture, said Haspels track record makes her unfit to run an agency that operates with little oversight.
Officials like Haspel, national security advisor John Bolton and Trump, who once said he would reintroduce waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse”, could return to methods that then-president Barack Obama, a Democrat, halted in 2009, added Roehm.
“Any decision to return to a policy involving torture or abusive interrogation arises in a time of crisis, like it did after 9/11, and it will be a moment of crisis when the decision is made again,” Roehm, director of the campaign groups Washington office, told Middle East Eye.
“Nothing in Haspels record suggests she would push back in that moment.”
Her nomination is just one of several worrying signs, said Patricia Stottlemyer, a lawyer with Human Rights First. She pointed to anti-Muslim rhetoric from the Oval Office and efforts by lawmakers to expand the presidents powers to lock up alleged enemy combatants indefinitely.
Haspel is generally praised as a skilled spymaster who worked her way up through the ranks of the covert agency, where she was deputy director under Mike Pompeo, himself sworn in as secretary of state last month.
But congressional officials and agents who served alongside her said that in 2002, during the Republican Bush administration, she was responsible for the secret CIA prison in Thailand code-named “Cats Eye”.
Two suspected al-Qaeda militants – Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah – endured waterboarding and other harsh techniques at the facility, which was better known as Detention Site Green.
Its not at all clear that the CIA and the US government couldn't cross that line again
– Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International
Three years later, still during Bushs presidency, she helped carry out an order to destroy videotapes of the waterboarding that took place at the site.
Daphne Eviatar, a lawyer with the rights group Amnesty International USA, said the risk of returning to Bush-era abuses was high, as questions about turning the screws on detainees are day-to-day decisions for CIA field officers.
US forces cooperate with forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and other hotspots where detainees are tortured. Handing over a captured militiaman can be seen as a tacit green light for such abuses, said Eviatar.
“Its not at all clear that the CIA and the US government couldn't cross that line again. Its something that happens secretly, and that why its important whos in charge of the agency and whos advising the president,” Eviatar told MEE.
In one example, US officials have been quizzed about their knowledge of a United Arab Emirates-run torture programme in southern Yemen, where hundreds of men have been swept up in the hunt for al-Qaeda militants.
Pentagon chiefs deny knowledge of abuses by UAE forces there, carried out in a secret network of prisons where methods of torture allegedly include the “grill,” in which victims are tied to a spit and spun in a circle of fire.
Keeping tabs on the CIA is tough, added Eviatar. Despite oversight from the US Congress, watchdogs, journalists and UN mechanisms, the full scale of Bush-era abuses was not fully known until US senators published a 6,000-page report in 2014.
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“That stuff happens in secret. We didn't know about it for years,” said Eviatar.
Haspel is not the only concern. US senators have proposed legislation to provide congressional authorisation for campaigns against militant groups in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere that are currently covered by statutes from the early 2000s.
The proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, would authorise “all necessary and appropriate force” against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Islamic State (IS) group and associated forces. It does not permit military action against any nation state, including Syria.
Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, backs it. As does Tim Kaine, a committee Democrat, who described it as part of a push to take back authority over the military from the White House.
But campaigners warn that, in reality, it expands the presidents war-making powers by including IS and by allowing the White House to designate new groups of combatants who can be engaged on the battlefield and detained as prisoners of war.
That would make it easier for Trump to make good on his campaign promise to “load up” Guantanamo Bay with “bad dudes” by paving the way for his administration to justify the detention of captured IS militants, said Eviatar.
“It would be a congressional stamp of approval on a global war that, by definition, has no end, because youll never completely eliminate terrorist groups, which will always be able to morph into another one,” she added.
First woman to run CIA
Former CIA officers were less anxious. Paul Pillar, who had a 28-year career in US intelligence with postings in the Middle East and South Asia, said America was not headed back to the anti-terror hysteria that followed the 9/11 attacks.
“Torture wasnt used back then because of a particular individual; torture was used because of an angry, scared national mood after the 9/11 attacks compromising our standards about how we should handle alleged terrorists.” Pillar told MEE.
“More than a decade has passed. Terrorists have not staged another big attack on US soil. Our standards and our laws have improved.”
Others noted that Trump has toned down his torture talk and done little to expand the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, deferring to Defense Secretary James Mattis, who says beer and cigarettes have helped more than torture to get detainees to talk.
Terrorists have not staged another big attack on US soil. Our standards and our laws have improved
– Paul Pillar, former CIA officer
If confirmed, Haspel would take over the CIA in the midst of a stormy Trump presidency that faces an increasingly assertive Russia, looming nuclear talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Iranian military involvement in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
She would also be the first woman to run the agency.
Globally, the use of torture tarnished Americas reputation and the orange jump suits worn by Guantanamo detainees became a reviled symbol used by everyone from IS to Amnesty International, a UK-based rights group.
Haspel has served in several undercover foreign posts, including as chief of the CIAs station in London and its New York base. Then-CIA Director John Brennan in 2013 named her deputy director of National Clandestine Service, but she was denied a permanent posting by lawmakers.