The Enhanced Interrogation of Gina Haspel

It’s unfortunate that Congressional hearings provide opportunities for members of Congress to grandstand, a temptation especially enticing to those who have their sights on higher offices.

Few support the normative use of torture as a means of extracting information from prisoners, even those who have shown no respect for the lives of innocents. And most people would agree that there are “enhanced interrogation” methods that, while making the interrogated uncomfortable or even frightened, can be necessary in “ticking bomb” circumstances, where lives are imminently in danger and a prisoner is believed to have information that can save them.

Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to lead the C.I.A., is an intelligence officer who became Acting Director following her predecessor Mike Pompeo’s resignation to become U.S. Secretary of State. Ms. Haspel, a three-decade veteran of the agency, has been nominated by President Trump to become the permanent C.I.A. Director, and needs to be confirmed by the Senate.

Senators subjected her to what might well be called “enhanced interrogation” of their own, legitimately questioning her having overseen a secret C.I.A. prison in Thailand that housed suspected al-Qaida officials, but unreasonably demanding “yes or no” answers to questions requiring nuanced and complex responses.

The prison Ms. Haspel oversaw was part of the U.S. government’s extraordinary rendition program after the September 11 attacks, and used interrogation techniques like waterboarding — where water is poured over a cloth covering the face of a captive, causing him to feel like he is drowning — that were deemed legal at the time by agency lawyers but have since been regarded as illegal and immoral.

The nominee vowed to the lawmakers during her confirmation hearing last week that she would never start another detention and interrogation program like the one that the government had approved at the time. “I would not allow the C.I.A. to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal,” she declared. “I would absolutely not permit it.” And she told her interrogators that, if asked by the president to carry out measures she finds “morally objectionable,” she would refuse to do so.

But Ms. Haspel declined to condemn the agency’s approval then of the treatment of al-Qaida suspects. She told the senators that “I’m not going to sit here with the benefit of hindsight and judge the very good people who made hard decisions who were running the agency in very extraordinary circumstances at the time.”

Ms. Haspel was also grilled about her 2005 order to destroy videotapes of some interrogations. At the time, Ms. Haspel was serving as chief of staff to the head of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez. The destruction of the tapes was done in order to prevent them from reaching the wrong hands, and both Ms. Haspel and Mr. Rodriguez were later investigated by an assistant United States attorney, who recommended no charges be filed against either official.

Senator Kamala Harris of California, considered by some to be a good candidate for the Democratic party to run for president in 2020, asked Ms. Haspel whether she thought torture “worked.” The nominee responded that “We got valuable information from debriefing of al-Qaida detainees” but “I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”

Ms. Harris then went on to badger Ms. Haspel, demanding that she tell the senators whether “you believe that the previous interrogation techniques were immoral.” When the nominee began to answer carefully, the senator interrupted her with “It’s a yes or no answer.”

Ms. Haspel tried to resume her response, only to be interrupted again in the same way. And then a third time.

Such senatorial behavior may play well on national media or with a home base, but it is not the way to elicit the information needed to make an objective, intelligent judgment about the worthiness of a nominee for an important national post.

Republican Senator Rand Paul voiced opposition to the nomination, explaining that “To really appoint the head cheerleader for waterboarding to be head of the CIA? I mean, how could you trust somebody who did that to be in charge of the CIA? To read of her glee during the waterboarding is just absolutely appalling.”

Which it would have been, had such in fact been the case. Mr. Paul, informed otherwise, later retracted his allegation.

A bipartisan group of former leaders in the intelligence community have endorsed Ms. Haspel’s nomination. President Obama’s former C.I.A. Director John Brennan called her an “exceptionally well-respected professional” who deserves to “take the helm” of the agency; and former C.I.A. Director and Obama administration Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressed satisfaction with Ms. Haspel’s nomination, contending that she “knows the C.I.A. inside out.”

Opinions like those, not congressional grandstanding on C-Span, should determine responsible senators’ votes.