The Good of the Country, or the Good of the Agency? Some Final Reflections on Gina Haspel

Posted in: Government

It now seems clear that Gina Haspel will be confirmed as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. This is hardly the worst thing that could happen. As I wrote after watching her confirmation hearing and reading her testimony, she is obviously a thoughtful and experienced champion of the Agency who made it clear she wanted the CIA to have nothing to do with interrogations, and who would not restart the enhanced interrogation program “under any circumstances.” Those who were dismayed by her past association with the torture scandal had to take some comfort in her remarks.

It also appears she can be counted on to defend the Agency from ideological manipulation by ill-informed and misguided members of the political class. Unlike many past directors, Haspel is an insider who rose through the ranks and plainly believes in—and will protect—the independence and integrity of the Agency and its officers. All of this is much to the good, and likely helps explain why she is so popular with so many current and former Agency officials, a number of whom I respect a great deal. To paraphrase our peerless leader, we could do a helluva lot worse than Gina Haspel.

I nonetheless expressed reservations about Haspel. I sketched my concerns in a column for TIME, and stand by what I wrote. I want to use this space to expand upon the root of my objection, less to be part of the confirmation debate than to raise a more fundamental, and completely non-partisan, question. I am convinced that Haspel will be good for the CIA. She is undoubtedly qualified for the position she seeks. But query whether she is good for the country. Can the head of an executive agency be good for the agency but bad for the country?

At one level, this is an easy question. If the agency shouldn’t exist—if it disserves the country by its very operation—a director can obviously be good for the agency but still bad for the country. In that situation, the good of the country and the good of the agency are inherently in tension. Some people put the CIA in this category, but I do not. I support the idea of an organization dedicated to protecting national security from threats overseas. I also accept that such an organization must sometimes operate covertly. This in no way excuses the prior misdeeds by the CIA over the years, of which there have been many. It merely acknowledges that an agency like the CIA has a place in American life. And if it deserves to exist, it also deserves to be run well.

But what happens when a salutary impulse to protect an executive agency clashes with what is best for a civilized democracy? Here I focus on a few revealing passages in Haspel’s testimony. During the hearing, she made it clear she thought the enhanced interrogation program produced useful intelligence and that it was completely consistent with legal guidance given at the time. She also refused to say, despite repeated questions by Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), whether she considered the enhanced interrogations to be personally immoral. From this, one might reasonably infer that she would be perfectly willing to restart the program if asked to do so (and if the law allowed it).

Then why not restart the program, as some have encouraged her to do? Though no one asked the question, Haspel herself shed some light on the matter when she said she would never endanger CIA officers “by asking them to undertake risky, controversial activity again.” As I wrote elsewhere, the implication—particularly of that word controversial—seems to be that she would be entirely comfortable with the same or equally morally bankrupt operations so long as there was no risk of discovery by the American people, since the disclosure of such operations is what brings calumny to the Agency and risk to its officers. She is apparently more concerned about protecting the CIA, in other words, than in preventing its descent into morally loathsome behavior unfit for a civilized democracy.

There is other support for this interpretation. At her hearing, she pointed out that the CIA has gotten out of the interrogation business—which is true, so far as we know—and that the interrogation of suspected terrorists has been passed back to the FBI and other agencies with greater experience and expertise in the task, where she felt it belonged. Again, one reading of her testimony—though I stress that no one put the question to her directly—is that she had no qualms about interrogations of any sort so long as they were conducted by somebody else, and thus spared the CIA from risk of being involved in “controversial activity.”

I want to be scrupulously fair to Ms. Haspel. It is entirely possible that she found the enhanced interrogations personally reprehensible. Today, the coercive techniques that were employed by the CIA from 2002 to 2006 would be illegal, and Ms. Haspel said she supports the changes that were made in the law. But it was simply not clear whether she supported the current state of play merely because it is the law, or because it also comports with her moral judgment. The law, as we discovered with the drafting of the torture memo, is almost infinitely flexible and can be manipulated to fit the perceived demands of the day, but presumably her moral code is more firmly set. If the law allowed it, would she be ok with waterboarding and prolonged sleep deprivation?

That is why I listened with such interest when Senator Harris asked her, again and again, whether she found the enhanced interrogations immoral. This would have been her opportunity to make clear that certain lines cannot be crossed, regardless of whether they are legal. As importantly, it would have been her chance to declare that, at a certain point, she would no longer protect officers who engage in morally reprehensible behavior, even if what they have done is legal, but will instead ask what is best for the country. She had that opportunity, but did not take it. I am left to wonder, therefore, whether she would put the interests of the Agency above those of the country.

Though it will probably not satisfy those who see the world through red or blue glasses, I stress that my concerns are completely non-partisan. A director who attempts to shield her agency from rightful criticism and her officers from lawful consequences has misused her power and disserved her country, regardless of the president she serves. The possible tension, in other words, between the interests of the agency and the interests of the country does not depend on the director’s political orientation.

I also accept that the line I have in mind is difficult to draw. Though a director must not interfere with legitimate investigations, she must be prepared to resist illegitimate investigations with great vigor. In these hyper-partisan times, some investigations into executive agencies—perhaps many, or even most—are thinly disguised attacks on the Agency launched for purely political purposes. They threaten the Agency’s independence and integrity, and diminish the morale of those who work there. A director has perhaps no higher calling than to resist those attacks, denounce them for what they are, and rally to the defense of her agency. That is why Attorney General Jeff Sessions must stand behind Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in defending against the scurrilous attacks launched by the president and some Republicans in Congress, and why Director Christopher Wray must stand up to the equally unwarranted broadsides leveled against the FBI.

I have no doubt that Gina Haspel will vigorously defend what is soon to be her agency and that she will shield it from unfair charges. The question is whether she will also shield it from fair charges. She will undoubtedly be a great champion of the CIA. Whether that is good for the country as well as the Agency remains to be seen.

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