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In competing letters, former officials square off over Haspel ahead of confirmation hearing

Haspel's nomination has thrown the CIA's post-9/11 torture program back into the spotlight.

CIA nominee Gina Haspel (R) is seen waiting for the Senate subway while she is on Capitol Hill for meetings with senators in this May 7, 2018, photo. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images
CIA nominee Gina Haspel (R) is seen waiting for the Senate subway while she is on Capitol Hill for meetings with senators in this May 7, 2018, photo. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former CIA officers and U.S. diplomats squared off over the controversial nomination of Gina Haspel to lead the Central Intelligence Agency in the hours ahead of her confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

Haspel led a CIA black site in Thailand in 2002, where she oversaw the use of brutal interrogation techniques like waterboarding — a form of controlled drowning — on at least one suspected Al Qaeda member. Later, in 2005, she drafted a memo that authorized the destruction of video tapes from torture sessions at that same black site.

In an open letter published Wednesday morning by the advocacy group Human Rights First, 115 former U.S. diplomats came out strongly against her nomination, which they argued would hurt America’s efforts to oppose torture abroad.

“We have little doubt what lesson governments that rely on torture and other forms of mistreatment to maintain their grip on power will draw from Ms. Haspel’s confirmation,” they wrote. “Whether or not she uses the opportunity of her confirmation hearing to reject torture — which we hope she will do — the point will remain that her record of involvement in torture was judged worthy of and compatible with holding the CIA’s highest office.”

Tuesday night, The Cipher Brief obtained a letter from 72 former CIA officers in support of Haspel’s nomination to be the first woman the lead the intelligence agency. They joined 50 former senior intelligence officials who came out in support of Haspel earlier this month.

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“In her, we saw the image of what we want a peer and leader to be,” the former CIA officers wrote of Haspel, “someone who offers professional respect, a person who commits to the highest standards of conduct and ethical behavior, and a bold but pragmatic decision-maker who places the interests of our nation above personal advancement or petty politics.”

Even Haspel’s critics have acknowledged that her decades in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service make her deeply qualified to lead the agency. But they question her decision-making after she followed orders to oversee interrogation techniques that are now broadly understood as torture, and participated in the destruction of interrogation videos.

President Donald Trump came out strongly in favor of torture during the 2016 presidential campaign, saying “torture works.” But experts say it’s unlikely that the CIA would ever restart its interrogation and detention program. Haspel confirmed that analysis during her confirmation hearing Wednesday in response to questions from Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and others.

“I would not restart, under any circumstances, an interrogation program at CIA — under any circumstances,” Haspel said point-blank in response to a question from Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

But many fear Haspel’s confirmation could hurt the Unites States’ reputation as a champion of international human rights and undermine efforts by U.S. diplomats to oppose the use of torture and other degrading interrogation tactics by foreign countries.

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Robert Ford was U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, as the uprising there morphed into a civil war. During a background call for reporters Tuesday organized by the advocacy group Human Rights First, he described confronting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about his use of torture, only to hear Assad bring up the mistreatment of U.S. detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in late 2003.

The U.S. punished those soldiers for mistreating detainees. Ford said promoting Haspel to lead the CIA would send the opposite signal to the rest of the world.

“If Ms. Haspel is confirmed, it’s going to undercut a lot of the efforts that the Department of State and other U.S. government agencies make in promoting human rights,” he said.