Well, this is a little awkward, isn’t it? Not long after it became clear that Gina Haspel has the votes to win confirmation as CIA director, John McCain has decided to throw a wrench in the works. Haspel may be a patriot, the sidelined Senator writes, but her connection to torture makes her unfit to run the agency:
— Seung Min Kim (@seungminkim) May 10, 2018
Will this change any minds? As I noted in an update to my earlier post, Susan Collins had just committed to voting for Haspel shortly before this statement was sent out to the media. So had Joe Manchin, who more emphatically dismissed concerns over Haspel’s connections to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Florida Democrat Bill Nelson hadn’t committed one way or the other, but seemed ready to let bygones be bygones on torture concerns back in March:
“The fact is that that was then, and now is now,” said Nelson, a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He noted that the extraordinary rendition program put in place after the September 11, 2001, attacks was now banned.
“They were operating under what was the accepted practice of the day,” Nelson said.
McCain’s call-out from his sickbed offers a dramatic moment in the Haspel narrative, but will it change anything? Many had assumed that McCain would have opposed Haspel had he been able to cast a vote, and would have hammered the points in his statement from the Senate floor. Rand Paul will certainly do that much, but he doesn’t have nearly the same influence on other members. As long as Collins doesn’t buckle, Haspel’s confirmation should remain on track.
What about Jeff Flake, though? He’s still undecided, and McCain’s public opposition may give him a reason to back away from Haspel. How about Mike Lee, whose libertarian bent might make him think twice? Bob Corker, who might not mind giving Donald Trump a headache on the way out the door? There are still a lot of undeclared Republicans on CNN’s whip list. Haspel’s confirmation may not be a done deal yet.
Update: Lots and lots of reaction that accuses McCain of using Haspel to take shots at Trump, but that sells McCain short on this issue. He’s been passionate about the torture issue — and has the personal experience that gives him a lot more credibility than most to opine on it. He was much tougher on the Bush administration over “enhanced interrogation techniques” than he’s being to Haspel here. McCain certainly has an animus to Trump which he hasn’t ever bothered to hide, but Trump’s probably a secondary issue to McCain at best here. This is at least mostly about the EIT practices that McCain tried to ensure were never used again.
Ironically, though, that may mean that his statement will have even less impact. Everyone knows how McCain feels about this issue, and therefore already knew that McCain would eventually oppose Haspel. McCain tied his remarks to Haspel’s testimony today, no doubt to combat that baked-in-the-cake issue, but anyone prepared to vote for Haspel had to already know that McCain would eventually make an issue of it. If that’s the case, then perhaps McCain’s statement won’t have much impact at all. But who will be the first Republican to endorse Haspel after it?
Update: On the other hand, this is a completely fair — and good — question:
But Senator, with all respect, you voted FOR John Brennan who had the same record on rendition and enhanced interrogation as Ms. Haspel. Respectfully, why the double standard? https://t.co/AQM43yHWq4
— Larry O'Connor (@LarryOConnor) May 10, 2018
That’s accurate. McCain voted for Brennan even though a number of other Republicans did not. Brennan was, at the time of the use of EITs, the #4 ranking official in the CIA, and Brennan spent some time defending the practices before eventually changing his mind about it.