Why comparing Gina Haspel to Robert Bork doesn't work

The debate over whether Gina Haspel should be the next CIA Director is pitting civil libertarians against supporters who believe her resume speaks for itself. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is promising to filibuster Haspel’s nomination because he thinks her involvement in the CIA’s waterboarding program is beyond troublesome. Paul explained his position further in Politico:


Direct participation in the program itself would be disqualifying enough for me, but appointing someone who also helped push for destroying evidence of that program to run one of the most powerful organizations in the world should not be acceptable to Congress.

At the end of the day, does this sound like what you would want from someone in a position of incredible power—much of which is hidden from the public? Without hesitation, I say no.

Haspel’s defenders in the GOP and conservative media want her to get a full and fair hearing, likening (somehow) Paul’s abrasive criticism to how Democrats felt about Robert Bork during the 1980’s. Rich Lowry at National Review believes Haspel deserves to be CIA director because the nation’s failings on torture shouldn’t fall on someone who was basically just doing her job.

The interrogation program began when al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah was captured in March 2002. At the time, we believed another attack was imminent, and preventing it had an urgency fueled by raw memories of an event that was literally yesterday’s news.

In light of this pervasive feeling, it’s unsurprising that a broad political consensus supported doing what was necessary to get information from captured al-Qaida leaders. The CIA repeatedly briefed select congressional leaders, especially the top Republicans and Democrats on the intelligence committees. By all accounts, the program met with assent…

In the cold light of day, we would have handled all of this differently. The Bush administration shouldn’t have been as aggressive in its legal interpretations. We should have realized that we had more time to play with, and that the program itself would become a black mark on our reputation overseas and such a domestic flashpoint that we would basically lose all ability to interrogate detainees (droning became the preferred alternative).

But this was a national failing, and at a time when we understandably believed we were in a race to prevent another atrocity on our shores.


Bork, for those who need a reminder, saw his nomination scuttled over his view on abortion (or, at least, that’s what I was taught in high school) and other conservative viewpoints. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy complained on the Senate floor Bork was too opposed to civil rights and civil liberties. It’s possible Kennedy was also referring to Bork’s support of Barry Goldwater, as William F. Buckley noted in a 2004 National Review article. Buckley gave context to Bork’s support of Goldwater, he was apparently trying to throw a bone towards someone in the Yale international relations department who had also listed himself as a Goldwater supporter.

Yet, Lowry appears to now be pointing out Bork’s role in Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, since Bork was acting Attorney General, as why he failed to make it to the Supreme Court. It’s an interesting switch in arguments on Bork’s failed nomination, and its connection with the idea Haspel was just “following orders” over the CIA torture program.

It’s also one which doesn’t pass the so-called smell test, if we are to believe Haspel’s resume is key to her nomination as CIA Director, because Haspel still ordered the destruction of tapes regarding torture which did happen. Via Marcy Wheeler at The New Republic:

None of this, however, addresses Haspel’s other role in torture: the cover-up. In 2005, at a time when both members of Congress and terrorism defendants were asking for evidentiary materials relating to torture, she drafted the cable ordering the destruction of videos of the treatment of Nashiri and still more incendiary ones depicting Abu Zubaydah’s torture. “The cable left nothing to chance,” her boss Jose Rodriguez described in his memoirs. “It even told them how to get rid of the tapes. They were to use an industrial-strength shredder to do the deed.”

While it’s possible that Pete Hoekstra, then the chair of House Intelligence Committee and currently Trump’s ambassador to the Netherlands, was briefed on and signed off on this action, Democrats had been advising the CIA not to destroy the tapes since 2003. “The fact of destruction would reflect badly on the Agency,” Harman wrote that year. And there were other legal obligations on CIA not to do so.


That’s troublesome, and doesn’t go along with the idea Haspel was just following orders. Wheeler also noted Haspel was still involved in torture, even if we don’t know all the details. The New York Times reported Haspel was head of the black site when Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was waterboarded three times. This is different from the now corrected story by ProPublica which accused Haspel of being involved in the torture of Abu Zubaydah (and props to ProPublica for apologizing for their error).

This is why Haspel shouldn’t be CIA director. The fact she was okay with the torture of terrorism suspects, and did her best to cover up its use should disqualify her from the position. There are those who say, “It was war, and the government should have sold tickets to the torture,” but is that really something the U.S. wants to be remembered for? The CIA admitted in 2014 it made mistakes in the treatment of prisoners, and perhaps that speaks for itself and why Haspel shouldn’t be confirmed (even if she most likely will be).

It should also be pointed out we wouldn’t be having this debate if former President Barack Obama had decided to hold those in favor of torture accountable. Here’s what Cato’s Patrick G. Eddington told me via email:

The point I’ve been making to people is this: just because Durham couldn’t prosecute them didn’t mean Obama couldn’t have fired them. Instead, he made Brennan his main NatSec advisor during the campaign, then made him a key NatSec advisor in the Administration, including making him CIA director. So a key reason why we still have Gina Haspel around to be considered for CIA director is because Barack Obama lacked the integrity to fire her, Brennan, and anybody else who participated in or had knowledge of the torture program & went along with it. That doesn’t excuse Trump for picking her to be CIA deputy director last year and to nominate her for the top job now, but if she’d been fired in disgrace by Obama, her name would likely not even be in play to head the CIA.


Trump likes to say he’s correcting Obama’s mistakes. He should correct another one here by withdrawing Haspel’s nomination and relieving her of duties. Trump won’t because he thinks it works, but he should.

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