Forty-five years ago this month, in the wake of the Watergate break-ins involving former CIA personnel, the agency produced a report known as the “family jewels.” It contained the CIA’s accounting of incidents that it had engaged in, including operations that exceeded legislative limits. The report ran nearly 700 pages, and detailed operations against American journalists, assassination attempts, unauthorized experiments with LSD, break-ins, and more. When the report was leaked to the press, it sparked tremendous outrage and led to the creation of the congressional intelligence-oversight committees in order to try to stem future CIA excesses. Sadly, this would not be the last time that the agency would exceed its legal limits.
The CIA wields its impressive array of powers to ensure Americans’ security, and it does so with the least amount of oversight of any government agency. Presidents often turn to it to achieve foreign-policy objectives that are best done in secret. But the CIA’s can-do attitude has often gotten it into trouble when presidents have asked it to do things that push or exceed its traditional boundaries. Because the agency operates in secrecy, it falls to its own leaders to provide self-restraint when senior political appointees ask it to go too far.
This is why Senate confirmations not only evaluate a nominee’s qualifications, but their judgment. The CIA’s history of straying beyond its mandate in the name of national security at the behest of its political leadership is key context as the Senate considers the nomination of Gina Haspel to be the director of the CIA. Her involvement in one of the darkest incidents in the agency’s past gives us an important window into her judgment.
Haspel herself was deeply involved in one of these incidents. In the wake of the attacks on 9/11, the CIA was tasked with operating a detention and interrogation program of suspected terrorists. Haspel oversaw one of these overseas facilities where at least one detainee was tortured. The use of these techniques was so reviled that the Senate overwhelmingly voted to ban their use in the future.
But Haspel's involvement did not end there. After the press first reported on the existence of these so-called “black sites,” she lobbied for the destruction of these tapes, penning the memo authorizing their destruction as the Senate voted on a proposal to investigate the torture program. The CIA has acknowledged that Haspel authored the memo authorizing the destruction of videotapes of these interrogations, despite investigations into the program by the Department of Justice and Congress. This destruction was a clear violation of federal law.
For many, Haspel’s direct participation in this controversial program is sufficient grounds to disqualify her from serving as the head of the CIA. Her supporters have argued that she was following legal guidance at the time, and that the destruction of the evidence was for the good of the agency.
At her confirmation hearing, Haspel will assuredly claim that she has learned the lessons of her involvement in the torture program. But this hearing is not just about how she behaved in the past. And her actions already indicate how she would react when confronted with future requests for operations that push past the boundaries designed to restrain the awesome powers of the CIA. Haspel's record shows that when asked to do something controversial against the clear limits set out in statute, treaty, or practice, she is all too ready to comply. While she may never be asked to restart the interrogation program, she might be asked to start other programs that would violate America’s values—things like targeting journalists, using foreign intelligence services to spy on political opponents, or running influence operations to sway the American people.
Haspel, a CIA professional, loyally follows the edicts of her political leadership. But that loyalty can be a liability now that we have leaders who chafe at the limits placed on government to prevent it from being used against its own people. We have a president who speaks admiringly of other heads of state who rewrite the rules to stay in power, who balks at punishing other nations for assassination attempts, who denigrates and threatens the free press, and who seeks to subvert American law enforcement and longs to use it as a tool against his political adversaries. In this environment, Haspel's loyalty is a liability. She would be an enabler of a president who would urge her to target his opposition and could push the agency back to the days of the family jewels. To keep the CIA from yet another round of controversial programs, senators should be wary of someone who is so thoroughly a company creature.