Alex Brandon / AP

On Thursday, Gina Haspel was confirmed as America’s next CIA director after the Senate voted to approve her nomination in a 54-45 vote. Her appointment stirred concern among anti-torture advocates because of her role in operating a black site in Thailand where operatives used enhanced interrogation techniques on detainees. For today’s issue, I spoke to a few former intelligence officials to get a sense of how officers navigate through situations that are morally challenging, and what happens when an agent receives a potentially unethical directive.

—Abdallah Fayyad

The Road to Moral Ambiguity

By Abdallah Fayyad

During Haspel’s testimony, one of the most significant lines of questioning focused on what informed her moral and ethical judgment, particularly with respect to the matter of torture. Multiple senators pressed Haspel again and again to revisit the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques during her time in the agency. What governed her decision-making at the time? How does she weigh the morality of those techniques now that they are forbidden? Would she permit her staff to use such techniques if she were directing the CIA? Haspel repeatedly sidestepped the hypotheticals, avoided clear statements about the morality of the methods used in the past, and trained her answers instead on the matter of her judgment itself—the moral foundation that underpinned her actions and those of other CIA officials. “My moral compass is strong,” she said. “I would not allow the CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.”

To some, a strong moral compass means an ability to know right from wrong, to delineate clearly whether or not, for example, torture is ever justified. But John Bennett, the former chief of the CIA’s clandestine service and a supporter of Haspel’s nomination, told The New York Times’ Adam Goldman that officers often have to reckon with more obscure moral lines. “If you’re a person who sees the world in terms of black and white—good guys, bad guys, right, wrong—and there’s not an ability to deal with moral ambiguity and turn to the grayness of espionage, I think you’re going to have a hard time” as a CIA officer, he said.

That doesn’t offer anyone who’s not a CIA agent much of an understanding of what an officer does when faced with a moral dilemma. So I posed that question to Philip Mudd, the former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Mudd agrees with Bennett’s line of reasoning—that officers are adept at maneuvering through moral gray areas—and says how an officer’s moral compass applies to their actions in the field is highly situational. “You don’t want somebody who says ‘these are bad guys so anything we do is okay,’” Mudd said. “I would rather have a person who goes through what we need to think about in any situation.”

Mudd said that, during his time at the CIA, there were several hypotheticals that agents would engage in if they were uncertain about the ethics of an operation, including one that they called “The Washington Post Test.” “What are you going to say when it’s on the front pages the next day? What’s your answer? You better be able to capture your answer in one sentence and it has to be simple,” he said. “How would you explain this? Because you have to assume it will go public. And it almost always does.”

CIA directors play a pivotal role in this process, Mudd said. Employees work with their directors to evaluate ethical concerns. If you’re an officer who suspects you’re approaching a moral dilemma, “the first thing you’re going to do is say [to your director] that you would need to think about this,” Mudd said. “And then you come back and say, ‘We’ve reviewed this and looked at the policy, ethical, and legal dimensions of this, so let me give you a perspective that’s different,’ which is a polite way of saying no.”

Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who took part in the interrogation of al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, said that most ethical qualms are settled through conversations within the internal network of staff. Zubaydah, who was detained at a CIA black site for his suspected involvement in the USS Cole bombing in 2000, was subject to torture that included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and isolation when Soufan and others on the site deliberated with officials in Washington over their techniques. “Most of the people from the CIA and myself had a problem with [enhanced interrogation] and we continued to shoot emails to headquarters asking for clarification and legal guidance because we felt that that was wrong,” he said. “And at one point, people from the agency left … but many men and women from the agency came back and were concerned by what they were seeing at the black sites, and that's why they started an investigation.”

Ultimately, how the CIA acts in response to its mission may be determined not by a particular officer, but by the organization and its hierarchy. For example, an agent refusing an assignment because of ethical concerns does not necessarily mean that the agency will not continue to pursue the operation. “If an officer was assigned to do something which he felt was in contradiction with his own personal ethical standards ... I suspect that in many cases a different officer would then be chosen to carry out that assignment,” said Gene Coyle, who worked as a CIA field officer for 30 years. But Coyle believes that ethical dilemmas aren’t as common as one would suspect. He sent me a paper he had written for a conference hosted by the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, in which he argued that ethics may change depending on a person’s role in society. “Certain actions done by an individual for his own purposes might be considered unethical, but if done in the line of duty as an intelligence officer are ethical,” Coyle wrote.

If, in the end, an agent viewed something as immoral and could not in good conscience carry out an order, Mudd said, that agent could, of course, decide to become a whistleblower. “But on the inside, that never seems like an easy option,” he said. “On my end, that would have been difficult.”

As all of the people I spoke with indicated, the process for determining ethical conduct in the CIA transcends the moral compass of any individual officer. But the decision of what constitutes ethical conduct ultimately rests in the hands of the director herself. The director, in turn, serves at the pleasure of the president, who gets to make the final moral judgement, whether the agency agrees with him or not.

A Veteran Reporter Revisits His Conclusions on Torture

By Abdallah Fayyad

In the 2000s, after 9/11, Mark Bowden wrote a series of pieces for The Atlantic about torture, where he described how it’s conducted and how nations grapple with it. And over the course of his reporting, he came to an interesting conclusion. We wanted to revisit that record, and ask Bowden where his opinions have landed in the intervening years.

  • A Nasty Business”: In our January 2002 issue, Bowden argued that in light of the attacks of 9/11, Americans should reckon with torture as a valid means to obtain information that could prevent another attack.

  • The Dark Art of Interrogation”: In our October 2003 issue, Bowden gave Atlantic readers an inside view of the often repulsive methods by which intelligence agents extract information. The public’s view on torture, he suggested in this detailed account, is misinformed and overly simplistic. If torture—or “coercion,” as Bowden labeled the more ambiguous methods he described—leads to valuable and potentially life-saving information, then it is wise to employ, he argued.

  • Lessons of Abu Ghraib”: In 2004, after the Abu Ghraib scandal rattled Americans with the reality of what “enhanced interrogation” looked like, Bowden reckoned with his previous assessment. Bowden explored the question of whether torture can ever be wise when its practitioners are photographed smiling.

  • The Ploy”: In May 2007, Bowden wrote about how the CIA was able to find Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda, without the use of torture. The public outcry and the backlash that ensued from the Abu Ghraib scandal resulted in stricter guidelines that prevented the Task Force from continuing to torture detainees.

  • In a 2003 interview with Alexander Barnes Dryer, Bowden delivered an ambivalent prescription for how society should treat torture. Torture should be banned, he argued, because no law will be nuanced enough to lay out where it might be appropriate without sanctioning atrocities. But interrogators should be prepared to use it, he argued, in the most desperate circumstances and face the legal consequences of that decision.

As Gina Haspel’s testimony demonstrates, the consensus and norms around torture have shifted from where they were during the Bush administration. In the intervening years, many interrogators—such as Ali Soufan, quoted above—have questioned the efficacy of torture. Meanwhile, accounts like Bowden’s 2007 piece illustrate how interrogation could yield valuable information without resorting to cruelty. So I emailed Bowden to see where he stands on torture today. Bowden said that there still may be times where torture is acceptable. “I do not agree that torture, or at least the fear of it, never works,” he wrote in an email. “It is a moral choice precisely because it can work, and has.”

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Today’s Question: We’ve been thinking about introducing a new, recurring feature in our Masthead emails—an “Ask an Ethicist” column. Any other ethical dilemmas you’d like us to look into?

  • What’s Coming: On Monday, we’ll talk to Atlantic staff writer Uri Friedman, who just returned from South Korea, about what he learned from his reporting trip.

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