CIA nominee’s insider history raises deep state fears

Only following White House orders will be no defence for the agency’s decisions

Edward Luce

Gina Haspel's appointment as CIA head would reduce the stigma of the agency's post-9/11 activities, while Donald Trump would have an intelligence chief who does as she is told

Contrary to popular belief, Donald Trump and the deep state are getting along fine. Mr Trump wants Gina Haspel, a career intelligence officer, to head the CIA. She once oversaw a “black site” where terror suspects were subjected to “enhanced interrogation”, better known as torture. That is one reason the CIA is pushing hard for her to be confirmed: her elevation would reduce the stigma of the agency’s post-9/11 activities.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, would have an intelligence chief with a record of doing what she is told. Both sides are happy. The rest of us should therefore be worried.

For all I know, Ms Haspel is a public servant of the highest probity. Efforts to depict her as villainous are likely to backfire. The truth is that we are ignorant of what she believes. In its push to secure one of its own — the first field operative to be nominated in almost 50 years — the CIA has declassified flattering material on Ms Haspel’s career. But it has ignored Senate requests to shed light on the darker parts. This includes the waterboarding sessions at the Thai site she ran, and her alleged role in the deletion of dozens of interrogation videos.

These are classic deep state tactics. Elected officials are being treated like mushrooms: they are kept in the dark and fed manure.

But it is not how the American system is meant to work. Under US law, officials can be held criminally liable for carrying out an illegal order, including torture and destroying evidence. Following orders is no defence. Public officials pledge to uphold the constitution. They do not swear obedience to their boss.

This is where concerns about Mr Trump’s motives come in. He is at war with other parts of the US government, notably the FBI and the Department of Justice. Both are doing their best to avoid becoming instruments of Mr Trump’s will. He has made it clear that he resents their independence. That is why he fired James Comey, the previous head of the FBI. It may also be why he wants Ms Haspel as CIA director. Would she swear fealty to Mr Trump?

Unless the CIA declassifies Ms Haspel’s full history, we have little idea what she would do. It would be a gamble to trust that she would stand up to Mr Trump. Having once been involved in the destruction of evidence of alleged CIA law breaking, what is to stop her from doing it again?

It is possible that Ms Haspel now believes what happened was wrong — yet thought she should protect CIA morale by getting rid of evidence of its post-9/11 excesses. That is a defensible stance. But what does Mr Trump believe the CIA can do for him? During the 2016 campaign, he said that waterboarding was not nearly “tough enough”. He also vowed to attack the jihadist group Isis by killing their families in reprisal. When asked what he would do if the US military refused to obey him, he replied: “If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”

As far as we know, Mr Trump has not issued such orders. Indeed, he has not mentioned torture since taking office. Perhaps — like much of what he says — Mr Trump was playing to the gallery. That is the comforting explanation. The likelier one is that he is sticking to his deal with Jim Mattis, the secretary of defence.

In his job interview, the former general told Mr Trump that torture does not work. “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that,” he said. As long as Mr Mattis is around, Mr Trump will be wary of crossing that red line.

But Mr Mattis is a lonelier figure than he was a few weeks ago. Both John Bolton, the national security adviser, and Michael Pompeo, the nominee for secretary of state, are far more in tune with Mr Trump’s instincts. Mr Bolton has replaced much of the national security staff with people who share his worldview. His new deputy is Mira Ricardel, who was blocked by Mr Mattis for a Pentagon position. She was also vetoed by the office of Rex Tillerson, the recently fired secretary of state. Now she has real power. One of her goals is to exert White House control over the Pentagon. Whether Mr Mattis survives is an open question. He once joked that Mr Bolton was the “devil incarnate”. Perhaps there was an edge to his humour.

Either way, the deep state is alive and well. Barack Obama promised to close Guantánamo Bay.

The prison is still running. He also said he would ban torture. Today the US has a president who has praised waterboarding. His CIA nominee authorised it.

The Senate has received ample warning before it votes on her confirmation. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

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