For the past several days the media has been consumed by the story that White House communications special aide Kelly Sadler joked in a staff meeting about Sen. John McCain’s opposition to President Trump’s nominee for the CIA, Gina Haspel: “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.” White House official mocked ‘dying’ McCain at internal meeting.
While Kelly Sadler has called the McCain family to apologize privately, she has not been terminated nor has she or the White House publicly apologized for her comment. The Trump White House crossed a new threshold for political debasement this week:
The White House probably thinks it cannot punish Kelly Sadler for her awful comment about John McCain because President Trump has also said nasty things about McCain. It may worry that showing her the door would set a troubling precedent for a president who may one day cross a very similar line.
Welcome to the ongoing degradation of our political discourse. Destination: No end in sight.
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What happened this week is worse than most anything we have seen — worse even, I would argue, than Trump questioning McCain’s war hero status. What’s more, the White House is trying to ignore it, which means the bulldozer is pressing forward.
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Either because the White House is afraid of setting a standard Trump cannot meet or because Trump is demanding it hold the line against the media’s outrage cycle, it is serving notice there are more important things than Sadler’s public accountability: things like confidentiality and politics.
Case in point, Trump blasts the White House leakers as ‘traitors and cowards’:
The comments come days after The Hill first reported that White House aide Kelly Sadler made off-color comments about Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) cancer diagnosis.
The White House has refused to offer a public apology for the remarks and Trump’s response is almost certain to further fuel the controversy surrounding them.
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White House spokesman Raj Shah and the communications staff have focused more on how Sadler’s comments became public than on the nature of the remarks themselves — a concern echoed by Trump.
The circus-like atmosphere at the White House is distracting from the far more important story of what sparked this controversy in the first place, Sen. John McCain’s opposition to Gina Haspel because of her role in the CIA torture program and the destruction of evidence. This is what the media should be focused on. McCain: Senate Should Reject Gina Haspel Over Torture Involvement:
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain wants the Senate to reject the nomination of Gina Haspel to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.
The Arizona Republican, who has been home in Arizona battling brain cancer and related ailments, said in a statement he was not satisfied by Haspel’s responses regarding her involvement in the agency “enhanced interrogation” effort during the George W. Bush administration.
“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense. However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” McCain said Wednesday night. “I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.”
The statement came hours after Haspel testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in both open and closed settings.
McCain, who faced torture during his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said the current acting director who has been nominated by President Donald Trump to run the agency did not sufficiently confront “the mistakes the country made in torturing detainees held in U.S. custody” after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
“Like many Americans, I understand the urgency that drove the decision to resort to so-called enhanced interrogation methods after our country was attacked. I know that those who used enhanced interrogation methods and those who approved them wanted to protect Americans from harm. I appreciate their dilemma and the strain of their duty,” McCain said. “But as I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.”
Regrettably, two Democratic Senators facing reelection this year in red states, Joe Manchin (WV) and Joe Donnelly (IN), have said they will support Gina Haspel, out of political expediency. The courage of one’s convictions is in short supply. It will take Republican Senators to defeat the nomination of Gina Haspel.
Sen. McCain’s strong support for long-standing American values against the use of torture, as set forth in the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Conventions Against Torture, and U.S. statutory law, is shared by over a hundred top former U.S. officials have signed a letter urging that Haspel not be confirmed.
Ninety of the signatures are from former U.S. ambassadors, and the others are from other former U.S. diplomats. The group contains officials who were nominated by and served presidents of both political parties, all of whom agree that Haspel’s participation in torture during the Bush administration disqualifies her.
“What we do know, based on credible, and as yet uncontested reporting, leaves us of the view that she should be disqualified from holding cabinet rank,” the diplomats said. “This includes that, in 2002, she oversaw a secret detention facility in Thailand in which at least one detainee was repeatedly subjected to waterboarding, and that she later strongly advocated for and helped implement a decision to destroy video tapes of torture sessions, including ones she oversaw.”
[S]everal lawmakers and human-rights advocates said aspects of her testimony merited greater scrutiny.
While Ms. Haspel, the agency’s acting director, vowed never to start another detention and interrogation program, her testimony was laced with ambiguities about the program and her understanding of limits on the C.I.A.’s powers. For example, she promised to follow “the law” but insisted that the agency’s interrogations were legal at the time.
In 2002, Ms. Haspel ran a secret detention site in Thailand, code-named Cat’s Eye, that was known for its use of harsh interrogation techniques that amounted to torture. She was also chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, director of the National Clandestine Service for the agency. While her exact role in the torture of detainees at Cat’s Eye remains unclear, she unquestionably bears some responsibility for the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that occurred on her watch.
Lawyers from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel wrote memos asserting that waterboarding and other forms of torture were legal. But the rationale these memos provided distorted domestic and international law, and the Justice Department later rescinded them. The legal status of those now-abandoned memos has been the source of great confusion, a muddle worsened by President Barack Obama, who immunized anyone against prosecution who had acted based on the memos.
The Nuremberg trials after World War II established that following orders is not a defense for conduct that is patently illegal. Under the Geneva Conventions, torture, like genocide, belongs in that category. A similar principle says that incorrect legal advice cannot shield one from liability when such advice is promoting transparently unlawful conduct. Torture, like genocide, is of such patent illegality that we are entitled to hold all who engage in it responsible, whether they knew it was illegal or not. Under both domestic and international law, a manifestly evil act puts perpetrators on notice they are committing a crime, and they can be held responsible for such knowledge.
“Ms. Haspel’s nomination presents a defining moment for the rule of law in the United States. It raises the age-old question of whether a person engaged in immoral activity while obeying the orders of a superior deserves blame for her actions.”
As the New York Times editorialized, Until Gina Haspel Denounces Torture, She Shouldn’t Lead the C.I.A.:
At Ms. Haspel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, she was pressed on how she now viewed torture and whether she would ever revive the program, even if President Trump ordered her to. That’s a vital concern since he’s spoken of bringing back waterboarding, in which a detained person is doused with buckets of water to the point of near-drowning.
“Having served in that tumultuous time,” she said, “I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, C.I.A. will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”
But she did not declare, flat out, that torture is wrong and that she regretted her role in it. Instead, she defended the torture of terrorism suspects during a fraught time after the Sept. 11 attacks when the agency was focused on preventing more attacks. She said C.I.A. officers should not be judged for their involvement in torture then.
Asked if she would stand up to Mr. Trump if he ordered her to resume an “enhanced” interrogation program, she first said, “I do not believe the president would ask me to do that,” then added, “I would not restart under any circumstances an interrogation program at C.I.A.”
Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, asked her to define her “moral code.” Ms. Haspel said: “I would not allow C.I.A. to undertake activity that I thought is immoral, even if it is technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it. I believe C.I.A. must undertake activities that are consistent with American values.”
But she would not say that torture is immoral.
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, asked her whether she had called for the program to be continued or expanded in 2005-7 when the program was winding down. Ms. Haspel did not answer directly.
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It is troubling, though, that someone deeply associated with actions so at odds with America’s values and international law should lead the agency. What signal would that send to the world?
Ms. Haspel no doubt fears she would be undercutting some of her colleagues by renouncing what she did. But the C.I.A. needs a leader who can reckon openly with the past.
Unless Ms. Haspel takes that step, she will not have demonstrated the most important quality for any official, a strong moral compass. Until then, we cannot support her confirmation.
The Washington Post likewise editorialized, Gina Haspel fails the test:
As Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, made clear from the outset, Ms. Haspel needs to clearly repudiate that record. She must confirm that techniques such as waterboarding — now banned by law — were and are unacceptable, and she must make clear that she will never again accept orders to carry out acts that so clearly violate American moral standards, even if they are ordered by the president and certified by administration lawyers as legal.
Ms. Haspel did not meet that test. She volunteered that the CIA would not on her watch engage in enhanced interrogations; she said she supported the “stricter moral standard” the country had adopted after debating the interrogation program. Pressed by Mr. Warner and several other senators, she eventually said she “would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal.” What she would not say was that the torture she oversaw was immoral, or that it should not have been done, or that she regretted her own role in it — which, according to senators, included advocating for the program internally.
That ambiguity matters at a time when the United States is led by a president who has cheered for torture, who lacks respect for the rule of law and who demands absolute loyalty from his aides. Unfortunately, it makes it impossible for us, and others for whom the repudiation of torture is a priority, to support Ms. Haspel’s nomination.
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We understand Ms. Haspel’s desire to stand by the people she would soon be leading if confirmed. Some accountability nevertheless is essential for someone seeking to become the agency’s director. Ms. Haspel need not throw colleagues under the bus to acknowledge that in accepting the assignment to oversee a secret prison and allow the waterboarding of at least one prisoner, she made a serious error of judgment, and that her own actions were wrong.
Ms. Haspel did suggest that in retrospect, she would not have supported the order given by her superior in 2005 to destroy videotapes of an interrogation in which torture took place. But again her statement lacked moral clarity; she said the error was not making sure “that we had all the stakeholders’ concurrence” for the action, not that it was wrong in itself. She indicated that her own view at the time, that the tapes should be destroyed because they endangered the security of officers who appeared in them, has not changed.
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She could, perhaps, still disperse that shadow with a clear statement that the actions of the past were wrong. Failing that, the Senate should not confirm her as director of the CIA.
Gina Haspel should not be confirmed as CIA Director. Contact Senator Jeff Flake and demand that he stand with his seatmate Senator John McCain in opposition to Gina Haspel.