Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, is among the most sober-minded and serious members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. His announcement that he would oppose the nomination of Gina Haspel for CIA chief was, on one hand, not all that noteworthy. Most Democrats, with whom King caucuses, will oppose her. What was striking was the tone and care he took in explaining his decision.
Resisting the demonizing language of the far left, he acknowledged: “By many accounts from intelligence professionals, Gina Haspel is a qualified, experienced CIA veteran, who has the respect of CIA’s staff. If that were the only criteria for this position, I would vote to confirm — but there are additional and important circumstances of her service to weigh.”
The tipping point for him seems to be Haspel’s role in the destruction of interrogation tapes, a knotty issue we’ve discussed at length. King first explained that oversight is critical to ensure “agencies are living up to America’s values.”
He remarked, “When I voted to declassify the Committee’s report on the [CIA’s interrogation] program in 2014, I wrote about my serious concerns regarding the destruction of videotapes documenting interrogation sessions and said that those involved in the decision to destroy those records against the clear direction of senior U.S. officials should no longer be leading the agency.”
He concluded, “While Acting Director Haspel did assert that she would refuse to restart CIA’s detention and interrogation program, she did not provide much needed clarity about her reported role overseeing the program or the destruction of the videotapes.”
Interestingly, King’s Maine colleague, Republican Sen. Susan Collins, was equally thoughtful but reached the opposite conclusion. Collins recounted, “In fact, in 2015, I co-sponsored the McCain-Feinstein amendment to the defense authorization bill to ensure that techniques such as waterboarding are never used again and that the Army Field Manual governs interrogations of detainees.” Collins argued that she had long opposed waterboarding, which she says is “tantamount to torture.”
Nevertheless she decided: “Haspel, who was not a high-ranking CIA official at the time, indicated that she played no role in the creation of the interrogation program and that she wasn’t even aware of its existence until more a year after it began. Furthermore, she said that she supported the 2015 law changes and made clear that she does not believe that the CIA should be in the ‘interrogation business.’ She testified that under her leadership, the CIA would follow the law and would not resume enhanced interrogations, and that she would not seek to repeal the law.”
As for the destruction of the tapes, Collins found that Haspel didn’t herself destroy the tapes or supervise their destruction. (Collins didn’t mention that Haspel had urged their destruction.)
Nevertheless, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, whose bill Collins cited, said in a written statement that he wouldn’t support Haspel’s nomination. McCain noted: “Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”
King and McCain looked at Haspel’s actions and decided that she cannot be entrusted with the awesome responsibility of being CIA chief. Collins found, on balance, that Haspel deserves the job. In our political climate, the impulse to ostracize and demonize opponents prompts some to label McCain and King as “pro-terrorist” or “anti-CIA” or simply “anti-Trump.” That’s bunk, just as it is ludicrous to accuse Collins of being “pro-torture.”
One of the great ills of our political climate is the inability to concede that decent, well-intentioned people may reach differing conclusions. None of these three senators is making up “alternative facts”; this is the quintessential honest difference of opinion. I come out where McCain and King do, but I can respect Collins’ thought process and recognize that her decision is rooted in patriotism and concern for the country’s values and well-being.
As Americans of good faith work to shore up our democracy, they need to re-establish the respect owed to principled and decent colleagues with whom they disagree. That sentiment, after all, is essential to the operation of a healthy democracy.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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