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Gina Haspel: As If Nuremberg Never Happened

Nothing will say more about who we are, across three American administrations—one that demanded torture, one that covered it up, and one that seeks to promote its bloody participants—than whether Gina Haspel becomes director of the CIA.

Haspel oversaw the torture of human beings in Thailand [1] as the chief of a CIA black site in 2002. Since then, she’s worked her way up to deputy director at the CIA. With current director Mike Pompeo slated to move to Foggy Bottom, President Donald Trump has proposed Haspel as the Agency’s new head.

Haspel’s victims waiting for death in Guantanamo cannot speak to us, though they no doubt remember their own screams as they were waterboarded. And we can still hear former CIA officer John Kiriakou [2] say [3]: “We did call her Bloody Gina. Gina was always very quick and very willing to use force. Gina and people like Gina did it, I think, because they enjoyed doing it. They tortured just for the sake of torture, not for the sake of gathering information.”

It was Kiriakou who exposed the obsessive debate over the effectiveness of torture as false. The real purpose of torture conducted by those like Gina Haspel was to seek vengeance, humiliation, and power. We’re just slapping you now, she would have said in that Thai prison, but we control you, and who knows what will happen next, what we’re capable of? The torture victim is left to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, creating his own terror.


Haspel won’t be asked at her confirmation hearing to explain how torture works, but those who were waterboarded under her stewardship certainly could.

I met my first torture victim in Korea, where I was adjudicating visas for the State Department. Persons with serious criminal records are ineligible to travel to the United States, with an exception for dissidents who have committed political crimes. The man I spoke with said that under the U.S.-supported military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee he was tortured for writing anti-government verse. He was taken to a small underground cell. Two men arrived and beat him repeatedly on his testicles and sodomized him with one of the tools they had used for the beating. They asked no questions. They barely spoke to him at all.

Though the pain was beyond his ability to describe, he said the subsequent humiliation of being left so utterly helpless was what really affected his life. It destroyed his marriage, sent him to the repeated empty comfort of alcohol, and kept him from ever putting pen to paper again. The men who destroyed him, he told me, did their work, and then departed, as if they had others to visit and needed to get on with things. He was released a few days later and driven back to his apartment by the police. A forward-looking gesture.

The second torture victim I met was while I was stationed in Iraq. The prison that had held him was under the control of shadowy U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces. Inside, masked men bound him at the wrists and ankles and hung him upside-down. He said they neither asked him questions nor demanded information. They did whip his testicles with a leather strap, then beat the bottoms of his feet and the area around his kidneys. They slapped him. They broke the bones in his right foot with a steel rod, a piece of rebar ordinarily used to reinforce concrete.

It was painful, he told me, but he had felt pain before. What destroyed him was the feeling of utter helplessness, the inability to control things around him as he once had. He showed me the caved-in portion of his foot, which still bore a rod-like indentation with faint signs of metal grooves.

Gina Haspel is the same as those who were in the room with the Korean. She is no different than those who tormented the Iraqi.

As head of a black site, Haspel had sole authority to halt the questioning of suspects, but she allowed torture to continue. New information and a redaction of earlier reporting [4] that said Haspel was present for the waterboarding and torture of Abu Zubaydah (she was actually the station chief at the black site after those sessions) makes it less clear whether Haspel oversaw the torture of all of the prisoners there, but pay it little mind. The confusion arises from the government’s refusal to tell us what Haspel actually did as a torturer. So many records have yet to be released and those that have been are heavily redacted. Then there are the tapes of Zubaydah’s waterboarding, which Haspel later pushed to have destroyed. 

Arguing over just how much blood she has on her hands is a distraction from the fact that she indeed has blood on her hands.

Gina Haspel is now eligible for the CIA directorship because Barack Obama did not prosecute anyone for torture; he merely signed an executive order banning it in the future. He did not hold any truth commissions, and ensured that almost all government documents on the torture program remained classified. He did not prosecute the CIA officials who destroyed videotapes of the torture scenes.

Obama ignored the truth that sees former Nazis continue to be hunted some 70 years after the Holocaust: that those who do evil on behalf of a government are individually responsible. “I was only following orders” is not a defense of inhuman acts. The purpose of tracking down the guilty is to punish them, to discourage the next person from doing evil, and to morally immunize a nation-state.

To punish Gina Haspel “more than 15 years later for doing what her country asked her to do, and in response to what she was told were lawful orders, would be a travesty and a disgrace,” claims [5] one of her supporters. “Haspel did nothing more and nothing less than what the nation and the agency asked her to do, and she did it well,” said [6] Michael Hayden, who headed the CIA during the height of the Iraq war from 2006-2009.

Influential people in Congress agree. Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will soon review Haspel’s nomination, said [7], “I know Gina personally and she has the right skill set, experience, and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies.”

“She’ll have to answer for that period of time, but I think she’s a highly qualified person,” offered [8] Senator Lindsey Graham. Democratic Senator Bill Nelson defended [8] Haspel’s actions, saying they were “the accepted practice of the day” and shouldn’t disqualify her.

His fellow Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, signaled her likely acceptance, saying [9], “Since my concerns were raised over the torture situation, I have met with her extensively, talked with her… She has been, I believe, a good deputy director.” Senator Susan Collins added [7] that Haspel “certainly has the expertise and experience as a 30-year employee of the agency.” John McCain, a victim of torture during the Vietnam War, mumbled [9] only that Haspel would have to explain her role.

Nearly alone at present, Republican Senator Rand Paul says he will oppose [10] Haspel’s nomination. Senators Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats, have told Trump she is unsuitable and will likely also vote no.

Following World War II, the United States could have easily executed those Nazis responsible for the Holocaust, or thrown them into some forever jail on an island military base. It would have been hard to find anyone who wouldn’t have supported brutally torturing them at a black site. Instead, they were put on public trial at Nuremberg and made to defend their actions as the evidence against them was laid bare. The point was to demonstrate that We were better than Them.

Today we refuse to understand what Haspel’s victims, and the Korean writer, and the Iraqi insurgent, already know on our behalf: unless Congress awakens to confront this nightmare and deny Gina Haspel’s nomination as director of the CIA, torture will have transformed us and so it will consume us. Gina Haspel is a torturer. We are torturers. It is as if Nuremberg never happened.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well [11]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War [12]: A Novel of WWII Japan. He tweets @WeMeantWell. [13]

68 Comments (Open | Close)

68 Comments To "Gina Haspel: As If Nuremberg Never Happened"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 20, 2018 @ 2:37 pm

“A glance over the headlines of the past half century of American history reveals the harm operatives, federal agents and soldiers who have entertained such conceits have caused our country and should give us pause here.”

I think the author does a disservice by making references to Nuremberg, it just does not have that level of magnitude. This is something even m ore sinister, and subtle in which we the people had behind our mottos of moral high ground as we promote those who bend the same in service the country. In Germany, the country was b ought in — and so engaged. We are claiming the opposite, while condoning and supporting. That is the nature of our leadership.

But at the moment and since 9/11, we have invited those traits and behaviors as qualifications for duty. I am so convinced this is the case, that I find it hard to believe anyone will bat an eye about her role, if any in torture. Brutality in the name of toughness. We’ll see if the leadership’s pushback against such ethos is worth the high highfalutin totems on which it has been placed.

Sen. Paul says he will, if that proves to be the case. But I will have to wait and see.

Note: I am all for brutality when brutality is required, but I see no such requirement for men and women in custody bound to a chair with all them exposed to the will of another at will.

#2 Comment By Ed Ciaccio On March 20, 2018 @ 2:43 pm

The number one crime prosecuted at Nuremberg was the supreme international crime of waging a war of aggression, which the U.S. has done in Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1960-1973), Iraq (1991), Yugoslavia (1998), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003 to present), Libya (2011), Syria (2012), Yemen (2015), and in so many other nations.

Nuremberg means NOTHING to the U.S. NOTHING.

#3 Comment By JOHN CHUCKMAN On March 20, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

She’s my idea of a real American official.

A smiling psychopath.

#4 Comment By Steven Hayden On March 20, 2018 @ 3:50 pm

A very relevant article. In CIA you are promoted by silence and smiling while others scream. In CIA its essential to ignore the injustice around you . She would never have been promoted if she had ethical moral values that opposed torture .She never opposed torture of the weak who never had a jury trial.

#5 Comment By sarz On March 20, 2018 @ 3:52 pm

I stopped reading when I got to the exterminationist affirmation of the Holocaust. How liberating it would be to share the company of unalloyed truthtellers. Sorry, you lost me for the torture discussion.

#6 Comment By Angusry On March 20, 2018 @ 5:54 pm

Hang her for War Crimes.
Torture is a form of RAPE …. merely proving that the tiny little sadist has power over the victim. Hence torture is employed only by tiny little latent homosexuals who live in terror.
Genghis Khan killed but he banned the use of torture and imprisonment.
We’ve Known Since Ancient Rome that Torture Doesn’t Work
In 72 BC – 2,086 years ago – Cicero (the well-known Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist and consul) pointed out that torture creates conditions of fear and desperate hope in which “there is but little room left for truth”, i.e. that torture is an unreliable method of extracting truth.

Later Roman leaders agreed:
As early as the third century A.D., the great Roman Jurist Ulpian noted that information obtained through torture was not to be trusted because some people are “so susceptible to pain that they will tell any lie rather than suffer it” (Peters, 1996). This warning about the unreliability of information extracted through the use of torture has echoed across the centuries.
The former Attorney General of the United States (Ramsey Clark) notes about the Roman emperor Justinian … who lived in the 6th century:
Justinian condemned torture as untrustworthy, perilous, and deceptive.
And it wasn’t just Romans …
Lawrence Davidson – history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania – points out:
In 1764 Cesare Beccaria [an Italian criminologist, jurist, philosopher, and politician who had a profound effect on America’s Founding Fathers] published his groundbreaking work, On Crimes and Punishments. Beccaria had examined all the evidence available at that time and concluded that individuals under torture will tell their interrogators anything they want to hear, true or not, just to get the pain to stop.

The successful and ruthless general Napolean Bonaparte wrote in 1798:

The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know.

In 1836, British police magistrate and lawyer David Jardine documented that – for thousands of years – torture has led to false confessions.

This ancient wisdom has been verified by the top American interrogation experts over the last 100 years.

#7 Comment By Axe Man On March 21, 2018 @ 3:00 am

This is what a feminist looks like.

#8 Comment By rick On March 21, 2018 @ 5:32 am

What a crock of BS. Her involvement in waterboarding has been disproved days ago but did not stop this person from lying about it. Good journalistic integrity. If I had to possibly save people by waterboarding someone to see if they had information. I am sure I would do so. I would not except their info without double checking it. Because people will lie under such duress. But at least be adults about this. Getting information is important and some pushing of the envelope to get that information may be necessary. As the saying goes. People like sausage, they just do not like to see how it is made!

#9 Comment By Peter Van Buren On March 21, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

So, in sum: it’s the 21st century in America and we’re kinda split evenly on defending torture as long as we’re the ones doing it.

#10 Comment By One Guy On March 21, 2018 @ 2:37 pm

It’s my understanding that there’s a warrant for her arrest in Europe. Is that important at all, or are we just ignoring Europe, now?

#11 Comment By Ed On March 21, 2018 @ 3:53 pm

Nothing is so contagious as example; and we never do any great good or evil which does not produce its like. ~ Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 21, 2018 @ 7:07 pm

“So, in sum: it’s the 21st century in America and we’re kinda split evenly on defending torture as long as we’re the ones doing it.”

I think most people are disengaged and that because they think torture works. I would grant that it might work on someone caught in the act. You know the kind caught in the act that permeates Hollywood – Clint Eastwood films, in which see the scoundrel having killed some poor innocent.

In reality we don’t know who did what and torture is engaged on a number of innocents before or if we ever get to the actual actors. And that is why it falls short: false confessions, false and misleading accusations . . .

brutality has its place on the battlefield. The battlefield is a brutal place, but brutality on the captured or other noncombatants — should not be part of our practice.

“Good journalistic integrity. If I had to possibly save people by waterboarding someone to see if they had information. I am sure I would do so. I would not except their info without double checking it.”

Would that information was as solid in texture and content as sausage – it’s not. And that is your comparison is simply out of bounds. I m confused you are going to check information you don’t know against what exactly. Torture can extract a bundle of information from sources all tortured in a long chain to get at information you don’t know. Or someone tortured confirms information to stop the future. The confirmation is false, but you cheer and applaud and conclude that torture was successful. I would encourage you to take a look at the history of false confessions in the US, many resulting from a process far less physically strenuous than what occurred under the CIA, DIA, and special ops.

I suggest we reserve our brutality for the battlefield. I don’t think there is any question that Miss Haspel engaged in destroying evidence —

I am a huge fan of the CIA, but on the capture and detention of individuals — I am a tad more than suspect.

#13 Comment By eclecticmn On March 22, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

At Nuremberg people were not only prosecuted for following orders but for giving them. If Gina Haspel was not a rogue agent but was following orders then people in the chain of command all the way up should be investigated if she is. That would include the head of the CIA, the president, and members of congress who approved.

Disapproval of Gina Haspel while remaining mute on the others is transparent political theater.

#14 Comment By Bill On March 22, 2018 @ 2:16 pm

The reference to Nuremberg is a non-sequitor that undermines the author’s credibility.

Nuremberg focused on: the Holocaust; the murder of POWs; and the waging of war itself. The use of torture in interrogations did not figure prominently.

I don’t approve of waterboarding, but if the author is equating that with genocide, he’s lost me.

#15 Comment By Peter Van Buren On March 22, 2018 @ 4:26 pm

Bill said: “I don’t approve of waterboarding, but if the author is equating that with genocide, he’s lost me.”

Bill, read again. The equation is how the Nuremberg process was about making people and a nation publically responsible for their evil, not about weighing out which acts are the eviler ones.

#16 Comment By O’Brien On May 11, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

What most if not all of those who have submitted comments here do not realize or would rather not think about is the truth that men and women employed in American prisons and jails regularly and sadistically torture, and from time to time murder, men and women under their control. The overwhelming majority of those so tortured happen to be black, so your readers are able to blind themselves to these violations of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution forbidding cruel and unusual punishments. This practice has been part of American life going back to the very beginning of chattel slavery, continuing throughout the existence of the peculiar institution, carried over into the Reconstruction era, intensified during the reign of terror unleashed by the Klan during the Bourbon Restoration, brought into the twentieth century during the times when lynchings occurred every three days, on up to the deaths and beatings on the streets that have gone viral in the age of ubiquitous cell phone video cameras. What occurs in the public eye is only the public face of what routinely, far too frequently happens behind bars. Most of you are able to keep yourselves ignorant of this until law enforcement personnel called to active duty with the reserve units of which they are a part take the practices to which they have long been acclimated to places where their treatment of human beings is supposed to be regulated by the Geneva Accords. Then you are shocked, shocked to learn that torture is employed by the fine young men and women sent abroad to safeguard your freedoms (that is, I think, the reason you are given for their deployments abroad). They are simply doing to the dark skinned others abroad what they so enjoy doing to the dark skinned others in the penal colonies at home. Thought I’d give you a heads up.

#17 Comment By TR On May 11, 2018 @ 9:55 pm

Thanks, Mr. Van Buren, for your frequent replies to comments.

On the subject of Senator Taft’s objections to the Nuremberg trials: What I was taught decades ago was that Senator Taft objected on the far more sustainable American constitutional grounds that the defendants were charged with crimes ex post facto. The laws they supposedly broke were not on the books of Germany (or any place else) when the so-called crimes were committed.

That is a principled and factual objection that insists on American values and avoids senseless debates over whether the proceedings were “show trials” or not.

#18 Comment By Tono Bungay On May 12, 2018 @ 12:31 pm

The CIA is a sort of civilian army. Is it wise, even apart from the torture concerns, to have the equivalent of a general as the head of that agency? Or should a real civilian, that is a non-CIA person, not be appointed?