217 years ago this month, standing on the deck of his ship amid the Battle of Copenhagen, Horatio Nelson looked toward his commander’s vessel, which was signaling him to break off his assault. Nelson held a spyglass up to his right eye, which he’d lost years earlier in battle. “I really do not see the signal,” he said. “I have the right to be blind sometimes.”
Nelson won the battle. Yet his historic insubordination lives on today in the expression “to turn a blind eye.”
There’s nothing in the very little that’s publicly known about Gina Haspel, the career spy nominated to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, that suggests even a whiff of insubordination. And therein lies a problem.
Haspel oversaw a secret facility in Thailand during the time when Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a man accused of involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole, was tortured by waterboarding on three occasions.
Later, at a desk job back at Langley, she wrote a memo for her boss, Jose Rodriguez, ordering the unauthorized destruction of video tapes of those and other infamous torture sessions so that the world would never see what the agency’s fight against terrorism actually looked like. Rodriguez was slapped on the wrist for that act of insubordination. Haspel was cleared of wrongdoing.
It is for those two acts in particular that her confirmation as head of the CIA is not a foregone conclusion. Lawmakers should demand more details about Haspel’s role in the torture program. They should secure her assurance that the agency will not torture people or turn them over to other countries to do so, even if the torture-curious president directs it to do so. And they should ask these questions in an open forum, so that the American people and the rest of the world can see and hear what she has to say for herself.
But to place the blame for the government’s expansive torture program on a then mid-level spook who followed orders is also a mis-apportionment of responsibility. If one were to construct an organizational chart of the architects of institutionalized torture, Haspel wouldn’t make the top third.
It is true, as Senator John McCain so eloquently said, that “the mistreatment of prisoners harms us more than our enemies.” And the blind eye that the nation has turned on those responsible for the torture program is a good example of what that expansive moral corrosion looks like.
Nearly everyone above Haspel on the chains of command has gone on to lucrative post-torture careers, often instructing the next generation of American leaders. John Yoo, who wrote the farcical legal justification for the CIA program at the Department of Justice, now teaches law at the University of California, Berkeley. Former CIA director George Tenet got a $4 million advance for his memoirs and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Condoleezza Rice, head of the National Security Council that authorized and oversaw the program, got a three-book deal worth $2.5 million and a professorship at Stanford.
Meanwhile, former president George W. Bush, the man ultimately responsible for the program, which violated the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, has been lauded by polite society for finding his “inner Rembrandt” by painting pictures of veterans. His approval ratings are ticking up.
This is not the behavior of a nation determined to reckon with its skeletons, despite an urgent need to do so. Great sins cast long shadows. And Americans will remain under one until they stop turning a blind eye toward what was done in their name. It isn’t altogether for a lack of trying.
In 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee completed a 6,700-page classified report on the torture program, which exhaustively determined that suffocating men nearly to death had not produced useful intelligence. When Republicans took control of Congress and the White House, they demanded that multiple copies, which had been distributed to several agencies, be returned and locked away.
Thankfully, one copy is tucked away in the classified annex of the Barack Obama Presidential Library, providing a glimmer of hope that the man who refused to prosecute anyone who followed the orders of his predecessor may one day help bring the truth to light. Another copy was ordered delivered to a federal judge overseeing Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri’s legal challenge to his detention.
In his cell at the Guantanamo Bay military base, where he’s been held without trial for more than a decade, Nashiri continues to have “nightmares that invoked being chained, naked and waterboarded,” according to government documents. That lingering fear was put in his mind by design.
“The effects of most beatings heal,” McCain said in his 2005 speech on the immorality of the kind of torture that Nashiri endured. “The memory of an execution will haunt someone for a very long time and damage his or her psyche in ways that may never heal. In my view, to make someone believe that you are killing him by drowning is no different than holding a pistol to his head and firing a blank. I believe that it is torture, very exquisite torture.”
One of the critical, deeply flawed justifications for the torture program was that it would produce no lasting damage. Yet lasting damage — moral, physical, and spiritual — is all that it seems to have reliably yielded.
Nelson claimed the right to be blind only sometimes. One day, Americans will have to take a good long look.