Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, oversaw a secret prison in Thailand where US intelligence targets were reportedly subject to waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques.
As Haspel prepares to face Senate questions about her work with the agency, a national debate over whether “enhanced interrogation” techniques amount to torture has reignited.
It is not clear whether Haspel directly participated in the "enhanced interrogation" of intelligence targets. But at the Cat’s Eye, the code-name for the CIA compound Haspel took over in 2002, al-Qaida suspects were subjected to new interrogation techniques implemented shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. These methods of “enhanced interrogation” included sleep deprivation, humiliation, painful stress positions, and simulated drowning, known as “waterboarding” in an effort to obtain information about terrorist organizations.
Haspel is also suspected of pushing to destroy videotape evidence of "enhanced interrogations" conducted by CIA operatives.
In the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope St. John Paul II taught that torture is “intrinsically evil.” What does that say about the morality of waterboarding or other methods of “enhanced interrogation?”
“When an interrogator in some other way imposes physical or psychological pain, at least significant pain, until the one being interrogated ‘breaks’ and talks, then I think this is clearly torture and morally evil,” Dr. Kevin Miller, a moral theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, told CNA.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.”
“I think that this would clearly encompass some things that the US did in the early or mid 2000s, most especially waterboarding, but very likely some of our other ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques also,” Miller said.
Miller clarified that even if these interrogation techniques were not defined precisely as “torture,” the Church would still object to them due to its firm defence of the dignity of each human person created in the image of God.
The theologian referenced Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world: “Whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself...all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed.”
rnHe noted that “attempts to coerce the will itself,” are condemned in the passage, one that Saint John Paul II repeatedly quoted.
“If one is inflicting physical or psychological distress in order to — and to a degree that one thinks will likely succeed in — getting someone to answer questions that he/she would not otherwise agree to answer, then one is engaging in an attempt to coerce the will — whether or not the distress being inflicted rises to the level of torture. And this is intrinsically evil — contrary to both justice and charity,” said Miller.
An intrinsic evil is an evil that is wrong in the chosen act itself, independent of one’s intentions or the surrounding circumstances, Miller explained.
“Returning to Gaudium et Spes,” continued Miller, the “general principle underlying its condemnation of various evil acts is ‘reverence for man,’ grounded in the need to see every human person as one’s brother or sister, with whom one has been offered a communion that is a participation in the Trinitarian communion.”
The U.S. bishops’ conference has condemned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques for years, particularly after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released part of its 2014 report on CIA’s use of interrogation in the years following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“The acts of torture described in the Senate Intelligence Committee's report violated the God-given human dignity inherent in all people and were unequivocally wrong,” stated Bishop Oscar Cant√∫ of Las Cruces, who was chair of the U.S. bishops’ international justice and peace committee at the time.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis on October 2017, Bishop Cant√∫ affirmed American bishops’ support for “legislation to make torture, which some euphemistically refer to as ‘enhanced interrogation,’ illegal.”
President Barack Obama prohibited the CIA and military from using waterboarding and similar interrogation techniques when he took office in 2009. During a debate during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump said that he supported reinstituting the use of waterboarding “and more.”
“Current U.S. law is clear in banning enhanced interrogation techniques. Any nominee for Director of the CIA must pledge without reservation to uphold this prohibition, which has helped us to regain our position of leadership in the struggle for universal human rights—the struggle upon which this country was founded, and which remains its highest aspiration," said Senator John McCain in a statement released shortly after Trump announced Haspel as his pick for CIA Director on March 13.
“Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process,” continued McCain.
“The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history,” said McCain, who was himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam War.
“In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, our government squandered precious moral authority in a futile effort to produce intelligence by means of torture. We are still dealing with the consequences of that desperately misguided decision,” McCain added.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against any type of torture in a 2007 address, “I reiterate that the prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances.”
John Paul II presented an even more vivid condemnation in a speech in 1982, “With regard to torture, the Christian is confronted from his childhood with the reading of the passion of Christ. The memory of Jesus stripped naked, hit, mocked while suffering his agony, should always make him refuse to see similar treatment applied to one of his brothers in humanity.”
If confirmed, Haspel will be the first female director in CIA history. At 61, she has had an extensive career within the spy agency, which she has worked for since 1985.