In the coming days, Gina Haspel will testify before the Senate in connection with her nomination by Donald Trump to direct the Central Intelligence Agency. Much has been written about whether someone who oversaw a secret CIA detention site where detainees were tortured should be eligible to head the nation’s leading intelligence agency. At first blush, this may appear to be the central debate. What ethical transgressions are inconsistent with an agency-level directorship in the United States government? Certainly, participation in torture should render a candidate unqualified. Yet, on further inspection, the focus on whether Haspel’s abusive conduct disqualifies her from CIA leadership cloaks a far more important and revealing debate.
Judging candidates to direct the CIA presupposes knowledge of the history of the CIA and a vision for its role – if any – in a society that purports to be democratic. Interrogating, so to speak, that knowledge and understanding that vision have been painfully absent from the national debate. As someone who has spent the past three decades promoting and defending human rights and democracy in this hemisphere, I have a particularly dour view of the history of the CIA. I have seen and engaged with the consequences of the agency’s ruthless disregard for human dignity and fundamental rights in the Americas.
I have worked with victims of torture committed by military regimes that applied the Kubark torture manual developed by the CIA. In El Paso, Texas, I worked with refugees from El Salvador’s brutal death squads, including children who journeyed alone to the US after losing both parents to CIA-supported death squads. In Chile in the 1980s, I worked with family members of those disappeared by the Pinochet regime, installed with the support of the agency in 1973. In Central America, I worked on behalf of survivors of a genocide facilitated by our government, again, with CIA support. More recently, as a commissioner on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, I worked with states in the Americas still struggling with transitional justice, seeking to come to terms with violent histories of authoritarian abuses, all supported by the “company”.
The CIA’s illegal interventions, support for murderous regimes and efforts to undermine democratically elected governments are not limited to the Americas. The CIA and British intelligence intervened in Iran in 1953, inciting a disastrous military coup against democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh after the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry… read more: