Gina Haspel’s Interrogation Program Hurt Americans Too
In their misguided defense of American lives, leaders like Gina Haspel failed to defend something just as important—our republic.
One of the leaders who helped enact the CIA’s former interrogation program—and saved herself and her colleague from prosecution for this program by illegally destroying videotape evidence—has been nominated to lead the nation’s preeminent spy agency. Democratic senators appear ready to contest this nomination, an effort many Republicans are decrying as partisan politics at its worst.
There was a time when both Democrats AND Republicans understood that the “cruel and unusual punishment” of prisoners was unconstitutional, violating both federal laws and U.S.-signed treaties. Americans understood that our nation’s real strength lay not in applying brute force in greater measure or more precisely than our enemies, but in the coherence our national values gave us. This coherence gave us resolve, it enabled strong alliances with other great democracies, and it served as an inspiration to people everywhere struggling with despotic regimes.
As an Air Force major in 2005, one of this piece’s co-authors reported for duty at the unit charged with fighting foreign fighters in Iraq. Upon arriving, he and other new interrogators received a PowerPoint briefing that said the number one reason foreign fighters came to Iraq were the Gitmo and Abu Ghraib scandals. This was no idle observation. This facility had processed hundreds of foreign fighters, and its leaders KNEW why jihadists were coming to Iraq.
As an Army captain in 2003 in Baghdad, the other co-author received no actionable intelligence from Abu Ghraib’s interrogators at the height of abuses there, as well as witnessed the flood of foreign fighters this and other torture scandals caused in Iraq. Due to these fighters’ seizure of Fallujah, his division’s deployment was extended, and he subsequently had a friend killed and soldiers injured by IEDs.
Beyond the lives taken by America’s torture program, there was this program’s psychological damage, not only to those tortured but to the Americans involved. One of us co-edited, and both of us contributed essays to, a new anthology titled War and Moral Injury: A Reader. Contributors come from the fields of psychology, theology, philosophy, psychiatry, law, journalism, neuropsychiatry, classics, poetry, and the profession of arms. Moral Injury, the authors collectively argue, is an identity- or soul-damaging injury with terrible consequences. It is not PTSD, but it may accompany PTSD and often proves the most enduring and harmful invisible wound of war.
One of the book’s themes is the impact of America’s torture program on some Americans. There is the first-hand account of Bill Edmonds, a Special Forces officer who suffered a near-suicidal breakdown five years after he witnessed, and failed to stop, Iraqis from torturing their prisoners. There is the story of soldiers at a jail in Iraq who deprived prisoners of sleep, food, and drink as well as beat, choked, and waterboarded some prisoners.
After their return home, several struggled with drugs and alcohol, insomnia, high blood pressure, depression, and keeping jobs. Two of them eventually died under circumstances that friends and family believe was suicide. Other sad tales are mentioned. Alyssa Peterson, a young intelligence analyst, committed suicide in 2003 after being reprimanded for refusing to torture. Tony Lagouranis, an Army interrogator at Abu Ghraib and another U.S. facility in Mosul that tortured prisoners, still lives today in fear of “his own evil,” an evil he considers his constant companion.
We don’t doubt that Haspel and other leaders at the time believed that America’s torture program would save American lives. They thought they were doing dirty deeds for good ends. Some of these leaders, contrary to all evidence, still protest that this program saved more American lives than it took. We also understand that legal memoranda—quickly withdrawn when shown the light of day—were contrived to justify the program and protect those participating in it.
Leaders like Haspel, however, could not have read those memoranda and seen them as anything but what they were: an attempt to make the Constitution and U.S. law appear elastic where they weren’t. In their misguided defense of American lives, these leaders failed to defend something just as important—our republic. Their abject failure created the Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and CIA black site scandals that were such a recruiting boon for jihadist terrorists, seriously lessened America’s stature among allies, psychologically harmed many of America’s prisoners (whether terrorists or not), and led to the moral injuries of so many courageous Americans sworn to serve.
Hopefully, the republic that all Americans lived in before 9/11 still exists, and the nomination of a bright, competent, well-liked but morally misguided leader to such a prominent post will be contested by senators across the political spectrum. If our republic is to endure, our nation requires the strong, bipartisan leadership these senators can show us today.
Doug Pryer is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and author of the book The Fight For the High Ground. Tony Camerino is a retired Air Force Major, Iraq veteran, and author of How to Break a Terrorist (written under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander). They are both contributors to the recently released book War and Moral Injury.