Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearings in the Senate have turned into a sort of show trial on the subject of torture. A very subtle one with less of the histrionics we’ve become accustomed to. And perhaps an unsuccessful show trial, seeing that it seems she may have possibly locked up her confirmation with a calm and composed performance.

But the issue driving the media coverage and the votes against her is all about torture. Or specifically waterboarding. An issue Trump as candidate was delighted to take head on by announcing how he’d love to bring it back.

Senator McCain has of course come out against her nomination. But the headlines about his very carefully worded and generally positive assessment of Haspel’s career are far more dramatic than his principled stance against any CIA Director who will not explicitly and morally condemn torture.

Is McCain right?

That’s actually a set of questions:

  • Does torture work? Work in what way? To inflict horrifying pain? Yes. To gain vital information when time is an overwhelming concern? Evidence suggests perhaps not. But is that evidence conclusive enough for intelligence agencies to strictly forbid any and all interrogation tactics that may cross the line?
  • Is torture morally wrong? There’s a piece in American Conservative by John Kiriakou – the former CIA agent who blew the whistle on the agency’s waterboarding procedures and gained 30 months in prision as a result – that relies on Christian ethics, if you will. Kiriakou writes:

We know from Matthew 18:21-22 “Then came Peter to him and said, ‘Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?’ Jesus said unto him, ‘I say not unto thee, until seven times, but until seventy times seven.’” That’s clear enough for me. But if there’s any doubt, it’s dispelled in Romans 12:14: “Bless them which persecute you; bless and curse not.”

But consider this thought experiment: you are a Christian and are being led to the shores of the Mediterranean – perhaps in Libya perhaps in Syria – by ISIS terrorists who will make you kneel and then will slit your throat and then hold your lifeless head in their hands in a triumphant gesture of evil. But suddenly you have a chance to grab a weapon and fight for your life. If we are to truly take the words of Matthew as literal truth then you would never fight back. You would pray and forgive those terrorists as you kneeled in the sand and submit to them and let them grab your head and slit your throat.

Kirkiakous quotes Dr. Charles Murphy of Liberty University speaking of a theoretical where torturing a terrorist might save an American city from destruction, and how a Christian could never do such a thing because at our judgement before Christ and the Lord we would be found wanting.

I’ll leave it to evangelicals far better versed in the Bible than I am to show how fighting back, sometimes violently, against evil is hardly unChristian. But in Murphy’s theoretical, would dropping bombs on an enemy target that mistakenly kills innocent civilians, including women and children, be fine at judgment time? Would using an RPG against a sniper’s nest located on the roof of a daycare center in Bahgdad be fine at judgement time?

If you take Kirkiakou and Murphy’s (supposed) view to its logical conclusion, then how do you do intelligence? How do you gather information on the ground in hostile and treacherous environments?

  • Finally, is waterboarding torture? If it is, is sleep deprivation torture? Is shining bright lights in a suspect’s eyes torture? Is confining them to a cell in darkness for 24 hours torture? For 12 hours? What is torture? And how do we as a society decide on “what” that torture is to be defined as?

As Senator Rubio insisted on stating for the record at the hearings, if Gina Haspel cannot be confirmed as CIA Director then partisan and politicized chiefs like John Brennan are all we can expect at the agency. No wonder 72 former CIA officials have endorsed Haspel. They, like Senator Rubio, understand what’s at stake.