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What About Torture? Gina Haspel Hearings Force People Beyond Simplistic Talking Points

This week, Senate hearings are rolling along for Gina Haspel’s confirmation to direct the Central Intelligence Agency. At issue is Haspel’s role as a spy and her involvement in interrogations, specifically water boarding. Some of her backstory is here.

Since this is a hearing, politicians and pundits inside the room and out naturally wish to redirect the spotlight on them. As Al Pacino’s Satan declared at the end of the film The Devil’s Advocate, “Vanity. Definitely my favorite sin.” Bible-length tomes in .2 font could be written about those preening themselves as great moral voices on such heavy issues so in the interest time, let’s limit our discussion today to two.

John Kiriakou, former CIA analyst and case officer, adjunct professor of intelligence studies, and senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the following (emphasis mine):

One of my closest friends at Liberty, a man whom I considered to be something of a mentor, was Dr. Charles Murphy…At the end of my first semester at Liberty, he shared with me the final exam for his intelligence analysis class, so simple yet so profound that it has stuck with me all these years. It forms the basis of what I believe is the conservative, evangelical Christian case against Gina Haspel.

Chuck’s final had only four questions. The first was this: let’s say you are a CIA operations officer. You’ve just captured one of the most important terrorists in the world. You know from other sources that there is a bomb about to go off in two hours in a major American city, but you don’t know exactly where. You know that the terrorist knows the details of the attack. Do you torture him? Explain your answer.

Question two made things a little more difficult. You torture the terrorist and he doesn’t tell you anything. But you have his wife in custody, too. You know that she knows her husband’s secrets. She has the information you need to prevent the attack. Do you torture her? Explain your answer.

Question three is a little more existential. You’ve tortured the wife, but she’s a true believer. She doesn’t tell you anything. You have the couple’s children in custody. Do you torture the children in front of the parents to force the parents to talk? Explain your answer.

Question four brought the exam all together. Its simplicity and directness were like a punch in the face: you’re standing before the judgment seat of Christ. He asks you to explain your actions. What do you tell him?

Chuck was right. Torture isn’t Christian. It’s hard to even ask rhetorically “Who would Jesus torture?” because the question is so absurd on its face. The Gospels make it crystal clear that Jesus wouldn’t have ever tortured anybody. 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.”

That brings us back to Gina Haspel. I have no doubt that she considers herself to be a patriot, as her supporters do. But that’s not the issue here. The issue is respect for the rule of law.

As with most things, context is key. Let’s first define what we mean by torture before we make judgments on its morality or efficacy.

Webster’s defines torture as: “the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.” As Senator Tom Cotton said in 2016,

“Waterboarding is not torture. We do waterboarding on our soldiers in the military.” Uncomfortable, absolutely. Torture? No.

To stipulate Murphy and Kiriakou’s position, let’s travel back to September 11, 2001. In the pre-dawn hours of that horrific day, let’s say we learn that four Americans airliners are hijack targets, whose destinations are the Twin Towers in New York, The Pentagon, and The Capitol or White House. In custody are people you know have information to prevent thousands of people from dying horribly – or later enduring lifelong injuries or disease from the fallout. First, we ask the suspects to disclose the information needed to save our fellow Americans. If no immediate answer is provided (remember, we’re tight on time), we use whatever means necessary to save our countrymen. We won’t enjoy it, but we won’t hesitate.

Senator Rand Paul, often ready to wet his pants when it comes to international affairs, chimed in with the following endorsement of Kiriakou:

There are some who say the efficacy of waterboarding and torture is questionable, and that’s fine. I’m sure there are experts on both sides. It’s worth noting that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed sang like a canary after having been waterboarded.

In life and death situations where job one is to protect the American people, we must have all means at our disposal. If I were in charge, not only would I ensure those means were readily available and employed when necessary, I would ensure the law protects our military and agents who must have the skills and courage to carry out these techniques.

Image: Excerpted from: Karl Gunnarsson – originally posted to Flickr as Waterboarding, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Michael Cummings

Michael A. Cummings has a Bachelors in Business Management from St. John's University in Collegeville, MN, and a Masters in Rhetoric & Composition from Northern Arizona University. He has worked as a department store Loss Prevention Officer, bank auditor, textbook store manager, Chinese food delivery man, and technology salesman. Cummings wrote position pieces for the 2010 Trevor Drown for US Senate (AR) and 2012 Joe Coors for Congress (CO) campaigns.

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