Signs that under the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States is losing its moral standing were amplified this week almost simultaneously in Washington, Jerusalem and Gaza. First came the obscene sight of President Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner celebrating the ceremonial transfer of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem while split television screens throughout the world showed unarmed Palestinian protesters mowed down by Israel troops.
Then, in Washington, there was the tacit endorsement of torture as the Senate moved to approve the appointment of the first woman to head the CIA. But veteran spy Gina Haspel is not in the news because she has broken through the gender barrier at the intelligence agency. Ms. Haspel is in the news because when she ran a clandestine CIA prison in Thailand she ordered “enhanced interrogation,” which is simply torture by another name. She followed up by trying to cover up the use of torture by destroying 92 videotapes of the torturers at work.
This evidence of a faulty moral compass was compounded by an insight into the thinking of the White House staff. Sen. John McCain, a victim of torture when he was a prisoner during the Vietnam war, had stated that he would vote against Ms. Haspel’s appointment to the top job at the CIA because of her “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality.” Then we learned that Kelly Sadler, a White House staffer whose job description is “personal aide to President Trump,” suggested that Sen. McCain’s opposition was irrelevant. “It doesn’t matter,” she was quoted as saying. “He’s dying anyway.”
Although it was dismissed by some observers as “a quip” or “a sick joke” Ms. Sadler was referring to Sen. McCain’s heroic struggle to resist terminal brain cancer and the grim fact that he may die before the vote.
It is worth quoting Sen McCain in full. He said that Ms. Haspel “is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defence. However Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.”
An outcry for a public apology from Ms. Sadler went unheeded and Ms. Haspel sought to wriggle through the certification process by revising her initial refusal to condemn torture. She apparently disarmed Democratic senators, who could have summoned enough votes to keep the nomination in committee, by issuing this statement: “With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior agency leader, the enhanced interrogation programme is not one the CIA should have undertaken. The United States must be an example to the rest of the world, and I support that.” She claimed that “valuable intelligence was collected” but acknowledged “the programme ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world.”
The problem with her latest protestations is that they reveal a decidedly wobbly moral stand on torture. She was asked during the hearing what she would do if the president ordered her to torture someone. She dodged the question. Sen Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee said that he had a private conversation with Ms. Haspel and she gave him the impression that she would stand up to President Trump if he instructed her to use torture. But she never used the word “torture” preferring to blandly speak of mere “interrogation.”
President Trump has announced that he not only wants to see torture continue, but that he wants even harsher and more brutal methods. “Waterboarding is fine,” he said, “But it’s not nearly tough enough.”
It is obscene that in Gaza, Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization, has no scruples about leading unarmed, innocent women and children into the range of Israeli troops. It is obscene that the commanders of the Israeli troops have no scruples about using live ammunition, with a death toll that ranges from “dozens” to “scores” to “more than 50” while thousands have been wounded.
And it is equally obscene that a man with no scruples and no moral compass is presiding over the degradation of the world’s oldest democracy.