John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona and a survivor of torture during the Vietnam War, said late Wednesday that the Senate should reject CIA veteran Gina Haspel's nomination to lead the spy agency, after she refused to say whether she thought torture was "immoral."
"I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense. However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing," the 81-year-old ailing senator said after Haspel's Senate confirmation hearing. "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."
In his statement, McCain said he understood the pressure that U.S. officials were under in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and that the people who approved of and conducted the so-called "enhanced interrogation" were trying to protect American lives. "But as I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world," he said.
While Haspel's nomination has been vigorously supported by the CIA and some former top intelligence officials, critics have latched on to the 30-year CIA veteran's reported role in the "enhanced interrogation" program and her later avid support of destroying videotapes showing the interrogations. In a notable exchange in the confirmation hearing, California Democrat Kamala Harris asked Haspel repeatedly if she believed the interrogation techniques used by the CIA post-9/11 were "immoral." Haspel repeatedly refused to say.
McCain, who did not attend the hearing due to his deteriorating health, has perhaps the most personal connection to the issue of torture, as he endured it as a young airman after being shot down in Vietnam in 1967. McCain was badly injured in the crash and by the mob of North Vietnamese that recovered him.
"I was in such bad shape that when they hit me it would knock me unconscious," he said of the first interrogations in a 2008 first-person account. "They kept saying, 'You will not receive any medical treatment until you talk.'"
Only when the North Vietnamese realized that McCain's father was a U.S. admiral did they take him to a hospital to be treated for his injuries. Much later, after McCain said he refused to be released before other prisoners-of-war who had been held longer, McCain said he was beaten by a group of guards for insulting them.
"When I said that, the guards, who were all in the room -- about 10 of them -- really laid into me," he said. "They bounced me from pillar to post, kicking and laughing and scratching. After a few hours of that, ropes were put on me and I sat that night bound with ropes. Then I was taken to a small room. For punishment they would almost always take you to another room where you didn't have a mosquito net or a bed or any clothes. For the next four days, I was beaten every two to three hours by different guards. My left arm was broken again and my ribs were cracked."
McCain spent five and a half years as a POW before he was freed in 1973.
Political analysts expected Haspel's nomination to be a close vote, and though McCain is not expected to vote, his dissenting voice could push other undecided senators away as well.
Weeks ago John Sipher, himself a 28-year veteran of the CIA, told Code and Dagger that while Haspel deserved to be asked "hard questions" about enhanced interrogation, overall she would be good for the spy agency.
President Donald Trump vocally supports Haspel, saying on Twitter that Democrats don't want her to have the top CIA job because she's "too tough on terror."
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