Gina Haspel and the Conservative Distortion of 'Empowerment' 


“It is not my way to trumpet the fact that I am a woman up for the top job at CIA, but I would be remiss in not remarking on it,” nominee Gina Haspel said in her opening remarks during Wednesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Haspel was following a line of defense that has been offered for her nomination to head the Central Intelligence Agency: Namely, that her confirmation would be a historic moment, one that breaks the glass ceiling, empowers women, and creates equal opportunity for torturers— men and women alike.

During her opening remarks, Haspel framed herself as a bit of a trailblazer, noting that she began her career at the CIA and advanced in the agency “at a time when few women were given these opportunities.” The CIA, Haspel said, is “stronger now as an organization” because there are more women at the agency, particularly in senior positions. She credited herself with breaking “down some of those barriers,” obliquely referring to the gender gap at the CIA. Haspel noted too that her nomination was supported by the women in the agency.

Her opening remarks weren’t particularly surprising, especially given the chorus of voices who have offered a similar celebration of Haspel’s nomination, a kind of rhetorical positioning that uses gender equality as a strawman (or strawwoman, I suppose) to eclipse the actual criticisms of Haspel, which include overseeing a secret detention facility where at least one detainee was waterboarded and helped destroy videotapes that showed CIA agents torturing two detainees.

“Any Democrat who claims to support women’s empowerment and our national security but opposes [Haspel’s] nomination is a total hypocrite,” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders wrote on Twitter earlier this week. Sanders’s claims of women’s empowerment, a term so overburdened by its meaningless that it’s damaged beyond repair, were echoed quickly by Donald Trump who, two days after Sanders staked Haspel’s confirmation on empowerment, tweeted: “My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists. Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!” The next day, Trump again used Twitter to remind the American people that Haspel is a woman.

Some conservatives were eager to follow that line of defense, arguing that Democrats were missing their chance to make history by confirming Haspel because of misplaced concerns over her active role in Bush-era torture, or what Fox & Friends host Pete Hegseth described as being “too hard on Al Qaeda.” The argument was absurd, little more than opportunism washed in pink, but the lure of Haspel’s potential for history-making proved irresistible.

“With the nomination of Gina Haspel to be the next director of the CIA, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement may have arrived at the CIA,” former CIA operations officer Karen deLacy wrote in the Washington Post piece titled “Gina Haspel Can Help Fix the CIA’s Gender Problem.” DeLacy’s piece sidesteps torture, neither using the word or even the CIA’s preferred term “interrogation,” to focus instead on the “misogyny [Haspel] likely faced in the culture of the operations world.” “Much like #MeToo and #TimesUp, Haspel’s nomination provides an opportunity to get gender equality right in the field of espionage,” deLacy writes, misrepresenting the critique of #MeToo.

Shortly after deLacy’s piece, the Post published a short history of women in the CIA titled, “Gina Haspel Isn’t the CIA’s First Woman to Face Sharp Skepticism—Or To Fight Back.” There, Haspel’s likely confirmation was described as “massive milestone for the spy agency, which has long been dominated by men.” On the surface, these assertations are all true. The CIA is “dominated by men” and there’s little doubt Haspel suffered from misogyny at the agency (In the 90s, the agency settled a discrimination and harassment lawsuit brought by women in the clandestine unit out of court, paying the women $1 million).

Despite their facade of truth, they exchange the critique of Haspel with the more important moment of history-making, emphasizing the elevation of a single woman to a position of power as a nearly radical feminist act. Here, representation alone becomes the singular goal of gender equality, leaving the fundamentals of power—in this case, the power that facilitated torture and the destruction of evidence—intact, celebrating inclusion as the singular goalpost of “empowerment.”

“Inclusion,” deLacy wrote, “brings proven benefits to any workforce.” It is unclear what those benefits are other than the promotion of women in the CIA. The pretense that torture or “enhanced interrogation” can be bracketed out, somehow separated from the historical note of “the first woman” that, if she is confirmed, will always precede Haspel’s name, is a damning indictment of “women empowerment” as a meaningful action. Haspel’s nomination is a physical manifestation of the popular liberal shorthand that “we need more women in power,” rarely pausing to consider the shape of the power it seeks.

If the “empowerment” narrative that has coalesced around Haspel’s nomination seemed absurd, then it was successful at transforming her Senate hearing into a referendum on gender rather than torture and Bush-era policies. During Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) asked Haspel repeatedly about her position on waterboarding, her past as the base chief at a secret detention site in Thailand, and well as her role in destroying evidence.

Haspel largely avoided the questions, offering vague responses to pointed questions. She insisted that her actions at the CIA were legal, but avoided direct questions on whether or not she believed they were moral. When asked by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) whether or not she believes the Bush-era interrogation program was “consistent with American values,” Haspel responded: “We have decided to hold ourselves to a stricter moral standard…I support the United States holding itself to that stricter moral standard.” She avoided Senator Kamala Harris’s (D-CA) questions on whether or not she believed “previous CIA techniques were immoral,” promising only to “not restart a retention and interrogation department” at the CIA, even if requested by the president.

Haspel offered little to the Senate Intelligence Committee; she even refused to acknowledge her role as a base chief where a detainee was waterboarded, saying it was classified. She demurred when asked why, as acting head of the CIA with the power to declassify that information, she had not. The only admission Haspel offered was when she acknowledged she “absolutely was an advocate” for destroying videotape evidence of CIA’s interrogation program, which is agency-speak for torture. It was a remarkable admission, not simply because it was a rare moment of honesty, but because it briefly exposed the contours of her power, the very kind that the celebration of “women’s empowerment” is supposed to eclipse.

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