Former Ambassador Thomas Pickering Discusses CIA Nominee Gina Haspel

May 10, 2018
Originally published on July 20, 2018 8:57 am

More than 100 former ambassadors signed a letter Wednesday opposing Gina Haspel's nomination to be director of the CIA. NPR's Audie Cornish talks with Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador and one of the signatories of the letter, and former undersecretary of state for political affairs, about why he opposes the nomination.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More than 100 ambassadors are against Gina Haspel heading the CIA. They've written a letter to the Senate registering their serious concern about her nomination. But she's got many supporters in the intelligence community and was praised by Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, during her testimony yesterday.

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RICHARD BURR: You are, without a doubt, the most qualified person the president could have chosen to lead the CIA and the most prepared nominee in its 70-year history.

CORNISH: But Ambassador Thomas Pickering questions her record, and he signed a letter saying so. He's a former undersecretary of state for political affairs. Ambassador, welcome to the program.

THOMAS PICKERING: Thank you, Audie. I'm happy to be with you.

CORNISH: At this point, having heard her testimony, what are your specific concerns about Gina Haspel?

PICKERING: One is the question of how and in what way she sees torture and the failure - I thought yesterday - to make a judgment when she was asked whether she thought torture was morally acceptable or unacceptable. And second, she seemed to have missed the fact that Jose Rodriguez, the former chief of the Clandestine Service, had publicly stated that he had conversed with her about the terms and conditions of the decision he made to destroy the tapes.

CORNISH: To tackle the first issue you mentioned, on the issue of torture-enhanced interrogation techniques, Gina Haspel did say that this is not something she would bring back. It's not something she would bring back under request by the president. To her, that door is closed. Is that answer not enough?

PICKERING: I don't think so. I think that in fact the answer was not, in my view, satisfactory when the senator from California had asked her about this particular question and asked for a yes or no answer, as I recall on it. But my sense is that at the time that she was doing this, she relied very heavily on some legal opinions, which were flawed. And we wonder - because all military officers and military soldiers are required to make judgments about lawful orders - whether that judgment was ever made. And I think the question of was this morally acceptable goes to that particular point.

CORNISH: On the other issue of the destruction of tapes, the CIA declassified a report ahead of the hearing that cleared her of wrongdoing and destroying evidence of the interrogation tapes.

PICKERING: Yes. I think that she didn't make the decision, but she made a recommendation - from what we know - to go ahead and destroy the tapes. And that in itself means, in effect, that it goes to her qualities of judgment - if I could put it that way - in one of the most difficult jobs in the world. We have no question at all about her capacities as an intelligence officer and her ability to carry out those duties.

CORNISH: There are many people who worked for the CIA during the period when the country was using waterboarding as an interrogation technique. I mean, does it effectively disqualify a generation of people in the CIA from moving up the ranks?

PICKERING: There's a difference, obviously, between being a serving officer and running an agency. The buck stops with the leader of the agency. And the leader of the agency has to answer to the president, particularly with respect to issues like this. And as we know, during the political campaign, this was an issue about which the present president spoke any number of times, talking about waterboarding as being basically the minimum level of torture rather than something that represented the most extreme. She, I think, handled that part of her testimony quite well and said that she would not expect the president to raise that with her. But if he did, she would take the high ground and tell the president that she was not prepared to do that.

CORNISH: So in the end, what message do you think it sends to the world if Haspel is confirmed?

PICKERING: Well, I think it sends a message that someone who is, at this point, not ready fully to declare herself with respect to torture being morally reprehensible has been made the head of America's foremost intelligence agency. And people around the world who, one way or another, seem to be inclined to those practices will draw strength rather than understand the full position of our government traditionally has been totally against torture.

CORNISH: Ambassador Thomas Pickering, thank you so much for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PICKERING: Thank you, Audie, very much. Happy to do it.

[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous headline misidentified former ambassador Thomas Pickering as James Pickering.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.