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Ruth marcus

The nomination of Gina Haspel to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency presents an exquisitely difficult choice for senators weighing her confirmation. It is one that should tip, on the basis of Haspel's own words, against her confirmation.

On one side of the ledger is the sheer fact of Haspel's qualifications for the job by virtue of her experience in the agency. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., did not exaggerate when he described Haspel, at the panel's hearing Wednesday, as "the most prepared nominee in its 70-year history." Those signing a letter urging Haspel's confirmation span Democratic and Republican administrations, and include eight former CIA directors or acting directors, three former directors of national intelligence and two former secretaries of state.

On the other side of the ledger are two interrelated and troubling episodes: Haspel helped oversee the agency's detention and interrogation programs -- its torture of suspects, to put it bluntly -- in the aftermath of 9/11. And she was involved in the destruction of videotapes of the waterboarding of terrorism suspects -- destruction that was opposed by numerous other administration officials. Haspel did not help herself with her testimony; she asserted that the agency would not engage in such conduct going forward -- it is now banned by law -- but resolutely declined to express regret for the program.

Two exchanges, with ranking member Mark Warner, D-Va., and with California Democrat Kamala Harris, were illustrative -- and troubling. Warner's question was simple: "With the benefit of hindsight, do you believe ... the interrogation program was consistent with American values?" Tellingly, Haspel could not bring herself to give the morally correct answer: No, it wasn't.

Instead, she offered obfuscation, about the governing authority of the Army Field Manual, and broad assurances that "my moral compass is strong."

Harris' query was similarly straightforward: "The president has asserted that torture works. Do you agree with that statement?" Haspel was less than definitive. "I don't believe that torture works," she said, and then immediately undermined the significance of that seeming concession. "We got valuable information from the briefing of al-Qaida detainees and I don't think it's knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that." Sorry, not sorry.

There are two other sets of considerations that should not be entered into the ledger at all. The first is to weigh alternatives -- whether defeating Haspel would end up with someone even worse. This administration's track record, after all, does not suggest a penchant for or the ability to attract the best and brightest. But as tempting as it is to let anticipatory realpolitik influence moral judgments, it would be a mistake. These are choices that reflect our values.

The second involves the relevance of gender. Haspel would be the first woman to head the CIA. "It is not my way to trumpet the fact that I'm a woman up for the top job at CIA, but I would be remiss in not remarking on it," she said Wednesday, "not least, because of the outpouring of support from young women at CIA and indeed across the [intelligence community] because they consider it a good sign for their own prospects."

But gender cannot be used as an offset to moral failure. And the insinuation that resistance to Haspel equates to hostility toward women is repugnant. "There is no one more qualified to be the first woman to lead the CIA than 30+ year CIA veteran Gina Haspel," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted Saturday. "Any Democrat who claims to support women's empowerment and our national security but opposes her nomination is a total hypocrite."

Oh please. "Women's empowerment," to use Sanders' phrase, means judging Haspel by the same standard as any man up for the job.

In the end, the risk posed by confirming Haspel is not that she will authorize another round of torture if Trump were to press that course on her in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. CIA directors face all sorts of fraught judgments that go beyond torture, including the use of drones and the accompanying risk of civilian casualties.

President Trump has demonstrated a willingness to wave aside niceties of morality and international law in the service of the war on terror. Would a Director Haspel stand up to Trump's worst instincts, or enable them? The worry is not that she will relive history but that she failed to show that she has learned from it.

Marcus is deputy editorial page editor at The Washington Post. 

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