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Donald Trump wants feminist cred for putting a veteran torturer in charge of the CIA

But Gina Haspel is no change agent.

President Donald Trump on March 13, the day he announced the appointment of Gina Haspel to lead the CIA
President Donald Trump on March 13, the day he announced the appointment of Gina Haspel to lead the CIA.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

In March, President Trump nominated a new director of the CIA, a veteran intelligence official who helped oversee the Bush-era rendition, detention, and interrogation programs out of notorious black sites that President Obama eventually closed.

That intelligence official, Gina Haspel, happens to be a woman. Trump appeared to spin this particular appointment as a victory for feminism, highlighting Haspel’s gender in his tweet announcing the appointment.

Haspel reportedly offered to withdraw her nomination on May 4, concerned that she might not be confirmed by the Senate. But the White House apparently pressed her to stay on — and officials are still pushing the gender angle, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders arguing that anyone who cares about women’s equality must support Haspel:

On May 7, Trump again brought up Haspel’s gender, tweeting 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.”

But Haspel’s history — she oversaw techniques now considered by many to be torture, including waterboarding and locking detainees in coffins — makes the fact that she’s a woman a moot point. Installing her as head of the CIA is a signal from the White House of support for torture, a position that is harmful to people of all genders in the United States and around the world.

And crowing over Haspel’s gender was a cynical move coming from Trump, who presides over the least feminist administration in recent memory. Trump and his appointees have given cover to men accused of abuse, smeared women who came forward with reports of sexual misconduct, and worked to dismantle access to reproductive health care around the country.

The idea that naming Haspel to head the CIA changes any of that is ridiculous on its face and insulting to all Americans.

Trump wants an image boost to distract from his deeply anti-feminist record

Recently, Trump has been eager to say that he has women in his administration. After all, heading into the 2018 midterms, news has broken again and again about his administration’s dismal track record on women’s equality.

One of his top aides was accused of domestic violence by two ex-wives (and another aide left shortly afterward for the same reason). For months, Trump has been fighting reports that he paid Stormy Daniels, a porn actress, to keep quiet about their alleged affair — those reports have serious implications for national security and in the context of the #MeToo movement.

Trump now says that he reimbursed the $130,000 in hush money his lawyer Michael Cohen paid to Daniels; Daniels is suing Trump to void the nondisclosure agreement she signed, as well as for defamation. This is all in addition to the 19 women who have accused Trump sexual misconduct. In October 2016, Trump called the women speaking out against him liars who were out to hurt his campaign, prompting one of them, Summer Zervos, to sue him in a defamation case that’s still ongoing.

Trump, and other Republicans, backed Senate candidate Roy Moore, despite credible claims from multiple women that he sexually abused or assaulted them, or attempted to have relationships with them when they were teenagers.

Meanwhile, Trump and his appointees have worked to help defund Planned Parenthood, jeopardize access to birth control, and keep undocumented, unaccompanied minors in the United States from getting abortions. Trump has also helped make the federal court system more white, straight, and male.

Trump performed well with white women in the 2016 election. His numbers with this group are slipping, and he knows that he and his party need to win some of them back.

Haspel is the establishment

Haspel’s résumé is chilling. “From 2003 to 2005, Gina Haspel was a senior official overseeing a top-secret C.I.A. program that subjected dozens of suspected terrorists to savage interrogations, which included depriving them of sleep, squeezing them into coffins, and forcing water down their throats,” Dexter Filkins wrote at the New Yorker last year, after the Trump administration named Haspel deputy director of the CIA under Mike Pompeo.

Filkins reported that in 2002, Haspel was present at a CIA black site in Thailand during the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a man suspected of being a high-level al-Qaeda operative. According to a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Filkins wrote, Zubaydah “was waterboarded eighty-three times; at one point, he became non-responsive, with water bubbling up from his lungs. Doctors had to revive him. During his confinement, Zubaydah lost sight in his left eye.”

Filkins’s account of the 2002 incident has been contested by ProPublica, which has issued a retraction of a 2017 story it published on the topic. Raymond Bonner of ProPublica now reports that Haspel did not arrive at the site in Thailand until after the interrogation of Zubaydah. Filkins told Vox that he stands by his reporting.

But what is not contested is Haspel’s role overseeing the black site for several years afterward. She was also reportedly involved in the destruction of nearly 100 videotapes of Zubaydah’s interrogation and others several years later.

In other words, Haspel has not been an agent of change at the CIA; she has no discernible record of standing up to the systems that have harmed women and men around the globe. Instead, she appears to have been instrumental in perpetuating those systems.

Rather than being a harbinger of feminist change — or any other kind — Haspel is a continuation of the past, a return to an era of torture that, until recently, seemed behind us. Last year, Filkins characterized Haspel’s appointment to the deputy position as an endorsement of torture from a president who had sometimes vacillated on the issue. Her elevation to head of the CIA certainly seems like a further endorsement.

The fact that Haspel is a woman is immaterial when what she represents is not progress toward a more equal future but a return to policies that harmed countless people of all genders.

Anyone who’s been watching Trump knows he couldn’t care less about supporting women. His transparent attempt to pass off Haspel as a feminist choice is just more evidence of that.

Correction: Some details about Haspel’s role in the torture of Abu Zubaydah have been removed from this story as they were retracted by ProPublica after the story was first published.