MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
One thread running through all of the back-and-forth at today's hearing was this basic question. Should someone who was involved with torture be running the CIA? Well, to help us consider that question, we turn to John McLaughlin, who used to run the CIA as acting director and former deputy director. Hey there, John.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Hello, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Welcome. Let me dive right in right there. Gina Haspel helped oversee one of the darkest chapters in CIA history. Does it send the wrong message to promote someone with that record to the agency's top job?
MCLAUGHLIN: I don't know that she helped to oversee it. She was part of it. We see more...
KELLY: She ran one of the black sites where waterboarding happened.
MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I think eventually if her actual role ever comes out, it will be less than most people imagined compared to the way it's been described. And dark chapter - I would call it a difficult chapter. This comes of course right after 9/11. The CIA feels that it is personally responsible for preventing another attack on the United States. The atmosphere in the United States, in the Congress and the administration, is very different than it is today.
KELLY: But to the central question, should someone who was involved with programs that many people would describe as torture - should someone with that record be promoted to the top job at the Central Intelligence Agency?
MCLAUGHLIN: I would say yes because when we look back at what Gina Haspel was then required to do, she was a mid-level officer. The program she was involved in was endorsed, approved as legal by the highest legal authorities in the United States. And in those circumstances, I think her role was understandable and appropriate.
KELLY: I have wondered whether there is a basic conundrum at play here in that if you want someone with experience overseeing, running clandestine operations going forward, a lot of those people in the days post-9/11 were involved or witnessed these programs - that taint is on their record. In other words, are we going to have these Gina Haspel-type battles going forward for the next 10, 20 years?
MCLAUGHLIN: I don't think so. And I think a lot of it depends on whether Gina Haspel succeeds now in this confirmation process. I think if she does, that becomes a model for how you deal with it because taken as a whole, her performance today says, I understand that was a difficult period. We will not be doing that again. We're going to move on. The consensus in the United States has moved on. It's a new day.
KELLY: Were you struck that when she was asked repeatedly by more than one senator, did you regard the program as immoral, she wouldn't answer?
MCLAUGHLIN: You noticed she was very careful to say that we gained valuable information from these detainees that helped us succeed in combating terrorism. That's coming very close to saying this program produced effective information. So my point to you is, if it's possible to gain useful information to save American lives, this becomes an ethically complex decision, not a clean black-and-white decision as it is being portrayed today.
So if you were a CIA officer back in 2002, you were torn on the one hand by the sense that you might be doing something in conflict with basic values that you hold dear. But on the other hand, failure to get that information might also put the blood of Americans on your hands.
KELLY: You're describing something interesting because Gina Haspel knows what the answer was senators wanted her to say in the interest of advancing her confirmation. And she wouldn't say it, which suggests that - without projecting into where her mind was it - suggests that maybe she and the agency more broadly continue to wrestle with the legacy of what happened in those days after 9/11.
MCLAUGHLIN: I think everyone does. But in a Senate confirmation hearing, typically if you notice how frequently senators say just a yes or no answer, frankly, in the intelligence business, you don't often get the luxury of a yes or no. You have to make very difficult choices, both of which have a downside. And that's what's often involved in intelligence work at the highest level.
KELLY: John McLaughlin, thank you.
MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Mary Louise - always a pleasure.
KELLY: John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA - he's now at Johns Hopkins University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.