A Personal Plea in Support of Haspel’s Nomination

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Observers counting potential Senate votes for the nominee to become the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency say Gina Haspel’s prospects look pretty good.  The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is scheduled to meet on Wednesday morning, May 16, to vote on recommending her nomination to the full Senate. 

Later this week or early next, the full Senate is expected to decide whether Haspel will be the first woman to lead the Agency.  Two Democratic Senators, Joe Machin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana have said their will support her.  Republican Senator Rand Paul has said he will not, and Senator John McCain’s health will likely prevent him from returning to Washington to cast a negative vote.  There is one Republican, Jeff Flake of Arizona who reportedly is still on the fence. Flake’s vote could be critical if any other Republicans change their minds and abandon the President’s nominee. 

With that in mind, 9/11 family member Debra Burlingame, whose brother Chic was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked and slammed into the Pentagon on 9/11 has written a heartfelt letter to Senator Flake, imploring him to support Haspel’s nomination.  In the letter, Burlingame describes how her brother and four other airline pilots killed on 9/11 had been through survival training while in the military that included things waterboarding.  In an emotional last pitch effort, Burlingame compares the lengths that CIA officials went to with terrorist detainees – to what happened to the passengers and crew of Flight 77.  

Here is a copy of the letter, obtained by The Cipher Brief:

Dear Senator Flake,

I have been closely following the issue of the CIA interrogation program and Gina Haspel’s nomination to become the next director of the agency.  The subject is deeply personal to me, my family and tens of thousand of people whose loved ones were killed on 9/11.  My brother was Capt. Charles “Chic” Burlingame, the pilot in command of American Airlines flight 77 which was hijacked and crashed at the Pentagon on September 11.  He would have been 52 years old the following day, September 12th.

Chic was a former carrier-based Navy fighter pilot who, like tens of thousands of military pilots, special forces operators and intelligence officers, went through SERE training—Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape.  He was put through many of the harsh measures that were the model for the CIA’s RDI program, including waterboarding, although he didn’t call it that.  He called it the “water treatment” and only would say that it was “very effective.”   What Chic didn’t tell me, which I have since learned, is that trainees were screamed at, pushed, slapped, humiliated with public nakedness, subjected to extreme cold, confined in muscle-cramping cages, kept awake, disoriented as to night and day and more.  He only told me that SERE (he called it “POW school”) was intense and emotionally difficult.

In order to convey how psychologically difficult the program was, Chic told me this story:  he described how, after several days, he and his fellow “prisoners” were led out, bound and blindfolded, in the dead of night with no sense of where they were, fearful of what would happen next.  Their hands were roughly cut loose, and they were all ordered to remove their blindfolds.  After they did so, bright lights lit up the entire compound and an American flag flew from a mast before them.  The national anthem began playing from a loudspeaker and the men were told, “You have just graduated from SERE. Welcome home, gentlemen.”  Chic said the moment was so intense and emotional, several of the men dropped to their knees and broke down.

SERE training was instituted to psychologically prepare military personnel in specialties most susceptible to capture behind enemy lines.  It was created decades ago because, as Chic explained it, the military felt that simply telling men to provide only “name, rank and serial number” was inadequate.  Former POWs had reported that psychological strength was more important than physical endurance.

Senator Flake, you should know that five of the pilots who were killed in their cockpits on September 11 were former military pilots.  That means all five would have been put through SERE training.  That means more of the pilots who died on 9/11 were waterboarded than the terrorists who killed them.

I read the Office of Legal Counsel memos when they were made public which described the RDI program and Enhanced Interrogation Techniques in detail.  The part that got to me was the use of a breakaway wall, constructed with material that would make a startling noise and easily collapse upon contact.  Like all of the harsh measures, the purpose was instilling helplessness, not physical injury.  Not only was the detainee never in danger of serious physical injury, a towel was wrapped around the detainee’s neck to prevent soft tissue damage.  After ten years, I thought I had become hardened to all things 9/11.  But after reading that, I put my head down and cried. The passengers and crew of American 77 were flown into the Pentagon’s concrete and steel reinforced west side at 530 miles per hour.  The airplane, carrying nearly 50,000 pounds of jet fuel, was essentially shredded.  There were five children on board, ages 3 to 11.  Three of the children were 5th graders traveling with chaperones on a field trip, not their parents. It was the first flight of their lives. Remains of the three year old, traveling with her eight year old sister and parents, were never found.

Imagine what it is like for the families of the victims, the survivors and the rescue and recovery workers who witnessed terrible things at the site of these attacks to hear members of the U.S. Senate dismiss the people who scrambled to defend us after 9/11 in favor of political expediency.

Senator, I am most concerned about the terrible message that will be sent to the men and women of the CIA if Gina Haspel is rejected by the Senate.  No doubt it was hard for them to watch her, a highly decorated career officer, someone they aspire to emulate, attacked, treated disdainfully in a public hearing and made to answer questions members of Congress never asked of themselves when it mattered.  She would not betray them by calling their actions, ordered by the president, legally authorized by the Department of Justice and sanctioned by members of Congress, “immoral.”

Please vote in favor of Gina Haspel’s confirmation, Senator, for the sake of all of us who count on the work she and her agency do.


Debra Burlingame

Sister of Charles F. “Chic” Burlingame, III (Capt., USNR, ret.) USNA ’71, pilot, AA 77, Pentagon attack, September 11, 2001


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7 Replies to “A Personal Plea in Support of Haspel’s Nomination”
  1. Ms. Burlingame’s letter is affecting and tragic, but its emotional impact should not distract from the reality, which is that it is a non-sequiter.

    She recounts the testimony of her martyred brother ‘Chic’ Burlingame to show that SERE training and simulated torture ‘were effective.’ But she never answers the crucial question; ‘effective for what?’ and in the context of our republic ‘effective in the right way?’

    George Orwell in “1984” — and Josef Stalin, in the show trials of 1936 — showed — (in fiction and reality, respectively) how torture was effective. Crucially, ‘Big Brother’ didn’t torture Winston Smith to determine the sum of 2+2. Rather, it tortured Smith to force him to confess an untruth: 2+2=5.

    When considering the effectiveness of torture, we must, as republicans, consider the reality that torture is — most of all — a tool to instill terror and fabricate truth. Its use and legitimation has the potential to cause significant collateral damage. As republicans, we share allegiance to a fundamental value: that truth cannot be fabricated at whim. Yet torture can grant government officials the power to do exactly this.

    ‘Bic’ Burlingame spoke of how torture was effective, but he did not specify how. With all due respect to Ms. Burlingame for her loss — indeed in full respect of Mr. Burlingame’s sacrifice — I would suggest that the ‘how’ and ‘at what cost’ are crucial questions.

    1. With all due respect to Mr. Ward, the non-sequitur seems to be in his response. Is waterboarding, which I also experienced in SERE school, “simulated torture” as he says in his first paragraph, or “torture” as he says in every other paragraph? His premise that torture can produce untruths is a valid one, and certainly real torture creates moral hazards. But Ms. Burlingame’s point, and the reason it is relevant in the debate over Gina Haspel’s nomination, is that waterboarding has been performed on our own military pilots and special forces as part of their training at least since Vietnam, if not since World War II. Can it really be a disqualifying reason for Ms. Haspel to be the next Director of Central Intelligence when the U.S. government has been systematically waterboarding its own service members since at least the 1970s?

    2. You don’t remove evil and terrorists from the world with a smile and a handshake. S.E.R.E. Is designed to help people survive a bad situation. As a young reserve intelligence officer in the mid-70s, I had the opportunity to volunteer for S.E.R.E. Training in Warner Springs. The purpose was to be a debriefer for returning POWs if the opportunity came up. That training helped complement my other training and actions I took while being assigned to various intelligence posts.

  2. I concur that Ms Haspel should be selected to become the Director CIA. I do this because experience matters. Ms Haspel has firmly stated that she will follow the law with moral purpose. Having experienced the times and actions under scrutiny; my understanding of the events in question only bolster the reasoning for her selection.

    1. I felt it was so disrespectful how the members of Congress who were trying to indicate that Gina Haspel that she was immoral because she would not give her opinion on waterboarding. These Congress people who try to just try to make a name for themselves by belittle others because they actually have a conscious and follow the law. When the President of the United States tells you to do a job you do not say I am sorry I do not believe that is right. I am sorry that is a Liberal excuse for not doing a job.

  3. Robert M. Gates, lent needed perspective to the discussion,
    when he expressed concerns about ‘presentism’ driving the
    discussion of Ms. Haspel’s appointment. He found nothing
    in her career to be disqualifying. These views were shared
    in a lucid, wide-ranging discussion with Margaret Brennan
    on 5/13. Gates’ opinion carries a great deal of weight for
    many of us.

  4. Unless her brother was a special operator or the pilot of a strategic reconnaissance aircraft her brother only went through the basic SERE level-C course (SV-80), which does NOT include waterboarding. Rather he would have only gotten yelled at and slapped around, plus put in dark confining spaces. While that is abusive enough it sure as heck is not the equivalent of being tied-up and with the additional horror of being water-boarded.