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

The post A Personal Plea in Support of Haspel’s Nomination appeared first on The Cipher Brief.

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