A Lifetime Intelligence Man on Trump’s New C.I.A. Chief

Richard “Dick” Conoboy. Photo by Robin Dude.

Dick Conoboy is a friend of mine. He’s also a retired senior counter-terrorism analyst for the National Military Intelligence Center, and a former analyst for the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office at the Pentagon. He handled intelligence in Vietnam, Thailand, France and Germany, served as an infantry officer in Germany, and taught French for several years at West Point.

Committed as he is to the role of the United States as a force for good, the confirmation last week of career intelligence officer Gina Haspel to head the Central Intelligence Agency deeply disturbs Dick. His objection hangs on Haspel’s involvement in torture, which U.S. law forbids.

When questioned by U.S. senators in early May, Haspel refused to condemn the illegal torture her government committed in the early years of President Bush’s international “War on Terror”. She also declined to say whether she would obey President Trump if he ordered the C.I.A. to torture captured suspects.

Haspel’s personal involvement in torture dates back at least as far as 2002, when she briefly oversaw a secret C.I.A. prison in Thailand where suspected members of al-Qaida were waterboarded, or subjected to simulated drowning. A U.S. Navy Reserve doctor described one of the victims as “one of the most severely traumatized individuals I have ever seen.” Haspel also ordered the destruction of videos of a C.I.A. interrogation in 2005.

Dick and Haspel received basically the same training in intelligence gathering. So what does he make of Haspel’s professional record and her refusal to condemn torture?

“I received no instruction or winking at the rules with respect to violating conventions on torture,” Dick told me by email. “In my personal relationships with Army interrogators and my own training in interrogation techniques, I was told time and again that torture was not only illegal, but ineffective compared to sophisticated questioning techniques.”

“I don’t know what Haspel was taught several decades after I entered the intelligence services, but the international conventions had not changed to authorize torture.”

Dick pointed out that on numerous occasions the C.I.A. itself condemned torture, including when members of the militant Islamist group Hezbollah kidnapped and eventually murdered Beirut Station Chief William Francis Buckley, between 1984 and 1985. “His colleagues were said to have wept openly when presented with a gruesome video of a broken Buckley,” Dick said.

At the Pentagon, Dick studied the debriefings of U.S. pilots who were shot down, captured and tortured during the Vietnam War. “All of these actions, condemned by the U.S., were eventually recreated by the U.S. for use against terrorism suspects,” he said.

How does Dick see Haspel? Her refusal to condemn torture?

“Haspel is a cipher. Watching her testify before Congress, the words ‘automaton’ and ‘groupthink’ come to mind. But torture is only part of the problem here. In Haspel we have a female Mark Zuckerberg as head of the C.I.A. She appears to be incapable of empathy, to work from a dangerously limited frame of reference, and to make changes only when confronted by the more powerful, or potentially, by whistleblowers.”

How should the average American regard the C.I.A. and its leaders?

Most people in the U.S. have no idea what the C.I.A. actually does. Few people understand what ‘intelligence’ means, including most of Washington. The public gets bits and snatches from the so-called news, whose information is often worse than being told nothing at all. As a consequence, the voter/citizen can’t make an informed judgment, and Congress abrogates its duties of oversight because nothing is demanded of it by an ignorant public.”

Dick Conoboy circa 1970, after returning from Vietnam.

“Torture is no more than lashing out and revenge-taking. It took me almost three decades to shed a large part of my Army frame of reference. I defended the armed forces no matter what. I supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I got caught up in the shock and awe.”


This piece first appeared in the Hudson Valley News.