Gina Haspel Did Not Oversee Waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah (But She Pushed to Have Tapes Destroyed)

ProPublica has retracted an explosive but erroneous report about the nominee to be the next CIA Director.

An important correction to a story that I’ve been party to repeating both here and on Twitter:

ProPublica (“Correction: Trump’s Pick to Head CIA Did Not Oversee Waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah“):

On Feb. 22, 2017, ProPublica published a story that inaccurately described Gina Haspel’s role in the treatment of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al-Qaida leader who was imprisoned by the CIA at a secret “black site” in Thailand in 2002.

The story said that Haspel, a career CIA officer who President Trump has nominated to be the next director of central intelligence, oversaw the clandestine base where Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding and other coercive interrogation methods that are widely seen as torture. The story also said she mocked the prisoner’s suffering in a private conversation. Neither of these assertions is correct and we retract them. It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended.

Our account of Haspel’s actions was drawn in part from declassified agency cables and CIA-reviewed books which referred to the official overseeing Zubaydah’s interrogation at a secret prison in Thailand as “chief of base.” The books and cables redacted the name of the official, as is routinely done in declassified documents referring to covert operations.

The Trump administration named Haspel to the CIA’s No. 2 job in early February 2017. Soon after, three former government officials told ProPublica that Haspel was chief of base in Thailand at the time of Zubaydah’s waterboarding.

We also found an online posting by John Kiriakou, a former CIA counter-terrorism officer, who wrote that “It was Haspel who oversaw the staff” at the Thai prison, including two psychologists who “designed the torture techniques and who actually carried out torture on the prisoners.”

The nomination of Haspel this week to head the CIA stirred new controversy about her role in the detention and interrogation of terror suspects, as well as the destruction of videotapes of the interrogation of Zubaydah and another suspect. Some critics cited the 2017 ProPublica story as evidence that she was not fit to run the agency.

Those statements prompted former colleagues of Haspel to defend her publicly. At least two said that while she did serve as chief of base in Thailand, she did not arrive until later in 2002, after the waterboarding of Zubaydah had ended.

The New York Times, which also reported last year that Haspel oversaw the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, published a second story this week making the same point. It quoted an unnamed former senior CIA official who said Haspel did not become base chief until late October of 2002. According to the Times, she was in charge when al-Nashiri was waterboarded three times.

James Mitchell, the psychologist and CIA contractor who helped to direct the waterboarding of both suspects, said in a broadcast interview on March 14 that Haspel was not the “chief of base” whom he described in his book as making fun of Zubaydah’s suffering.

“That chief of base was not Gina,” Mitchell told Fox Business News. “She’s not the COB I was talking about.”

Mitchell’s book, “Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America,” referred to the chief of base in Thailand as both “he” and “she.”

We erroneously assumed that this was an effort by Mitchell or the agency to conceal the gender of the single official involved; it is now clear that Mitchell was referring to two different people.

ProPublica contacted Mitchell in 2017 to ask him about this passage in his book. Facing a civil lawsuit brought by former CIA detainees, he declined to comment.

At about the same time, we approached the CIA’s press office with an extensive list of questions about the cables and Haspel’s role in running the Thai prison, particularly her dealings with Zubaydah.

An agency spokesman declined to answer any of those questions but released a statement that was quoted in the article, asserting that “nearly every piece of reporting that you are seeking comment on is incorrect in whole or in part.”

The CIA did not comment further on the story after its publication and we were not aware of any further questions about its accuracy until this week.

The February 2017 ProPublica story did accurately report that Haspel later rose to a senior position at CIA headquarters, where she pushed her bosses to destroy the tapes of Zubaydah’s waterboarding. Her direct boss, the head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, ultimately signed the order to feed the 92 tapes into a shredder. Her actions in that instance, and in the waterboarding of al-Nashiri, are likely to be the focus of questions at her confirmation hearings.

If this new reporting is accurate, three things we thought we knew about Haspel are incorrect:

  1. She did not oversee the torture site in Thailand.
  2. She not only did not supervise the torture of Abu Zubaydah but she was not the one who sadistically mocked him during said torture.
  3. She did not sign the order to have the tapes destroyed.

She did, however, push her supervisor to have the tapes destroyed. That’s troubling, to be sure, and certainly something she ought be asked about in her confirmation hearings. But it’s now plausible that she’s morally fit to direct the CIA.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Intelligence, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Under the circumstances, I would still want to see her answer questions about how she might handle a hypothetical order from this or any other President to resume the waterboarding and other practices that were conducted at the aforementioned black sites. This seems especially relevant given the fact that this President did speak positively about techniques such as waterboarding several times as a candidate. Granted, he has said at least once since then that conversations with SecDef Mattis have changed his mind. However, given how mercurial the mind of Donald Trump is, and how quickly turnover seems to be accelerating inside the Administration, that’s not a sufficient guarantee that he might not jump back to his previous position in the future.

  2. Marked an says:

    So all she did was work to destroy evidence in order to protect the torturers? No one associated with the torture program in any capacity should be head of the CIA. It is very very clear what message Pompeo and Trump are sending by picking her. It’s a disgrace to America.

  3. HarvardLaw92 says:

    I’ll disagree. While everything else that was alleged is nauseating, to be sure, the destruction of the tapes (whether or not she actually signed the order is immaterial, she’s equally culpable for it) is the one single bullet point which most calls her suitability for office into question.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Given that White House and various other entities gave legal cover for the “enhanced interrogation,” I’m not prepared to say that everyone who took part is per se disqualified. Accounts of her sadism were, in my judgment, disqualifying. I’d also agree that destruction of evidence is a big red flag but am interested in seeing what rationale she gives and find it at least conceivable that there’s an explanation I can live with.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: James, it seems you are struggling to find a way to excuse the torturers and those who abetted them. As in all things, if you look hard enough for a reason, you’ll probably find one. But just remember – we put Germans to death after WWII for exactly these kinds of acts. And made it clear to the world that “I was just following orders” was not a defense. Bush/Cheney et al disgraced the country and every good thing America stands for by their whole hearted embrace of the torturers. Twisting yourself into knots to find shades of grey in the behavior of these criminals only extends the damage.

    And on the practical side, all I can offer is that during the first Gulf War thousands of Iraqi soldiers dropped their arms and lined up in orderly columns to surrender to American troops, because they knew they would be treated justly. How many American soldiers have since died in the Mid-East, Africa and who knows where else because every fighter now knows, absolutely, that they would rather fight to the death than be brought to an American torture camp?

  6. @MarkedMan:

    Not just the Germans, but also the leaders of the Japanese military.

  7. James Joyner says:


    James, it seems you are struggling to find a way to excuse the torturers and those who abetted them.

    I’ve been clear on this since the rumors started coming out: I unequivocably oppose torture on legal, moral, and practical grounds. But I also sympathize with the pressures President Bush and his senior team were in in the time after 9/11 and understand, if ultimately disagreeing with, the appeal of the “ticking time bomb” scenario.

    I’d be highly dubious of confirming Haspel were I in the Senate. But this retraction takes it from “Oh Hell no” to “Probably not.”

  8. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @James Joyner:

    OLC doesn’t establish what constitutes legality. Their opinions are just as subject to question within the courts as anything else, and those particular opinions haven’t been tested there (yet).

    The short version is that “OLC said it was ok” doesn’t give her legal cover at all for the activities. It certainly doesn’t give her cover with regard to destruction of records or obstruction of Congressional oversight (which is what the destruction amounts to).

    At basis, though, the point is that appointing her opens a can of worms that any admin in its right mind would want to remain closed. It establishes a basis for looking into exactly what was done, when, by whom, and where with respect to this “it wasn’t torture” abortion – both in her confirmation hearings AND subsequently from a broader perspective if Dems regain control of Congress.

    To put it in a simple perspective, it’s rather like post-war German governments employing ex-Nazis – possibly necessary, but a bad idea nonetheless from anybody’s perspective. She’s tainted goods, and she gives Dems a laundry list of segues into attacking this admin. Entirely stupid move from their perspective, IMO.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Oh, we don’t disagree on any of that. But we’re operating in the realm of what’s likely to happen in this administration.

  10. Modulo Myself says:

    A lot of the torture was for finding a connection with Iraq, so the ticking bomb stuff is something of a red herring. Also, just because you might have had legal cover to conduct these acts, or to be a party to them after the fact, doesn’t mean at all you have a right to be appointed to be a government position. The argument is basically that Eichmann-style obedience is nothing to be ashamed of.

  11. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: Who is “we” in your comment above? You aren’t going all Queen-of-England on us, are you? 😉

  12. Modulo Myself says:

    Also, 9/11 was seventeen years ago. We were all there. It’s not slavery, where you have to comport yourself into a historical counterfactual. didn’t want to die in a nuclear attack launched by Al Qaeda. But I also knew torture was wrong, and I could see the gleam in the eyes of the establishment as they complained about the Church Committee and the need to take off the gloves. It wasn’t hard for me to say no, and it wasn’t hard for people who interrogated captured terrorists to realize that torture was wrong, and it didn’t work.

  13. Franklin says:
  14. gVOR08 says:

    I would have thought anyone connected with the torture program would want to keep a low profile and serve out their time. And I don’t know that Haspel lobbied for or even wanted the promotion. The decision was Trump’s. I don’t believe Trump capable of 11 dimensional chess, but he certainly is capable of generating chaos. And I’m afraid polling shows torture is popular, particularly with Republicans. Starting this controversy is a way to pump up his base, whether she’s confirmed or not.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: HarvardLaw92 and myself?

  16. JohnMcC says:

    It’s one of those damn catch-22 situations that was planted in the Agency when the decision to torture was made; sooner or later someone associated with the torturing was going to get to the top of the pyramid.

    The only person who has the moral authority to become the Director, is the person who resigned rather that be associated with them who would commit those crimes.

  17. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: Got it

  18. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    Given that White House and various other entities gave legal cover for the “enhanced interrogation,” I’m not prepared to say that everyone who took part is per se disqualified.

    I see Dr. Joyner has chosen to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre by dragging out the Nuremberg Defense.

  19. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @James Joyner: And, of course, we know that she’ll be FAR, FAR too honorable to lie about her views and simply tell the Senators what they, and you, want to hear because she only pushed for destruction of evidence as opposed to actually jamming the shredder, al a Ollie North and Fawn Hall, right?

  20. James Joyner says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: We have hearings for a reason. The Senators and public will have to make a judgment.

  21. An Interested Party says:

    The Senators and public will have to make a judgment.

    How sad that we even have to get that far with known torturers and their enablers…such people shouldn’t even be considered in the first place…

  22. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @James Joyner: Yeah, I know, so you and the Senators can hear what you need to hear. Didn’t I just say that?