Trump’s Pick For New C.I.A. Director Has a Troubling Record On Torture
By all accounts, Gina Haspel is exceedingly well qualified to be the next C.I.A. Director, but she has a troubling past that the Senate will need to at least force her to answer questions about.
UPDATE (James Joyner-March 16): Key details in the story below have now been retracted by ProPublica. See “Gina Haspel Did Not Oversee Waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah (But She Pushed to Have Tapes Destroyed).”
Original post follows
In addition to announcing that current C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo would be replacing Rex Tillerson at the State Department, President Trump also announced this morning that Pompeo would be replaced by Deputy C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel. On paper at least Haspel appears to be well-qualified for the position. She began her career with the agency more than thirty years ago and spent roughly two decades working undercover and worked her way up the ranks to the point where, during the Bush Administration, she served as Chief of Staff to Jose Rodriguez, who was head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center during the Bush Administration. As The New York Times notes in an article that was written a year ago when she was named Deputy Director of the C.I.A., it was in this position during the Bush Administration that Haspel became involved in what was probably the most controversial action that agency had taken since the days of the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s:
WASHINGTON — As a clandestine officer at the Central Intelligence Agency in 2002, Gina Haspel oversaw the torture of two terrorism suspects and later took part in an order to destroy videotapes documenting their brutal interrogations at a secret prison in Thailand.
On Thursday, Ms. Haspel was named the deputy director of the C.I.A.
The elevation of Ms. Haspel, a veteran widely respected among her colleagues, to the No. 2 job at the C.I.A. was a rare public signal of how, under the Trump administration, the agency is being led by officials who appear to take a far kinder view of one of its darker chapters than their immediate predecessors.
Over the past eight years, C.I.A. leaders defended dozens of agency personnel who had taken part in the now-banned torture program, even as they vowed never to resume the same harsh interrogation methods. But President Trump has said repeatedly that he thinks torture works. And the new C.I.A. chief, Mike Pompeo, has said that waterboarding and other techniques do not even constitute torture, and praised as “patriots” those who used such methods in the early days of the fight against Al Qaeda.
Ms. Haspel, who has spent most of her career undercover, would certainly fall within Mr. Pompeo’s description. She played a direct role in the C.I.A.’s “extraordinary rendition program,” under which captured militants were handed to foreign governments and held at secret facilities, where they were tortured by agency personnel.
The C.I.A.’s first overseas detention site was in Thailand. It was run by Ms. Haspel, who oversaw the brutal interrogations of two detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
Mr. Zubaydah alone was waterboarded 83 times in a single month, had his head repeatedly slammed into walls and endured other harsh methods before interrogators decided he had no useful information to provide.
The sessions were videotaped and the recordings stored in a safe at the C.I.A. station in Thailand until 2005, when they were ordered destroyed. By then, Ms. Haspel was serving at C.I.A. headquarters, and it was her name that was on the cable carrying the destruction orders.
The agency maintains that the decision to destroy the recordings was made by Ms. Haspel’s boss at the time, Jose Rodriguez, who was the head of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service.
But years later, when the C.I.A. wanted to name Ms. Haspel to run clandestine operations, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, then the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, blocked the promotion over Ms. Haspel’s role in the interrogation program and the destruction of the tapes.
Donald Trump’s pick for head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, reportedly oversaw a black site prison in Thailand where terrorism suspects were tortured. She briefly ran the prison in 2002, anonymous officials told the Associated Press.
If the US Senate confirms Haspel, she would be the first female director of the agency, but the historic significance of her nomination was immediately overshadowed by her reported link to the black site, where two suspected al-Qaida members were waterboarded.
“Ms Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process,” said John McCain, the Arizona senator who was tortured during the Vietnam war. He called the torture of US detainees during the Bush era “one of the darkest chapters in American history”.
“The fact that she’s been able to stay in the agency, rise in the agency and now is in line to be director should be deeply troubling,” Larry Siems, author of the Torture Report, a book analysing government documents relating to Bush-era torture released in 2014, told the Guardian.
Haspel also drafted a cable ordering the destruction of CIA interrogation videos in 2005.
A US justice department investigation into the tapes’ destruction ended without charges, but the event helped spark a landmark investigation into US detentions and interrogations.
Christopher Anders, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, claimed Haspel “was up to her eyeballs in torture”.
Anders urged the CIA to declassify her torture record before the Senate considers her nomination.
“Gina Haspel was a central figure in one of the most illegal and shameful chapters in modern American history,” he said in a statement.
Haspel joined the CIA in 1985 and has extensive overseas experience. She was deputy director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Services and has held several other leadership roles in the agency.
“I am grateful to President Trump for the opportunity, and humbled by his confidence in me, to be nominated to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency,” Haspel said in a statement. “If confirmed, I look forward to providing President Trump the outstanding intelligence support he has grown to expect during his first year in office.”
Haspel’s alleged links to the Thai black site were scrutinized in February last year when Trump appointed her CIA deputy director, where she worked under director Mike Pompeo.
If confirmed by the Senate, Haspel will take up Pompeo’s post. He has been selected to take over the secretary of state job, succeeding Rex Tillerson.
John McCain, who has been an outspoken critic of the CIA’s involvement in torture since it became public isn’t happy about Haspel’s appointment:
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday condemned President Trump’s decision to nominate Gina Haspel to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), saying she was involved in “one of darkest chapters in American history.”
While he expressed confidence in current CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s ability to serve as secretary of State, an appointment Trump announced earlier Tuesday, McCain said in a statement that Haspel needs to explain her stance on torture.
“The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history,” McCain said. “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said Haspel was “up to her eyeballs in torture, both in running a secret torture prison in Thailand and carrying out an order to cover up torture crimes by destroying videotapes.”
Progressive foreign policy groups are fighting back against her nomination, saying her direct role in the torture program should “disqualify her” from the position.
Pompeo committed himself to enforcing federal law on interrogation techniques during his confirmation hearing last year to become CIA director.
“Any nominee for director of the CIA must pledge without reservation to uphold this prohibition, which has helped us regain our position of leadership in the struggle for universal human rights,” McCain said Tuesday.
McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner during in the Vietnam War, has sharply criticized Trump’s support of controversial interrogation policies like waterboarding.
“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good,” McCain said in 2014.
To be fair to Haspel, at the time she was engaging in the activities noted above she was acting under the direct orders of her superiors and the orders of the President of the United States, whose legal advisers had drafted opinions arguing that the use of some methods of what is now viewed as torture was authorized under the law. While that may be true. though, the role she played not only in overseeing some of these actions by the agents working under her but also later on in seeking to get rid of the evidence of that torture in the agency’s own records is, to say the very least, quite troubling indeed.
So far, Haspel has not had to answer publicly for her role in these incidents, but they are likely to come up during her confirmation hearing in the Senate. At the very least, Haspel needs to be asked about not only her role in overseeing the torture of people held at the black site in Thailand that she was in charge of during the relevant time frame and her role in seeking to have the evidence regarding that torture destroyed before it could be made public and embarrass the agency, the Bush Administration, and the United States as a whole. Additionally, she needs to be asked about her personal opinions regarding the propriety of the techniques she oversaw more than a decade ago and how she would respond if the President attempted to order the agency to resume the techniques that it stopped using shortly after they became public. In the end, it’s likely that she will be confirmed, but one hopes that there will be at least some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on both sides of the aisle that will at least force her to answer these questions while they have a chance.
Update: This post was updated to include the remarks from Senator McCain.