End 16 Years Of Injustice

The Torture Trail of Gina Haspel Makes Her Unsuitable to be Director of the CIA

Gina Haspel, Donald Trump's nomination as Director of the CIA, juxtaposed with one of the only known photos of extraordinary rendition in the early years of the Bush administration.

By Andy Worthington, March 21, 2018

Last Tuesday, Donald Trump announced that Mike Pompeo, the current Director of the CIA, would become the new Secretary of State, replacing Rex Tillerson, while Gina Haspel, the current Deputy Director of the CIA, would be promoted to Director, "the first woman so chosen."

There was nothing positive about this development. As usual, Trump, defying protocol and any notion of politeness, announced Tillerson’s sacking, and the new appointments, by tweet. Tillerson, formerly the CEO of ExxonMobil, had been an indifferent Secretary of State, but Pompeo is a poor choice to be the nation’s top diplomat — hawkish on Iran, and a supporter of the continuing existence of Guantánamo. Interestingly, the New Yorker noted that Tillerson was fired shortly after agreeing with the British government that Russia "appears" to have been responsible for the recent nerve-gas attack on a former Russian spy in Salisbury, in the U.K. Pompeo, however, is not averse to criticizing Russia, in contrast to Trump himself, who, ignoring his advisers, yesterday congratulated Vladimir Putin on his recent election victory.

However, the bulk of the criticism after Trump’s announcement has, deservedly, been reserved for the promotion of Gina Haspel, who oversaw the last few months’ existence of the CIA’s first post-9/11 "black site" in Thailand, and later conspired to destroy videotapes of the torture that took place there. Unlike Mike Pompeo, who has taken a stance agains torture, there is no sign from Haspel that she recognizes the illegality of torture, and in Donald Trump, of course, she has a president who is an enthusiastic advocate for the use of torture.

Last week, we joined with other rights groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights and Witness Against Torture, to issue a statement declaring that Gina Haspel’s "documented involvement in torture should absolutely disqualify her from consideration for the post."

We stand by that assessment, and are pleased to note that, on March 16, 29 organizations including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, CCR and Reprieve, wrote to Senators "to ask that you not advance her nomination until all of the records on her past involvement in the CIA torture program are declassified and released to the public."

The letter explained well the reasons for fearing that Haspel had crossed lines that should disqualify her from leading the CIA. As the signatories stated:

Detainees at the Thailand "black site" were waterboarded, slammed against walls, subjected to enforced sleeplessness, and confined to coffin-shaped boxes, among other criminal practices. Ms. Haspel reportedly was in a supervisory position over the Thailand "black site" during this period — including an on-site leadership role when at least one detainee was brutally tortured — and knew about, reported on, and was otherwise involved in other cases of torture and detainee abuse. But the full extent of her involvement is impossible to confirm because the CIA continues to insist that information about the full extent of her role remain classified. Executive Order 13526 prohibits the classification of records to "conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error" or "prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency," so there is no reason for the torture program, or Ms. Haspel’s role in it, to remain classified. Senators and the American people must be able to read these documents in assessing her nomination to be CIA Director.

The signatories also noted:

In addition to her role overseeing the use of torture, Ms. Haspel’s participation in the destruction of videotapes of the torture program, over objections of White House counsel and CIA General Counsel among others, is alarming. In November 2005, amid increasing public outrage over revelations of torture at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba detention facility, the CIA destroyed 92 videotapes of interrogations at clandestine facilities elsewhere. While the CIA maintains that the decision to destroy the tapes was made by then-Director of the National Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez, Rodriguez says in his 2013 book that Haspel drafted the order herself. Former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo says Haspel and Rodriguez were the "staunchest advocates inside the building for destroying the tapes."

As the signatories proceeded to note, the tapes’ destruction was "a clear violation of the Federal Records Act, and indicates that Ms. Haspel does not believe she has an obligation to follow the law or a court order."

The signatories stopped short of describing Haspel as having engaged in criminal activities, but as they pointed out, "The Senate’s constitutional obligation to 'advise and consent' on any nomination requires that it have full access to relevant information on the nominees before it. In Ms. Haspel’s case, the precise details of her role in the torture program remain classified. All senators should demand that those records be declassified and made public — before her nomination moves any further — so that they can actually discuss Ms. Haspel’s deeply disturbing background in open session, and so that the public can glean a more detailed picture of her role in one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history."

In their conclusion,they added, "Ms. Haspel was a central figure in the torture program and the destruction of evidence of torture. Based on already available records and public reporting, it is clear by her wrongdoing that she demonstrated disregard for the rule of law and fundamental human rights."

In a letter to Senators, it is not entirely surprising that the organizations involved toned down their language for the occasion, but the blunt truth about Gina Haspel’s involvement in supervising the "black site" in Thailand and in the destruction of the videotapes documenting that torture is that she broke the law, both by being involved in torture, which is illegal, and in covering up evidence of that torture.

Rather shockingly, however, these irrefutable details were swiftly overshadowed when ProPublica retracted claims made in a 2017 article, based on interviews with people involved in the CIA torture program, that Haspel has been in charge of the "black site" in Thailand when Abu Zubaydah was being tortured there, and that she had mocked his suffering as an act in a private conversation with him.

Haspel’s supporters attempted to use this retraction to whitewash her crimes, even though she oversaw the torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri at the site in Thailand, and remains complicit in the destruction of the videotapes. Moreover, in the Daily Beast, as Spencer Ackerman reported, "The Daily Beast’s reporting, and its continued understanding, is that Haspel was in a position of responsibility over the black site during the Abu Zubaydah interrogation, though she was not physically present. That reporting did not and does not rely on ProPublica’s, and a Daily Beast report on Wednesday mentioning Propublica’s reporting treated it cautiously, particularly in a footnote calling attention to discrepancies in the account. The Senate intelligence committee’s 2014 report on CIA torture references extensive cables describing Abu Zubaydah’s spring and summer torture — including his 'involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities' following his extensive August 2002 waterboarding sessions — which Haspel was likely to have received."

It is to be hoped that Senators will recognize the importance of having a full and frank disclosure of Gina Haspel’s past activities before confirming her as the next Director of the CIA, and we continue to believe that any objective analysis will reveal her as unsuited for the role, and as someone who "should be in jail," as Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights explained last week.

What we also find troubling about her nomination, and the sacking of Rex Tillerson and his replacement with Mike Pompeo, is what Trump said last Tuesday, after his tweet, and, as Rolling Stone described it, "as he left for a trip to view prototypes for his proposed wall on the Mexican border." He said of Haspel, "She's an outstanding person who I've gotten to know very well. I've gotten to know a lot of people very well over the last year. I'm really at a point where I'm close to having the cabinet and other things that I want."

Does that mean what we think it means? That, in Trump’s mind, "the cabinet and other things that I want" means having those closest to him who share the fundamental impulses that drive him — including his enthusiasm for torture. We fear that it does, and urge Congress not to indulge him, for all our sakes.