Gina Haspel’s Troubling Role in the CIA Torture Program
(Source: Project On Government Oversight; posted March 13, 2018)
By Katherine Hawkins
US President Trump’s controversial nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, company veteran Gina Haspe.l (CIA photo)
President Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, was deeply involved in the Agency’s torture program, according to multiple credible press reports. Haspel ran the CIA’s first overseas prison for terrorism suspects, in Thailand, where Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah were waterboarded, deprived of sleep, confined in coffin-sized boxes, and otherwise tortured. She later was involved in the destruction of the videotapes that documented Zubaydah’s and Nashiri’s treatment.

When Haspel was selected as deputy CIA director last year, ProPublica published an excellent summary of the public information about her role in the torture program, with links to declassified cables from Zubaydah’s interrogation. Haspel was the only official at the CIA prison (commonly known as a black site) with the authority to stop Zubaydah’s torture; instead, she allowed it to continue for almost three weeks.

The executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA interrogation program describes Zubaydah’s torture in graphic detail. One excerpt states:

At times Abu Zubaydah was described as “hysterical” and “distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate.” Waterboarding sessions “resulted in immediate fluid intake and involuntary leg, chest and arm spasms” and “hysterical pleas.” In at least one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah “became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth. According to CIA records, Abu Zubaydah remained unresponsive until medical intervention, when he regained consciousness and expelled "copious amounts of liquid.”

In 2005, Haspel was the chief of staff for Jose Rodriguez, the head of the Agency’s clandestine service. Rodriguez wrote in his memoirs about her involvement in his decision to order the destruction of the videotapes of Zubaydah’s interrogation:

My chief of staff drafted a cable approving the action that we had been trying to accomplish for so long. The cable left nothing to chance. It even told them how to get rid of the tapes. They were to use an industrial-strength shredder to do the deed….I took a deep breath of weary satisfaction and hit send.

The full, classified Senate Intelligence Committee study on the CIA black site program likely contains many more details about Haspel’s role. But it is unclear whether Senators will be able to ask about those details—or even about the public reports regarding her involvement in torture and destruction of evidence—during her confirmation hearing without being accused of disclosing classified information.

When Haspel was promoted to deputy CIA director last year, Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote that “[h]er background makes her unsuitable for the position,” and requested declassification of information regarding her role in the CIA interrogation program. The deputy CIA director position is not Senate confirmed, though, and the CIA disregarded those requests. The Agency later invoked state secrets privilege to prevent Haspel from having to sit for a deposition about her role in the torture program in a civil suit.

In a sworn declaration, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that “there has been public speculation” about Haspel’s role, but the Agency could not officially acknowledge it or allow Haspel to answer questions about it without severely damaging national security.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said in response to Haspel’s nomination that “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process.” Wyden also called for “total transparency” about Haspel’s role, and stated that “[i]f Ms. Haspel seeks to serve at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence, the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from her past.”

But the Chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr (R-NC), has said that he supports her confirmation “without delay.” Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) said that “[m]embers have a lot of questions. They deserve to have those questions answered, in an open hearing setting.” He added, “the more transparency the better,” but it is unclear whether he will demand it as a condition of his support.

Warner and Burr have emphasized the bipartisan nature of their inquiry into Russian election meddling. If they support Haspel’s confirmation without thorough disclosure and questioning regarding her role in the black site program, it will be a bipartisan abdication.

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