Holding the Government Accountable

Gina Haspel’s Troubling Role in the CIA Torture Program

Gina Haspel (Photo: Central Intelligence Agency)

According to press accounts, President Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, was deeply involved in the Agency’s torture program, though there are more questions than answers about exactly what her role was.

News reports last year stated that Haspel was the chief of base at the CIA’s first overseas prison (or “black site”) for terrorism suspects, in Thailand. Two terrorism suspects, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, were waterboarded, deprived of sleep, confined in coffin-sized boxes, and otherwise tortured at that prison. She later was involved in the destruction of the videotapes that documented prisoners’ torture.

Those articles, the most detailed of which appeared in ProPublica, erroneously stated that Haspel was the chief of base at the prison during Zubaydah’s torture, and thus was the only official at the site with the authority to stop Zubaydah’s torture. But a more recent article by New York Times reporter Adam Goldman says that Haspel took charge of the prison in late October 2002, after Zubaydah’s worst treatment had ended. According to Goldman’s source, she did oversee Nashiri’s waterboarding in mid-November. ProPublica has retracted its story.

There appears not to be any dispute about Haspel’s role in destroying video evidence from the Thai black site. 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 and Nashiri’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.

Former Acting and Deputy CIA Director Michael Morrell has since confirmed Haspel’s involvement in the tape destruction.

It is not known what, if any, role Haspel played in the torture program during Zubaydah’s interrogation, or between when the Thai black site was shut down and the tapes were destroyed.

The full, classified Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) study on the CIA black site program almost certainly contains many more details about Haspel’s involvement (likely under a pseudonym rather than her real name). 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.” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who led SSCI’s investigation into the torture program, has also called for declassification of “the complete picture” of Haspel’s involvement in the rendition and torture program a necessary part of the confirmation hearing, as has Heinrich.

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.

This post has been revised twice based on updates and corrections to the news articles it cited.