Gina Haspel, current Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and nominee to lead the agency, is facing a wave of resistance from civil liberties advocates, Senators, and physicians who say her connection to past torture programs make her unfit to head the CIA. Haspel was involved in CIA “black site” prisons in Thailand and other foreign nations, and is known to have supported the use of torture. Further, Haspel is accused of destroying taped evidence of waterboarding and other forms of torture.
On Thursday, The Hill reported that the Trump Administration drafted a 27-page memo full of “talking points” meant to bolster the standing of Gina Haspel during her nomination hearing with the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 9. According to The Hill, the five main talking points highlight Haspel’s “experience and ‘common-sense’ leadership and note that she would be the first woman to lead the intelligence agency.” If her supporters are pressed about certain issues, including Haspel’s role in past torture incidents, they are encouraged to emphasize that “she is an ‘intelligence and national security expert’ who follows the law as written, and has demonstrated strong and clear leadership in very challenging positions.”
In a Reality Check last month, Ben Swann examined why Haspel’s nomination has come under scrutiny, detailing her past at the CIA including her supervision of “Cat’s Eye,” a CIA “black site” prison in Thailand.
The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the administration and the CIA for supporting Haspel’s history of involvement in torture programs. “While the CIA has said that it is “committed to transparency,” it has so far only granted senators — and not the public — access to some classified information about Haspel,” the ACLU wrote.
“Last week, the CIA disclosed a 2011 memo — written by a former CIA official with a record of excusing torture — which supposedly cleared Haspel of responsibility for the destruction of evidence documenting the brutal torture of a man in CIA custody in 2002. But the CIA shouldn’t get to cherry-pick which documents it will declassify — while hiding the most important torture records.”
Haspel’s nomination has also been opposed by a coalition of physicians and health professionals who say she is unfit to be in a position of authority. On May 3, The Physicians for Humans Rights wrote a public letter noting that Haspel supervised the first “black site” in Thailand, “where agency personnel tortured detainees using waterboarding and other long-outlawed techniques.”
The letter states:
“As health experts who understand the profound mental, physical, and societal effects of torture, we oppose the selection of a nominee who helped conceal the use of torture and held a leadership position at a “black site” where it occurred. She was in a position to know about and influence aspects of a program that purposefully inflicted severe suffering and harm on individuals, to whom the United States has yet to provide rehabilitation or redress as required under the UN Convention Against Torture, a treaty ratified by the United States. Moreover, the program enlisted health professionals to inflict this harm, a grave breach of medical ethics. In Thailand, Haspel worked with contract psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who developed the experimental torture methods used on Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and many others.”
The ACLU notes that “one former CIA official told The Daily Beast that Haspel ‘ran the interrogation program.'” The Daily Beast has previously confirmed that Haspel “was in a position of responsibility” during the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi Citizen who has been held in Guantanamo Bay due to accusations of terrorism. The Senate report on CIA torture examined the treatment of Zubaydah and found that the CIA’s own emails described his torture:
“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 addition, Joseph Margulies, attorney for Zubaydah, recently filed a motion in court requesting a federal judge order the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to conduct a search for reportedly destroyed tapes which document the torture of Zubaydah and others. Courthouse News noted that “the motion also included a sworn declaration from Gail Helt, who said she believes some of the tapes still exist”. Helt told Courthouse News she believes Haspel’s “confirmation would send the message to subordinates that there are no consequences for anything, raising the likelihood that this happens again. I hope senators keep that in mind as they cast their votes.”
The destruction of these torture tapes is a significant part of why the public is largely still in the dark about torture. Haspel and her supporters have said she was simply following orders when she ordered her subordinates to destroy documentation of torture. The destruction of these torture tapes was reportedly ordered by Jose Rodriguez, former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. In 2005 he ordered the destruction of more than 90 videotapes that showed detainees undergoing waterboarding and other torture methods. When he was finally questioned under oath regarding why he ordered the videos destroyed, Rodriguez acknowledged that “it would make the CIA look bad, and almost, in my view, destroy the clandestine service because of it.”
In August 2017, a confidential agreement was reached between two psychologists tasked with designing and implementing the CIA’s torture program and the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU originally filed suit against James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen in October 2015, accusing them of operating a “joint criminal enterprise” via their creation and promotion of violent torture methods. After the ACLU consistently overcame every legal barrier, the trial was scheduled to begin in June 2017. However, due to the Trump administration’s attempts to stop officials from testifying, U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush set a new date before a settlement was eventually reached. The settlement allowed Mitchell, Jessen, and the CIA to avoid the release of more damaging information related to the controversial torture program.
During the trial, the defense asked the judge to order Haspel “to provide a deposition discussing her allegedly pivotal involvement in an episode the CIA has tried repeatedly to put behind it.” However, the Trump administration and then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo asserted “state secrets” and kept Haspel from being questioned.
The continued secrecy surrounding Haspel’s true role in implementing the CIA’s torture program signals that the federal government seeks to conceal the actions taken by the latest nominee to head the world’s largest spy agency. A Washington Post article published May 6 has reported that Haspel “sought to withdraw her nomination Friday” in light of concern from White House officials that her background in torturing terrorism suspects might prevent her confirmation, according to four senior U.S. officials. “Haspel told the White House she was interested in stepping aside if it avoided the spectacle of a brutal confirmation hearing on Wednesday and potential damage to the CIA’s reputation and her own, the officials said.”