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Declassify CIA Director Nominee’s Role in Torture, Rights Groups Demand

As confusion swirls over what exactly Gina Haspel’s role in brutal interrogations was, a civil libertarian letter to the Senate calls for sunlight into the black sites.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

As the CIA begins to defend its possible next director, civil liberties groups are urging the Senate to halt Gina Haspel’s nomination “until all the records on her past involvement in the CIA torture program are declassified and released to the public,” according to a Friday letter sent to Capitol Hill and provided to The Daily Beast.

The letter, part of an emerging strategy to fight Haspel that The Daily Beast reported Wednesday, highlights the lack of clarity—mostly the result of aggressive CIA classification—over aspects of Haspel’s time overseeing torture at a “black site” secret prison in Thailand in 2002. The version seen by The Daily Beast, a draft, was signed by 29 civil-liberties groups, including the ACLU, Reprieve, Physicians for Human Rights and the Sunlight Foundation, though more may sign on.

Ahead of what is likely to be a bruising confirmation hearing, the letter places pressure on the CIA to open the books on Haspel, currently the agency’s deputy director. But the intelligence agency has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent disclosure of what its now-shuttered torture program actually included—and particularly over the names of operatives involved in it—even to the point of previously spying on Senate investigators’ work product stored on a shared CIA-established network.

“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,” the letter states.

“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 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.”

Confusion over Haspel’s specific role was underscored when ProPublica, late on Thursday, retracted a 2017 report about Haspel being chief of base at the black site and in an oversight role of it as it tortured its first post-9/11 detainee, Abu Zubaydah. The CIA emailed the ProPublica retraction to reporters and retweeted ProPublica’s announcement of the retraction on Twitter.

All senators should demand that those records be declassified and made public – before her nomination moves any further – so 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.
Letter to Senators

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.

“[T]he full extent of her involvement is impossible to determine,” writes the civil liberties coalition, “because the CIA continues to insist that information about the full extent of her role remain classified.”

What remains thus far undisputed is Haspel’s role overseeing the torture of the next inhabitant of the Thailand black site, Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, who was subsequently moved (along with Abu Zubaydah) to another site that the Senate torture report calls Detention Site Blue. The Senate report found Interrogators also waterboarded Nashiri, threatened him with a pistol and an electric drill, and told his mother would be “brought before him and sexually abused.”  

Similarly undisputed is Haspel’s 2005 involvement in destroying 92 videotapes from the site depicting Abu Zubaydah and Nashiri’s torture, which the civil-libertarian letter suggests was itself a crime, despite the Justice Department concluding in November 2010 that it would not bring charges.

Destroying the tapes “appears to constitute a concerted effort to escape embarrassment and legal consequences,” the letter states. “In 2004, in a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by the ACLU, a judge had ordered the government to preserve all records related to abuse of detainees overseas, which clearly applied to the videotapes. The incident was also 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 Nashiri interrogation that Haspel oversaw alarmed CIA headquarters officials, according to the 2014 Senate torture report. CIA’s chief of interrogations cabled in early 2003, essentially going on-record within the agency, that torturing Nashiri, the suspected U.S.S. Cole bomber, was pointless.

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“It is the assessment of the prior interrogators that [al-Nashiri] has been mainly truthful and is not withholding significant information. To continue to use enhanced technique[s] without clear indications that he [is] withholding important info is excessive and may cause him to cease cooperation on any level. [Al-Nashiri] may come to the conclusion that whether he cooperates or not, he will continually be subjected to enhanced techniques, therefore, what is the incentive for continued cooperation,” the unnamed interrogations chief wrote, according to the Senate torture report.

“Ms. Haspel was a central figure in the torture program and the destruction of evidence of torture,” the civil-libertarian letter reads. “Based on available records and public reporting, it is clear by her wrongdoing that she demonstrated disregard for the rule of law and fundamental human rights.”