It seemed like a small misstatement, the sort anyone makes from time to time, but it might augur much for Gina Haspel’s relationship with the truth as Donald Trump’s potential next CIA director.
All the available evidence, to include declassified CIA documents, indicates that two detainees had their torture at the hands of the CIA recorded on 92 agency videotapes in 2002 at a black site Haspel eventually ran. The vast majority of the tapes showed Abu Zubaydah’s torture. A few showed the torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, whose waterboarding and other torture occurred under Haspel’s command as chief of base at the Thailand secret prison she ran between October and December 2002.
Three years later, Haspel, aiding her boss Jose Rodriguez, drafted a cable instructing subordinates to destroy the tapes, despite resistance elsewhere within CIA leadership and George W. Bush’s administration.
But Haspel, during her confirmation hearing last week, revised that history. She said only a single detainee’s torture was videotaped, when in fact there were two detainees treated in such a fashion. Though at least one senator has asked Haspel to correct the record, she hasn’t yet done so. The CIA subsequently implied that Haspel may be right, despite years of public evidence, including its own documents, to the contrary.
It started during an exchange with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who spearheaded the Senate intelligence committee’s landmark investigation of the CIA torture program. Feinstein herself initially misstated a basic fact about the tapes, saying incorrectly that 92 detainees were shown tortured on the tapes, rather than 92 tapes existed showing the torture of two detainees.
Haspel corrected Feinstein—but in the process revised the historical record substantially. “The tapes were recordings of only one detainee,” Haspel said.
An internal document about the torture tapes, declassified by the CIA at the ACLU’s behest, says otherwise. The document is undated, but describes an “inventory of all videotapes and other related materials” from the Thailand black site conducted on Dec. 3, 2002. Those materials were “created” at the site “during the interrogations of al Qaeda detainees Zayn al-’Abideen Muhammad [abu Zubaydah] ... and ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.”
The heavily redacted document provides blacked-out index descriptions for each of the 92 videotapes. Some declassified text refers to “Abu Z.,” “AZ” and “Detainee #1” next to some of the first 90 tapes. Descriptions of the final two tapes, numbers 91 and 92, contain a listed reference to a “Detainee #2.”
There were only two detainees at the Thailand black site in 2002: Abu Zubaydah and Nashiri. Haspel’s revision of what the tapes contain suggested a historical erasure of a torture session she herself is implicated in overseeing.
“From all accounts, Gina Haspel was a very strong proponent of the evidence destruction, but this discrepancy illustrates that there are still major gaps in the public’s knowledge of her role,” said Hina Shamsi, a senior ACLU attorney who has also cited substantial secondary-source descriptions of Nashiri’s videotaped interrogations. “And one of those major gaps relates to tapes of the torture of Mr. al-Nashiri, which she oversaw.”
In addition to the document, CIA officials involved in the tapes-destruction episode have separately written about the videos displaying two detainees.
Rodriguez, the former Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and National Clandestine Service chief, is perhaps the CIA’s premier defender of torture. He was Haspel’s boss when she began her work at CTC in 2001, when he was its chief operating officer, and then took her for his chief of staff at the clandestine service in 2004, where the two of them advocated to destroy the tapes.
Rodriguez writes in his 2012 memoir, Hard Measures, that by October 2002, the black site had already made “more than 90” videotapes—so many that CIA headquarters instructed recording each day’s recording over the previous day’s. “By this time, a second high-value al Qaeda detainee, al-Nashiri, had joined AZ at the black site,” Rodriguez continued, “and his interrogation was also videotaped.” (It’s worth noting that Rodriguez’s timeline is a little off. Nashiri didn’t arrive at the Thailand black site until Nov. 15, 2002.)
The top lawyer at the CIA for much of the torture program, John Rizzo, who had reservations about destroying the tapes, also wrote that the CIA taped two detainees. Unlike every other source, however, Rizzo claims there were 96 tapes, not 92.
“Ninety-six of the videotapes were recordings of the Zubaydah sessions. (There were also recordings of the interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a key perpetrator of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. He was captured in October 2002 and taped only briefly before the CTC halted all videotaping.),” Rizzo wrote in his 2014 memoir, Company Man.
Neither Rodriguez nor Rizzo responded to messages inquiring if they stood by their accounts of the CIA videotaping two detainees now that Haspel has said otherwise. Rizzo has previously abandoned his claim that Haspel had “previously run the interrogation program” after The Daily Beast reported on it—a story for which Rizzo provided a quote standing by a claim damaging to Haspel’s chances of confirmation. (Both Rizzo and Rodriguez’s book cleared the CIA’s Publication Review Board, which scrubs ex-employees’ books or articles for classified information, with their references to Nashiri’s videotaped interrogation intact.)
In fact, Haspel’s insistence that only one detainee was videotaped came after an exchange with Feinstein over Rizzo’s claim, and she took a subliminal shot at The Daily Beast over it. When Feinstein brought up Rizzo’s description of her role in torture, Haspel referenced a Washington Post story by Erik Wemple that mentioned the Rizzo book and The Daily Beast’s reporting on it.
“Mr. Rizzo—and actually I read about it in The Washington Post last night. Erik Wemple, I believe, wrote a story talking about the failure of certain organizations to correct their facts, and that was one of them,” Haspel said.
Wemple himself replied that Haspel had misrepresented his story in the course of implying that The Daily Beast was the one misrepresenting the factual record. “The Erik Wemple blog post cited by Haspel wasn’t focused on reportorial ‘failure,’ given the informational constraints at hand,” he wrote.
As it happens, Haspel has told the Senate that she would correct public misstatements. Responding to a question for the record from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Haspel wrote on May 5 that “if I were aware that I or another CIA officer had said something that I learned was factually inaccurate, I would attempt to correct the public record to the extent possible consistent with my legal duty to protect classified information and intelligence sources and methods.”
Asked if Haspel would correct her misstatement, the CIA suggested she never made one. “Of course she’ll correct the record if necessary,” said spokesman Ryan Trapani, who went on to “flag” a section of a 2004 inspector general’s report that, in an unredacted section followed by a redacted one, referred only to Abu Zubaydah’s videotaped interrogation. Asked twice for clarification on whether Haspel is affirmatively saying she was right and these documents incorrectly state that the CIA videotaped the two detainees’ torture, Trapani said he currently has nothing to add.
Feinstein, The Daily Beast has learned, has asked Haspel to clarify for the record whether the CIA videotaped the interrogations of one or two detainees. The Senate intelligence committee on which she serves is expected to receive Haspel’s additional answers this week, though it is unclear if those answers will come before her scheduled Wednesday vote in the committee. Her highly controversial nomination is gaining in strength, having secured the support of Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Susan Collins of Maine.
Haspel’s misstatement also stands in contrast to her supporters’ portrayal of her as a bastion of truth who will stand as a bulwark against a president interested less in what is true and more in what is useful.
“I have great confidence that Gina Haspel has the requisite background and the professional credentials to be able to speak truth to power, irrespective of the policy druthers of the person in the Oval Office,” Barack Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, told The Washington Post. That “truth to power” line appears to be something of a talking point for Haspel’s boosters. Another Obama CIA director, Leon Panetta, gave it to USA Today. The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Republican Richard Burr, said at the hearing Haspel has “the courage to speak the truth to power”—something Haspel herself said was “one of CIA’s most important missions.”
At her hearing, Haspel obscured all discussion of her own role in torture, and said the president who handpicked her to serve as CIA director, one who earned Brennan’s ire by comparing intelligence officials to Nazis, has shown the CIA “enormous respect.”
UPDATE, 2:45 p.m., May 15: In her final round of written responses to senators’ questions before her confirmation vote in the Senate intelligence committee Wednesday, Haspel has conceded that there was a second detainee whose torture was depicted on the videotapes. But her answer stopped short of admitting that she was wrong to say there was only one detainee taped.
“My understanding, which is consistent with the record (available to the Committee in a classified forum), is that there were 92 videotapes, two of which were labeled “Detainee #2,” Haspel said in response to a question from Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM).
“The OGC [Office of General Counsel] attorney who reviewed those tapes in 2002 found that “there are no viewable videotapes of the interrogation of the second detainee. Therefore, when the tapes were destroyed in 2005, there was only one detainee depicted.”
Feinstein’s colloquy with Haspel about the tapes last week meandered substantially, but at no time was Haspel asked how many detainees were depicted on the tapes as of 2005.