Gina Haspel Stonewalls on Discussing Her Role in CIA Torture

Trump’s CIA pick once ran a secret prison. Now she doesn’t want to talk about it.

Chip Somodevilla

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) implored Gina Haspel to talk “seriously” about her long-hidden role in CIA torture and what she would do if torture enthusiast Donald Trump asked to return the agency to brutality.

“My vote on your confirmation will be greatly influenced by how you address these questions today,” the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee said Wednesday morning. It spoke to the central question confronting Trump’s choice to lead the CIA: Does Haspel’s still-obscure involvement in torture disqualify her?

In what might foreshadow her directorship, Haspel issued a rote pledge not to “restart a detention and interrogation program”—conspicuously saying nothing about rendering people for others to torture. She told senators she didn’t think Trump would ask her to torture anyone (even though he’s said he wanted to bring back interrogation techniques that are “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”). And she assured her questioners that she wouldn’t act immorally even if, once again, she had legal cover.

Then she dodged or obscured any substantive perspective on the morality of the agency’s shuttered torture program and, especially, her role in it.

Haspel did so, over two hours, by washing herself and the CIA she has long served in the rhetorical blood of the 9/11 attacks. And she did so to such effect that she ended the hearing with indignation over a different senator’s question about her reaction should a CIA officer be waterboarded.

It was not the only time Haspel’s ire soared before the committee. It soared in a manner long familiar to those who have heard CIA officials lose patience when asked about their roles in torturing at least 119 men—through bombarding them with noise and cold; keeping them awake by suspending their arms above their head for long periods; “feeding” them through forced anal penetration; and, for three people, simulating the experience of drowning, an act known as waterboarding.

“Let me say this about myself,” Haspel told Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who opposes her nomination, “After 9/11, I didn’t look to go sit on the Swiss desk. I stepped up. I was not on the sidelines. I was on the frontlines in the Cold War, and I was on the frontlines in the fight against al-Qaeda. I am very proud of the fact that we captured the perpetrator of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I think we did extraordinary work. To me, the tragedy is that the controversy surrounding the interrogation program—which, as I’ve already indicated to Senator Warner, I fully understand that—but it has cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country.”

That came after Wyden asked Haspel, in a manner suggesting he knows the answer, whether she had pressed internally to revive or expand the torture program during 2005-2007, a period when it was less operationally intense than at its outset. Haspel, for neither the first nor the last time in the hearing, did not answer the question.

Haspel, from October to early December 2002, ran a CIA black site in Thailand where, while she supervised it, interrogators tortured Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri—“immediately upon his arrival,” according to the CIA inspector general. Former top CIA lawyer John Rizzo, in a 2014 memoir penned before it was at all controversial, wrote that Haspel, as of 2005, had “previously run the interrogation program,” only to retract that statement after The Daily Beast called attention to it (and after he himself had reaffirmed his confidence in it). Haspel, reacting to that, twice told senators: “I did not run the interrogation department. In fact, I was not even read into the interrogation program until it had been up and running for a year.”

It was a curious and precise formulation, not least of which because there has never been known to be any entity inside the CIA called “the interrogation department.”

“The CIA has a serious, pervasive and corrosive accountability problem,” said Dan Jones, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, the lead investigator for the Senate torture report and the resultant subject of CIA spying. “No one is ever sanctioned for wrongdoing, even when the CIA itself acknowledges gross misconduct.”

Haspel’s defiant tone crescendoed as the hearing persisted. In written answers to the committee about her time at the CIA Counterterrorism Center, which operated the torture program, Haspel would not give any public response beyond saying she was a Deputy Group Chief from 2001-2003 and later a Senior-Level Supervisor from 2003-2004—without saying what her responsibilities were (PDF). (It was during that time that she ran the black site.) Asked by Maine independent Angus King if she was ever in a “supervisory” or “management” position over the torture program, Haspel said, “we’ll be able to go over any of my classified assignments in classified session.”

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California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who spearheaded the Senate’s landmark torture investigation, and to whom many Democrats will look to as they consider Haspel’s nomination, asked her about “overseeing the interrogation of al-Nashiri.”

“Senator, anything about my classified assignment history throughout my 33 years, we can talk about in this afternoon’s closed session,” Haspel said, saying she is bound by “classification guidelines” even as she serves as acting CIA director and is herself involved in declassifying the portions of her history. (Wyden said those declassifications were “designed to get you confirmed.”)

Where Haspel was more forthcoming, she also blurred critical distinctions. Discussing the November 2005 episode in which she drafted a memo for her then-boss, Jose Rodriguez, ordering the destruction of 92 torture videotapes from the Thailand black site, Haspel said she had run it by “CIA lawyers” and was aware “there was disagreement on the tapes outside the agency.”

But there was disagreement within the CIA as well. Rizzo, who was a senior CIA lawyer at the time, had expressed years of reservations about the tapes’ destruction, and his and others’ slow-walking was the reason Rodriguez, aided by Haspel, sought to trash the tapes. Rodriguez writes in his own memoir that the lawyers Haspel consulted were the Counterterrorism Center attorneys—those representing the part of CIA that ran the torture program—not Rizzo’s in the Office of General Counsel.

Haspel also gave a less than definitive answer when asked if any “tapes of interrogation” haven’t been destroyed. “Senator, probably, I don’t know. I don’t know if there are any other tapes. I don’t believe there are any other tapes associated with the particular interrogation activity that was on the 92 tapes, but I simply don’t know if there are any other videotapes of any other activity,” she said. Last week, The Daily Beast reported that a CIA analyst was told by a colleague that some of the torture tapes survived.

While Haspel said at the start of the hearing that she wouldn’t permit the CIA to undertake “immoral” activity, and assured that her “moral compass is strong,” she ducked senator after senator who invited her to make a moral judgment about torture.

To West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, Haspel argued the CIA ought not return to interrogation because the agency hasn’t historically done it. To California Democrat Kamala Harris, she repeatedly refused to answer, instead praising the CIA’s “extraordinary work” and saying that now she accepts a “higher moral standard.” That was the same answer she gave Warner, which Warner called “legalistic.” When Martin Heinrich of New Mexico asked where her conscience was during the torture program, she ultimately answered with a reference to her parents raising her the right way.

Republicans, with the exception of Maine’s Susan Collins, were less interested in the question. Chairman Richard Burr, an opponent of the Senate torture report, said at the outset he supports Haspel, who has “acted morally, ethically and legally over a 30-year career.” Florida’s Marco Rubio referred to Haspel being “smeared” by the torture questioning. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, himself floated as a possible Trump CIA director, accused Democrats of hypocrisy in supporting Obama CIA Director John Brennan, whom Haspel quickly affirmed was the CIA’s fourth most senior leader after 9/11 (and whom has similarly refused to address his involvement in torture).

As Haspel gained more full-throated support from Republicans and deflected the Democrats, she felt emboldened enough to take umbrage at the torture questioning itself. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said she “suggested that [torture] was good tradecraft” and asked if it would be moral if one of her officers “was captured and subjected to waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques which you, I believe, supervised.”

“Senator, I don’t believe the terrorists follow any guidelines or civilized norms or the law. CIA follows the law,” Haspel said.

“Excuse me, madam. You seem to be saying that you were not following civilized norms and the law when you were conducting those self same activities, if that’s the analogy you’re going to draw,” Reed said. “A civilized nation was doing it, until it was outlawed by this Congress.” (Torture was illegal before 9/11, though the Justice Department wrote a much-derided and ultimately retracted opinion blessing the CIA’s torture program.)

“Senator, I would never, obviously, support inhumane treatment of any CIA officers,” she said. “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed personally killed a Wall Street Journal correspondent and filmed that. I don’t think there’s any comparison between CIA officers serving their country, adhering to U.S. law, and terrorists who by their very definition are not following anybody’s law.”

Performances like that help explain Haspel’s extremely deep support within the CIA, as demonstrated by several open letters from agency veterans (PDF).

Haspel is as CIA as it gets: a 33-year operations officer, not an analyst, who would be the first such individual to lead the agency since the Church and Pike Commissions reined in the agency in the 1970s. She framed her recent opposition to torture in terms of “risk” to the CIA itself, not in terms of harm to its captives—one of whom died, while another was punched in the abdomen while pregnant.

Her combination of obfuscation, defiance, and explicit invocation of 9/11 to shut down torture questions echoed Brennan’s own response to the Senate torture report—which she referred to as the “SSCI Majority Report,” the language agency veterans and Republicans use when they want to dismiss it as shallow and partisan. And she echoed the CIA’s recent stance that it’s “unknowable” whether the torture the agency once portrayed as necessary actually worked, a position it adopted once agnosticism became more politically useful than endorsement.

Haspel entered the hearing with doubts about whether she wanted the directorship enough to subject herself to a grueling inquest into her background. She reportedly talked about dropping out as recently as late last week until the White House pledged full support.

But Haspel left the hearing with no doubt that she wants to run Langley—and did so while sparing herself any substantive public investigation. For good measure, in a nod to her new relationship with Trump, Haspel dismissed as a “hypothetical” questions about Trump asking the same personal loyalty of her that he asked of ex-FBI Director James Comey; declined to say she would inform Congress if he does; and said Trump, who has compared the CIA to Nazis, has shown the agency “enormous respect.”

Feinstein and Warner, critical Democratic votes in a Senate where Democratic support will determine her directorship, said after the public hearing they were undecided on Haspel. Manchin, whom Haspel physically embraced ahead of the hearing and whom Trump has recently attacked, said she had his vote.

“Confirming her,” said Jones, the lead torture-report investigator, “would send a terrible message to the CIA workforce, our citizens and the world. There has to be some level of accountability—or this, or something like it, will happen again.”

—with additional reporting by Andrew Desiderio