Donald Trump’s choice for his next CIA director was involved in its infamous torture program, a history that is already beginning to complicate her confirmation before the only panel to thoroughly investigate torture: the Senate intelligence committee.
The intended elevation of Gina Haspel, who would become the first woman to lead the CIA, comes as part of a broader reshuffling of Trump’s foreign-policy team that one diplomat told The Daily Beast was likely to enable Trump’s “worst foreign-policy instincts.”
Haspel, whom under Pompeo became the agency’s deputy director, briefly ran the off-the-books prison in Thailand used as a torture laboratory for the earliest detained terrorism suspects. There, in 2002—including while Haspel oversaw the so-called black site—the man known as Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times; stuffed into a wooden box barely bigger than a coffin; had his body shackled in painful contorted positions; and had his head slammed into walls.
“If Ms. Haspel seeks to serve at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence, the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from the past,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a member of the intelligence committee who opposes her nomination, told The Daily Beast in a statement Tuesday.
“Ms. Haspel’s background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director. Her nomination must include total transparency about this background,” Wyden added.
Subsequently declassified CIA medical files assessed that Abu Zubaydah was likely willing to cooperate with his interrogators before his waterboarding, as he had with his FBI interrogators, who did not torture him.
Years later, Haspel drafted an instruction to CIA officers in the field to destroy videotapes of torturous interrogations at the site. Though the Justice Department later declined to bring charges, the destruction of the tapes was widely considered in human-rights circles to be a key moment in covering up the torture—and it prompted the Senate intelligence committee’s landmark 2014 investigation, which occurred amid the backdrop of the agency spying on the work product of the Senate investigators.
A former deputy CIA director and harsh critic of the inquiry, Michael Morell, later wrote that she did so “at the request of her direct supervisor and believing that it was lawful to do so. I personally led an accountability exercise that cleared Haspel of any wrongdoing in the case.”
Wyden and his Senate intelligence committee colleague, Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, wrote to Trump last year, during Haspel’s elevation to deputy director, to say her “background” in the torture program “makes her unsuitable for the position.”
They requested that information on Haspel’s specific role in the torture program, included in a classified letter they sent, be released. It never was.
“We have really serious concerns about her heading the CIA. It was already troubling that she was appointed to be deputy,” said Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch. “Someone with that kind of history should not be made to head an organization with as much power and responsibility, often carried out in secret, like the CIA has.”
It appeared early Tuesday that human-rights groups considered fighting Haspel’s nomination to be a key priority.
"Gina Haspel was a central figure in one of the most illegal and shameful chapters in modern American history. She was up to her eyeballs in torture: both in running a secret torture prison in Thailand, and carrying out an order to cover up torture crimes by destroying videotapes,” said Christopher Andrews, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Washington office.
“An additional concern that the Senate must address is whether Haspel has the independence needed for a CIA director, since she has never left the agency. This question is even more pressing as the House intelligence committee has made clear that it no longer takes its oversight responsibility seriously.”
Haspel’s involvement in the black site became an issue in a court case brought by CIA torture survivors (and the family of a man who froze to death in CIA custody). The defendants in that case were Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, the contractor psychologists who designed the torture program, who sought to compel Haspel’s deposition as part of their argument that the CIA, and not them, was the primary architect of Langley’s post-9/11 torture regime.
But Haspel, referred to in initial court filings as “Gina Doe,” was never deposed. The Justice Department fought Mitchell and Jessen on her court appearance. The two contractors settled the case in August.
Like every sub-leadership CIA official in the Senate intelligence committee’s torture report, references to Haspel are pseudonymous and, even then, heavily redacted. But the committee chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina, has been an opponent of the torture report, seeking to recover it during the Obama administration to prevent its ultimate release. Accordingly, and with the current GOP majority on the committee, Haspel’s confirmation as CIA director is more likely than not.
Haspel’s elevation is a blow to a different member of the intelligence committee: Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and Trump ally, whom a round of leaks last year suggested was Trump’s choice to run CIA after Pompeo switched to State.
Pompeo has long been a Trump favorite to take over for Tillerson: Pompeo has been the Iran hawk as close to Trump as Tillerson was distant—a relative Iran dove and, unlikely for a recipient of a medal of friendship from Vladimir Putin, willing to call out Russia for election interference that Trump denies ever happened.
Wyden said he opposed Pompeo’s appointment to the State Department as well.
“Before and after his confirmation as CIA director, Mike Pompeo has demonstrated a casual relationship to truth and principle. He has downplayed Russia’s attack on our democracy, at times contradicting the intelligence community he is supposed to represent. He has also made inconsistent and deeply concerning statements about torture and mass spying on Americans,” Wyden said.