Why Should Gina Haspel Take the Fall for All the Bad Guys?

The candidate to lead the CIA oversaw torture of terrorist suspects, but the sadistic machinations were cooked up by zealots in Washington who never had to do the dirty work.


Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Bashing Gina Haspel, nominated to be CIA director, for her role torturing captives may be deserved, but she should not be carrying that curse alone. What’s worse, because she’s a woman being fingered for something that was dreamed up by a gang of bad guys in Washington this could easily acquire the unpleasant odor of a sexist lynching.

A lot of people (on the left as well as the right) have spent years trying to salve their consciences for failing to see at the time where the Bush administration’s knee-jerk response to the 9/11 attacks was going to take us—first by responding to terrorism with terrorism and then by launching the Iraq War.

Collective moral amnesia might have served to cover up the crimes for a while but that time has long passed. And with a current president who has endorsed waterboarding and said he’s in favor of “much, much worse” it’s important to take a clear-eyed look at how this mess was devised and whether much has really been learned from it.

After 9/11 the country was gripped by what could be called retribution fever.

The real effects of that fever on policy emerged on Feb. 7, 2002, when President George W. Bush signed a two-page memorandum with the hideously perverted title of “Humane Treatment of Taliban and al Qaeda Detainees.” The thrust of this memo was that the U.S. should no longer abide by the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.

The White House counsel, Alberto Gonzalez, had advised Bush that the war on terror could not be fought according to the old rules: “This new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges.” (Telling choice of language when fundamental human rights become “quaint.”)

Secretary of State General Colin Powell pushed back against the policy, warning that it would jeopardize American troops and not yield any value in intelligence. But he was ignored. Moreover, in an atmosphere of mindless bloodlust there was a hard core of zealots who demanded a far more explicit legal basis for torture.

The hardest of these hard core advocates was David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and legal adviser. Another lawyer in the Bush administration at the time said Addington was “an unopposable force.” Cheney and Addington were in lockstep in believing that the war on terror justified and required extreme measures including torture (“enhanced interrogation”) and unauthorized surveillance. Later they cooked up fake intelligence on nonexistent weapons of mass destruction to justify the Iraq War—with the help of Trump’s incoming adviser on national security, John Bolton.

Addington was an elusive and secretive figure—he kept the door of his office locked at all times because, he said, it contained so many secret files. Few photographs of him existed and he never gave interviews. And he was the hidden driving force behind what became known as the Torture Manifesto.

This was a series of secret memos issued on Aug. 1, 2002, signed by a trio of lawyers, John Yoo, deputy assistant attorney general, and Jay S. Bybee and Steven Bradbury, both of the White House Office of Legal Counsel. (Addington did not sign them, nor did Gonzalez, who was also deeply involved.)

The memos authorized and described with pitiless precision the methods of torture, ranging from waterboarding to physical humiliation, that could be used on prisoners and detainees. When they were released under the orders of President Obama in 2009 The New York Times editorialized:

“Their language is the precise bureaucratese favored by dungeon masters throughout history. They detail how to fashion a collar for slamming prisoners against a wall, exactly how many days he can be kept without sleep (11) and what, specifically, he should be told before being locked in a box with an insect.”

The appalling consequences of this regime were for the first time revealed in April 2004, when The New Yorker reported the grotesque physical abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq. This was, however, just one site of many where outrages had been committed.

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Two years earlier Gina Haspel had overseen torture at a secret prison in Thailand, known as Detention Site Green, where a Saudi-born Palestinian, Abu Zubaydah, accused of being a senior al Qaeda operative, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, suspected of bombing the USS Cole, were interrogated. (According to The New York Times, Haspel took over after Zubaydah was interrogated but was there when al-Nashiri was tortured.) Zubaydah, it later turned out, had not been a senior al Qaeda player and the torture program failed to produce any significant intelligence. 

The Financial Times has reported that “a person familiar with the program” said: “We were kidnapping people, putting them into footlockers with snakes, we were using contractors. It was a mess—at the time there was nobody complaining or, if there was, they said it in a whisper.”

In 2005 Jose Rodriguez, the CIA’s counterterrorism chief, ordered Haspel to proceed with the destruction of 92 videotapes recording the interrogations at Detention Site Green. According to an account by Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, in The Atlantic, in doing so Rodriguez defied both the CIA’s general counsel and a federal court order but nonetheless Haspel followed his orders.

Crucial details about Haspel’s actions are still unknown. For example, what were the agency’s protocols that governed the destruction of evidence? Where was she by then in the hierarchy of command? How much autonomy was given to those in charge of black sites? And, critically, how far was the Torture Manifesto, after it became authorized doctrine in 2002, knowingly used and obeyed by those who did the torturing?

Of course, the phrase “I was just carrying out orders” has a chilling association with the monstrous war crimes of World War II. And, as it happened, it was in the wake of that war that a taste for “enhanced interrogation” techniques first entered the CIA’s bloodstream.

During the war American intelligence had been run by the Office of Strategic Services, OSS, but this was disbanded in 1945, and not replaced until the CIA was created in 1947.

The interregnum remains a murky period in European history. The three Western powers, Britain, France, and the U.S., occupied zones of West Germany while the Soviets controlled East Germany. In the West military intelligence services were hunting down agents of the German Communist Party who were often directed by Soviet agents.

In the American zone this work was directed by the army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps, the CIC, and the CIC was not too fussy about the people it recruited to work for it if they displayed the required experience and skills—for example, former Nazi officials for whom the communists were an old and hated adversary.

The most egregious of these recruits was Klaus Barbie, who had served as the head of the Gestapo in the French city of Lyons during the war, where he was known as “The Butcher of Lyons.” Barbie was wanted by the French as a war criminal. Among his crimes was the execution of at least 5,000 members of the underground French resistance, including one of their leaders, Jean Moulin, and the murder of 44 Jewish orphans who were sent to Auschwitz.

Barbie had developed particularly sadistic and obscene interrogation methods, including skinning prisoners alive, extreme even by the standards of the Gestapo. Now he lived in official U.S. government housing in the city of Augsburg and worked for the CIC, helping to penetrate a network of communist agents and interrogate those who were arrested. After 1947 the CIC unit in Augsburg served as a front for the CIA and this is where some of Barbie’s less extreme Gestapo interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, seem to have been incorporated into standard procedure.

This kind of treatment was able to happen because the occupation zones were predominantly policed by the military and the military enjoyed wide scope in the methods they used as the Cold War intensified. (This dark and morally ambiguous world was brilliantly captured in the movie classic The Third Man.)

The French intelligence services eventually discovered that Barbie was working for the Americans. At first the CIA denied this. But with further insistence by France that he be arrested and delivered to them he was spirited, under an alias, to Bolivia where he worked, along with other ex-Nazis, for the authoritarian regime and is widely believed to helped in the capture of Che Guevara by the Bolivian army in 1967.

In 1983 a new Bolivian government finally extradited Barbie to France and in 1987 he stood trial and was sentenced to life for crimes against humanity. He died in prison four years later.

For years the CIA claimed that it had “absolutely no contact or involvement with Barbie” but in 2000 part of the record revealing his work for the CIC was released and a fuller disclosure was made in 2007.

This is not a line of work in which women normally get a lot of attention. Haspel worked for a long time under cover, which means that much of what she did remains as inscrutable as she herself seems to be.

As a result, it’s impossible to tell if she learned anything from the results of the operations in Thailand. Far from producing actionable intelligence, the torturing of suspects produced very little of value. It undermined and endangered undercover intelligence gathering both in the Middle East and in Muslim communities in Europe, and this was devastatingly revealed by what happened in Britain, in a case that showed that at least one woman intelligence chief would not be cowed by the macho proponents of extreme interrogations.

From the beginning of the CIA’s post-9/11 anti-terrorist operations they had a close partner in Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6. The British sanctioned and participated in the euphemistically named “renditions” in which suspects were captured and flown in “white tail” jets to black sites like Detention Site Green for interrogation.

None of this troubled the morally malleable British prime minister, Tony Blair. But it deeply riled the head of his country’s domestic counterintelligence service, MI5—who happened to be a woman (the second woman to run it) Eliza Manningham-Buller.

In 2004 MI6 and the CIA collaborated in seizing Abdul Hakim Belhaj, an exiled opponent of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. (At the time Blair’s policy was to cultivate Gaddafi as an opponent of Islamic terrorism.) Belhaj was picked up in Bangkok and flown to Libya where some of his interrogators were from MI6—later, when Belhaj was released after the fall of Gaddafi, he said he had been regularly tortured and denied a bath for three years.

This episode gained renewed attention on Friday, when Sen. John McCain sent a letter to Haspel with 12 questions about her role in interrogations. McCain cited evidence that Belhaj’s wife, Fatima Bouchar, “was bound, gagged, and photographed naked as several American intelligence officers watched.” He asked: “Do you believe actions like these were justified, and do you believe they produced actionable intelligence?”

Bouchar was pregnant at the time, McCain said.

Manningham-Buller was a formidable no-nonsense spymaster. (Her father, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, was attorney general in a Tory government and earned the nickname Sir Reginald Bullying Manner.) When she discovered that MI6 had colluded with the CIA in kidnapping and torturing Belhaj she went ballistic.

MI5 was on a war footing in Britain. Its priority was building a clandestine network of counterterrorism agents among Britain’s Muslim population to detect and prevent domestic attacks. This would be brought home with painful clarity in 2005 when terrorist bombings in London killed 56 people and injured hundreds more.

Manningham-Buller wrote to Blair strongly complaining that MI6 and the CIA were jeopardizing MI5’s intelligence gathering and even that they could have compromised informants if it was known that Britain collaborated in torturing suspects. She removed and permanently banned a detachment of MI6 officers who worked at the offices of MI5.

Would Haspel, in a similar situation, show the same kind of iron in dealing with a president? Particularly if that president is pre-disposed to using torture?

Former CIA Director John Brennan was at pains to take a balanced view when he predicted that her appointment would be confirmed by the Senate: “She has tremendous respect within the ranks,” he said, but added that “she was involved in a very, very controversial program.”

Leon Panetta, another former director, told NPR: “I would hope that the Senate will look at her entire CIA career. Obviously there are questions about her at that point in time… she’s a pretty dedicated CIA officer who in my experience always did her job and did it well. But it is important for the Senate to ask those questions, because I think the United States needs to know that they do have a CIA director who understands what torture’s all about, but also understands what the responsibility of providing solid intelligence is all about.” 

The director of the CIA’s office of public affairs has said that “the American people will get the chance to know Ms Haspel for the first time in the coming weeks.”

But is it actually possible ever to adequately know and understand someone who rose so high by doing work that even now cannot be fully disclosed and some of which will always be disreputable? Gina Haspel’s problem is that, like many before her, she is tainted because she played the role of the loyal accomplice in a bad regime. After all, she could have simply said “No” to doing the dirty work. But let’s at least remember that the architects of that regime, directed by the chicken hawk Cheney, were all guys who paid no price.