Trump CIA Nominee Gina Haspel Dances Around Her Background Supervising Torture

screenshot of video from Gina Haspel - Trump's nominee for CIA Director, during her Senate testimony

by Richard Cameron


 

The United States Senate is conducting hearings this week, interviewing Donald Trump’s candidate, acting CIA director, Gina Haspel, to be confirmed as former director Mike Pompeo’s permanent replacement.  The questioning is focused on Ms. Haspel’s role as having supervised a “black site” (secret detention site) in Thailand, where detainees were subjected to torture, euphemized by the intelligence community at that time as “enhanced interrogation”.

Arizona Senator John McCain, in what appears to be his final battle with terminal cancer, weighed in on the Haspel nomination:

“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense. However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

McCain’s view on this matter is of significance within the Senate, due to his reputation as a prisoner of war and his experiences of torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors.

Reports of the use of torture by the CIA, the U.S. Army and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in black sites first came to the attention of American and international media 12 years ago.

Elements of the program, devised by two unqualified outside consultants Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who had no background in conducting interrogations, included rectal feeding and rehydration, confinement in a box, use of cold water, waterboarding, beatings, psychological intimidation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, and withholding of medical care

This arsenal of methods, was collectively known by agency operatives as “enhanced interrogation”.  Also discovered was that interrogators, in some instances, went so far as to issue threats against the subject’s family members – children, parents, spouses.

One subject of the torture involving a combination of stress position, nudity and icy water, died from hypothermia.  Another subject was subjected to several instances of sleep deprivation ranging from 54 hours to 102 hours in duration – in painful and incapacitating stress positions. 

A CIA interrogation chief, working at a detention site in Poland (Detention Site Blue), where a handful of early detainees were first taken to, recoiled at the introduction of the new techniques. Voicing his objections and desire to resign in protest, he predicted the failure of this unorthodox course of action.  “This is a train wreak [sic] waiting to happen,” he told colleagues. “I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.”

The use of torture and the legal merits and effectiveness, was widely discussed in meetings among top Bush administration officials including National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA Director George Tenet, beginning in May of 2002.  But in fact, the CIA had already been employing the methods at least a month previous.

The Daily Mail U.K., reported that Ms. Rice officially gave the go-ahead, on behalf of the administration for the CIA’s requests to torture Abu Zubaydah in July 2002.  Any claims that George W. Bush was kept in the dark about the program are contradicted by the de-classified Senate report that discloses Bush was informed of the CIA’s plans to open a black site in late March, and signed off on it following a daily briefing session.

map of CIA black sites prepared by Stamen Design for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
map of CIA black sites prepared by Stamen Design for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

A medical officer in attendance during the Zubaydah sessions at Detention Site Green wrote in a journal that:

The sessions accelerated rapidly progressing quickly to the water board after large box, walling, and small box periods. [Abu Zubaydah] seems very resistant to the water board. Longest time with the cloth over his face so far has been 17 seconds. This is sure to increase shortly. NO useful information so far … He did vomit a couple of times during the water board with some beans and rice. It’s been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing. We plan to only feed Ensure for a while now. I’m head[ing] back for another water board session.

Zubaydah’s attorney summarizes the extent of Zubaydah’s experiences:

“in August 2002, he was waterboarded 83 times, suspended from hooks in the ceiling, forced into a coffin for hours at a time in a gathering pool of his own urine and feces, crammed into a tiny box that would’ve been small even for a child, bombarded with screaming noise and cold air, compelled to stay awake for days on end, and “rectally rehydrated.”

It should be noted parenthetically that Abu Zubaydah, was determined to have not actually been a member of Al Qaeda, nor an operative in the 9/11 plot.

The CIA has represented that Gina Haspel, did not arrive at the black site in Thailand until October of 2002, therefore clearing her from questions of direct supervision of the tactics used against Zubaydah.  But questions remain and no firm documentation has been introduced to substantiate the precise timing of Haspel’s direction of the site.  Most reports have arrived at the tentative conclusion that unless evidence to the contrary surfaces, Haspel was not physically on site during Zubaydah’s interrogation.

Bill Harlow, a former senior aide to CIA Director George Tenet,  told the Daily Beast that, “I’m not specifically aware of the exact timing of her various assignments and couldn’t talk about it if I were. As far as I know the agency hasn’t declassified it.”

That does not solve the general question of the nature of her direct supervision of the site following her arrival in October. On that front, a portion of a book written by a longtime senior CIA lawyer, John Rizzo, outlined Ms. Haspel’s oversight of torture at the detention site, code named “Cat’s Eye” and alternately “Green”. 

In Rizzo’s book, titled “Company Man” published in 2014, Rizzo stated that, “Jose (Rodriguez) installed as his chief of staff an officer from the Counterterrorist Center who had previously run the interrogation program.”

In a bizarre sequence of events, the author, when asked to confirm the accuracy of his account of Haspel in the book, doubled down on it, telling Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman that, “All I can say is that I stand by everything I wrote in my book about the tapes episode, and no one from the Agency has asked me to correct anything I wrote.” 

Later, Rizzo – for reasons known only to him, repudiated the substance of his statements in the book, saying, “Upon further reflection, I want to make clear that I never intended to suggest in my book that Gina Haspell [sic] was in charge of CIA’s interrogation program. She was not. “  Upon “further reflection”?  That strains credulity.  Not once in the previous four years did Rizzo ever offer a retraction of his assertion in the book.

Among the statements Haspel has made in the confirmation hearings, this is the one that brings her credibility most into question.  “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’s surprising that Haspel would make such a claim when it is so easily fact checked and proven false. No one but Ms. Haspel is making that assertion.  Haspel was up to her eyeballs in presiding over torture. She even cooperated with a demand from her direct supervisor Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., to order incriminating video footage of torture sessions destroyed – 92 videotapes in all.

simulation of enhanced interrogation recreated by Columbia pictures studios
simulation of enhanced interrogation recreated by Columbia pictures studios

Six Senators, –  Ron Wyden of Oregon, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Angus King, of Maine – joined later by Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, submitted a formal request to the Justice Department to provide all members of the Senate, a copy of a report authored in 2008, known as the “Durham Report”, named after its author, then U.S. Attorney for Connecticut John H. Durham.

Durham prepared the report for the Justice department, reviewing various legal aspects of the interrogation program, including under Haspel.  In the request letter, the Senators stated:

“We believe this report is highly relevant to the nomination of Gina Haspel to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Justice Department provided this report to Senate leadership and the Senate Intelligence Committee, restricting its review to Committee members and limited staff. Yet we believe that no senator can consider Ms. Haspel’s nomination in good conscience without first reviewing this document.”

Another thing that no one believes, apart from Donald Trump, former Vice President Cheney and Trump’s hard core followers, is that torture was successful in obtaining actionable intelligence from detainees. Even Trump’s Secretary of Defense, James Mattis opposes it and Haspel herself admits its uselessness.

George W. Bush still defended it as late as 2006, claiming that:

“Zubaydah was questioned using these procedures [the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques], and soon he began to provide information on key al-Qa’ida operatives, including information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the 11th. For example, Zubaydah identified one of KSM’s accomplices in the 9/11 attacks, a terrorist named Ramzi bin al-Shibh. The information Zubaydah provided helped lead to the capture of bin al-Shibh. And together these two terrorists provided information that helped in the planning and execution of the operation that captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.”

The problem is that Bush’s statement has repeatedly been fact checked by investigations produced by Congress and the Defense Department and been found to be false.  Bush’s statement was invalidated by even the FBI and it has been revealed that the actual reason KSM was apprehended was due to an informant, known in agency documents as “Asset X” – who had been previously disregarded by his handlers.

The CIA officer who “handled” Asset X and who was personally involved in the apprehension of KSM stated, “the operation was a HUMINT [human intelligence] op pretty much from start to finish.”  FBI Special Agent, Ali Soufan, knows first hand, that torture was not involved in obtaining the actionable intelligence gathered:

“In 2002, I interrogated an al-Qaeda associate named Abu Zubaydah. Using tried-and-true non-violent interrogation methods, we extracted a great deal of valuable intelligence from Zubaydah—including the identities of the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the would-be “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, both of whom would be arrested shortly after.”

The Senate’s findings in the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program summarize that the CIA’s brutal and inhumane interrogations of terrorism suspects from 2002 to 2008 led to false confessions and fabricated information, produced no useful intelligence about imminent terrorist attacks and were so badly run that the CIA lost track of captives. The CIA inspector general has also said that torture was a failed experiment.

During the Senate hearings this week, Sen. Ron Wyden questioned Gina Haspel whether she advocated that the CIA’s torture program “be continued or expanded” between 2005 and 2007.  Haspel didn’t answer directly, only saying that she and her colleagues “believed in our work” and that she didn’t want to be put “on the sidelines.”  Haspel felt the real “tragedy” was “that the controversy surrounding the interrogation program” had “cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country.”  Notice it’s not the disreputable nature of torture, just the “controversy” that is regrettable. 

It is doubtful that there is not another equally qualified candidate within the Central Intelligence Agency that does not carry the murky and morally suspect baggage that Ms. Haspel schleps around to these meetings.  Senator Harris of California [asked], “Is torture moral, yes or no?”  Haspel declined to provide a straight answer. 

If the Trump administration continues to stonewall on the information that Congress is requesting – which is part of its legitimate oversight role, this nominee should not be promoted to the head position at the CIA. Senator McCain said as much, “I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.”

He’s right.

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