Gina Haspel is set to become the first female director in the 70-year history of the CIA. But smashing that glass ceiling will depend on offering the US Senate a convincing explanation about her dark past.
More than a decade ago Haspel reportedly oversaw an infamous secret CIA prison in Thailand where a terrorism suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded, a process that simulates drowning. She is also said to have drafted orders to destroy video evidence of such torture, which prompted a lengthy justice department investigation that ended without charges.
“It’s wonderful this president or any president wants to nominate a woman as head of the CIA – but not Gina Haspel,” said John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who has spoken out about waterboarding in the past. “There must be 50 women across government who are qualified to fill the position.” He said her alleged involvement in torture was “disqualifying”.
Although Donald Trump has railed against former president George W Bush and his war on terror, his selection of Haspel has evoked the era that squandered America’s moral authority in many eyes: the rise of the security state, the indelible images of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as sleep deprivation and waterboarding, which many condemn as torture.
Trump has a reputation for favouring outsiders, and claims to be “draining the swamp” of Washington, but in Haspel, 61, he has made a highly conventional choice consistent with his predecessors. She joined the CIA in 1985, when Ronald Reagan was president and the cold war still in progress, and has served in a number of undercover overseas posts, including as chief of the CIA’s station in London. The then CIA director, John Brennan, in 2013 named her deputy director of the National Clandestine Service, but she was denied a permanent promotion in the face of congressional opposition.
It is the time she reportedly spent supervising the secret “black site” prison in Thailand code-named “Cat’s Eye” that will concentrate minds at her Senate confirmation hearing, however. Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat who chaired the Senate intelligence committee when it produced a vast 2014 report describing the CIA’s harsh detention and interrogation programmes, on Thursday demanded the release of classified documents on past CIA interrogations.
In a letter to the outgoing CIA director, Mike Pompeo – Trump’s pick for secretary of state – and Haspel, Feinstein wrote: “As we move forward with the nomination process for Ms Haspel, my fellow senators and I must have the complete picture of Ms Haspel’s involvement in the program in order to fully and fairly review her record and qualifications. I also believe the American people deserve to know the actual role the person nominated to be the director of the CIA played in what I consider to be one of the darkest chapters in American history.”
A handful of Democrats have already said they would oppose Haspel, while on Wednesday Senator Rand Paul became the first Republican to announce he would try to block her nomination.
Senator John McCain, who was severely beaten as a prisoner during the Vietnam war, has also said Haspel must explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the interrogation programme, calling the torture of US detainees during the Bush era “one of the darkest chapters in American history”. Trump’s fellow Republicans control only a 51-49 majority in the chamber.
But Haspel received a boost on Thursday night when the ProPublica news website, cited by Paul and many media reports, issued a retraction. In 2017 it had published a report that said Haspel oversaw the clandestine base where the al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding and other coercive interrogation methods; it also claimed that she gleefully mocked the prisoner’s suffering. “Neither of these assertions is correct and we retract them,” ProPublica acknowledged. “It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended.”
However, ProPublica’s correction does not completely get Haspel off the hook. The New York Times has reported that she arrived to run the black site prison in late October 2002, after the interrogation of Zubaydah, but before the arrival of another al-Qaida suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was, the paper writes, waterboarded three times on her watch. ProPublica also stood by its report that Haspel later drafted a cable ordering the destruction of videotapes of Zubaydah’s waterboarding, a claim confirmed by former acting director of the CIA Michael Morrell.
Paul’s spokesman Doug Stafford said: “Senator Rand Paul was quoting a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter. Regardless of the retraction of one anecdote, the fact remains that Gina Haspel was instrumental in running a place where people were tortured. According to multiple published, undisputed accounts, she oversaw a black site and she further destroyed evidence of torture. This should preclude her from ever running the CIA.”
After she was named deputy CIA director in February last year, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights asked German prosecutors to issue a warrant for her arrest over her alleged role in the interrogations. Federal prosecutors never issued the warrant because the case had no connection to Germany. But the rights group’s allegations against Haspel remain part of a preliminary investigation that German authorities could revive if they receive evidence that any of the parties have links to Germany.
Mark Fallon, a former chief investigator at the US defence department’s criminal investigation taskforce, said: “To have a director of the CIA who is at risk of being arrested when she travels abroad is irresponsible. How do we then stand for a nation that supports the rule of law?”
He added: “The fact that she had a hand in the destruction of black site videotapes – this is not the type of person you want in a position like that. You don’t want a person who blindly does what they are told. Their loyalty should be to the government, not the person.”
In 2009, days after taking office, Barack Obama banned “enhanced interrogation” techniques including waterboarding, and ordered the closure of the US’s secret detention sites. But during the 2016 presidential election campaign, Trump promised to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”, although he has since admitted that the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, persuaded him torture is ineffective.
Alberto Mora, general counsel of the Department of the Navy from 2001 to 2006, said: “Trump is an enthusiastic supporter of torture. That part of her record was probably made known to him and he probably saw that as a good thing.”
Trump – who is embroiled in conflict with his intelligence services over their assessment of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election – has a grudge towards the CIA, Mora claims,seldom bothering to read its reports, and Haspel’s nomination should be understood through this prism. “Selecting one of the principal leaders of the torture programme is actually a hostile act against the CIA, designed to make the agency worse, not better,” he said.
Yet some Obama-era figures have leaped to Haspel’s defence. Brennan told NBC that she has a “lot of integrity” and has tried to carry out her agency duties “when asked to do difficult things in challenging times.” He added: “Gina is a very competent professional who I think deserves the chance to take the seat.”
And Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Thursday: “She’s highly qualified, highly recommended, highly respected from both sides of the aisle, particularly within the intelligence community. I would point you to some people that are not usually those that often sing praises of the president like Leon Panetta, James Clapper and others, where they have publicly shown broad support for his nominee.”
But in the view of critics, this merely illustrates how presidents – Bush, Obama, Trump – come and go but the national security establishment preserves its interests and protects its own. Jeremy Varon, of the pressure group Witness Against Torture, said: “If they point the finger at her, they point the finger at themselves. That’s a legal and moral gesture too powerful to make. There’s a lot of chumminess in institutional proximity that seems to smother questions of individual culpability.”
He said of Haspel: “By all rights she should be held to legal account for her criminal behavior, but instead she’s poised to be the head of America’s top spy agency. It shows how far away America has walked from the rule of law and its ideals with respect to torture.”