New report on CIA nominee Gina Haspel may rescue her: But it shouldn't

It seems Haspel did not oversee the torture of Abu Zubaydah. She's still implicated in the CIA's Bush-era crimes

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 16, 2018 8:20AM (EDT)

Gina Haspel; Abu Zubaydah (AP/CIA/Department of Defense)
Gina Haspel; Abu Zubaydah (AP/CIA/Department of Defense)

On Thursday evening ProPublica issued an important correction concerning Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel, the woman Donald Trump has nominated to head the agency if and when current Director Mike Pompeo is confirmed as the new secretary of state. It was apparently ProPublica that first reported last year that Haspel ran the secret CIA "black site" prison in Thailand in 2002 when supposed al-Qaida detainee Abu Zubaydah was brutally tortured, and that Haspel had personally mocked the prisoner. In an extended correction signed by editor in chief Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica has now retracted those claims.

Haspel did indeed run that secret prison in Thailand, but according to this new report did not take over as director until after the Zubaydah interrogation had ended. If this new information is accurate, this was a monumental error that will likely mean that Haspel is ultimately confirmed as CIA director. We can expect the Republicans in the Senate to use this to turn her into a "fake news" victim and set her up as a patriotic martyr.

It may seem odd that the GOP would defend such an avatar of the "deep state," considering all the mud they've thrown at the intelligence community over the past year. Likewise, Democrats will attack her for her admittedly murky role in the Bush-era torture program, despite the fact that they've been defending the community's analysis of Russian interference in the 2016 election. That may look like shallow partisanship but it really isn't. This tension has existed since the beginning of the Cold War.

Hawks have long seen the CIA as mainly a tool for covert action to advance American foreign policy, whether that meant toppling unfriendly regimes or propping up friendly ones. They admire and protect the clandestine service but thoroughly mistrust CIA analysis. That's because the CIA often produces threat estimates that undercut right-wingers' insistence on ever-expanding military spending. Back in the 1970s, as the nation was dizzy from all the revelations of CIA misdeeds ranging from revolutions to attempted assassinations, the hawks used the opportunity to challenge the CIA estimates of Soviet military capability and formed outside groups like Team B and the Committee for the Present Danger to argue for what became Reagan's massive military buildup. Unsurprisingly their cooked estimates of Soviet power turned out to be hugely overstated and the CIA's were much closer to reality.

Similarly, during the run-up to the Iraq war Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly pressured the CIA to back up the administration's claims about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration even created a parallel intelligence operation called the Office of Special Plans, based in the Pentagon, to provide senior government officials with raw intelligence, unvetted by intelligence community analysts. We all know how that turned out.

Meanwhile, the liberal doves have been unrelentingly hostile to the covert, unaccountable side of the CIA and other agencies, which tend to operate like a law unto themselves. They oppose the U.S. government's interference in the internal workings of other nations, including assassinations, torture and other immoral and illegal behavior. But most liberals have tended to accept intelligence community analyses, checked by outside experts, mainly because it's got a fairly good track record. Now that everyone has access to the international press, distortions or disinformation get challenged pretty quickly.

The divides on the Russia scandal and the Haspel nomination illustrate that old tension once again.

ProPublica's statement explains how they got the original February 2017 story wrong through a series of misinterpretations of official comments, certain passages in a book by CIA contractor James Mitchell (one of the notorious psychologists who developed the Bush-era torture regime) and the agency's unwillingness to address the specific charges in the story before it was published. It was only this week, after Haspel was nominated for the top job, that various sources have come forward, including Mitchell, to correct the record about when Haspel took over the direction of the prison. Mitchell told Fox Business Network on Wednesday that Haspel was not the "chief of base" he described in his book who oversaw the infamous Zubaydah interrogation (during which the prisoner somehow lost an eye) and made grotesque comments about his suffering.

The black site program was documented in depth by the Washington Post's Dana Priest, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her exposés on the CIA's secret interrogation program, and the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, both in her magazine articles and the book "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals." Those who were intimately involved in that ugly chapter of the CIA's history have no business running the the agency. And anyone who was involved in destroying evidence, as Haspel was, simply cannot be entrusted with the vast power of the CIA.

No one disputes that Haspel was chief of base at the Thai prison at the time another prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded three times.  When Priest first reported on the existence of the black site program in 2005, Jose Rodriguez, the head of the agency's counterterrorism center, became concerned that videotapes of the torture of terrorism suspects would become public and reflect badly on the CIA. According to his memoir, Rodriguez ordered Haspel, who was back in Washington working as his chief of staff, to draft a cable ordering that the 92 tapes be destroyed. She did, and they were. Haspel was up to her neck in the torture program, both on the ground in Thailand and during the cover-up of the agency's nefarious deeds.

We have never heard from Haspel about her involvement in that cover-up, but since she was destroying the evidence of her own culpability it's doubtful she argued against it. Not that it matters. The Nuremberg defense ("I was just following orders") shouldn't work for the cover-up any more than the torture regime itself.

It's unlikely there will ever be any real accountability for the depraved torture program of the post-9/11 years. George W. Bush granted immunity in 2006 to all CIA agents who worked on the program, and while Barack Obama denounced torture he said he held “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” and let it go. We all know how Donald Trump feels about torture: He loves it. The president has repeatedly insisted that torture works and has said he would do far worse than waterboarding if he had the chance. Rewarding someone who was intimately involved in the torture program and the cover-up by handing her the reins of America's most important intelligence agency proves he's serious about that.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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