Trump turns Gina Haspel's CIA confirmation hearings into a referendum on torture

The president pulled the "woman" card in response to concerns about his nominee for CIA director

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 7, 2018 2:26PM (EDT)

CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel (AP via CIA)
CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel (AP via CIA)

CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel, whom President Donald Trump wishes to appoint as director of the spy agency, offered to withdraw her nomination due to the ongoing controversy surrounding her alleged past involvement in torture.

Because Republicans only control the Senate by a razor-thin margin of 51 to 49, Haspel's confirmation has been endangered by the controversy surrounding her record since she was first nominated. Although she currently serves as acting director of the agency, she told White House officials that she was interested in removing herself from contention for the position that opened up when its previous occupant, former CIA Director Mike Pompeo, agreed to replace Rex Tillerson as Trump's Secretary of State. According to a report by The Washington Post:

She had been in a meeting with her staff at CIA headquarters in Langley, fielding mock questions to prepare for her confirmation hearing, when the summons arrived.

Some White House officials were concerned by material being raised in questions from Congress, information they were just learning about, according to the U.S. officials. Those officials said the material was not revelations that have been unearthed in recent months, but the White House wanted to hear Haspel’s explanation of it.

Some records from the interrogation program, including documents that haven’t been made public, show that Haspel was an enthusiastic supporter of what the CIA was doing, according to officials familiar with the matter. But others have disputed any characterization of Haspel as some kind of cheerleader of the harsh treatment of detainees and noted that the program was authorized by the president, deemed legal by administration lawyers and briefed to members of Congress.

Haspel responded to her predicament by telling White House officials that she would prefer to step aside rather than allow her name or that of the CIA to be tarnished by controversy. In short, Haspel doesn't want to be questioned about her methods of questioning others.

This prompted White House officials like Legislative Affairs head Marc Short and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to meet with Haspel at her office in Langley, Virginia in order to discuss her concerns and convince her not to withdraw her name from consideration over the weekend. The president then called Haspel on Saturday. According to CNN, he dismissed concerns about her role in the interrogations of terrorist suspects.

If appointed, Haspel would be the first woman to ever head the CIA, a point that Trump himself alluded to on Monday when he defended Haspel on Twitter.

"If confirmed by the United States Senate, that would be the first time in the history of the United States Senate (we believe) that somebody with an operational role in the use of torture would be confirmed to any position in the entire federal government," Christopher Anders, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office, told Salon. "For all the lows that the United States has hit in the past sixteen months, we have not hit that one."

Anders went on to explain that, because 32 of the 33 years of Haspel's career were spent undercover, the American people only possess "a couple little windows" into her record and only two that specifically pertain to her involvement in torture.

Anders continued, "We have one window, in the summer and fall of 2002, which was at the very start of the torture program. This was when the torture program was being developed and was being tested out for the first time and later was expanded to a very broad and intense program. And during that period, we know that from public reporting that she had a supervisory role over the torture of Abu Zubaydah, who was a person tortured more than 80 times. As well as stripped naked, kept in a coffin-like box for hours on end, slammed into walls and waterboarded so often that he was often kept strapped in place with a towel over his mouth so that they could more easily waterboard him and also create the terror of him not knowing when it was going to happen next."

Anders added, "And he was waterboarded literally to the brink of death, where he was non-responsive and had to be revived by medical personnel who were on the scene. And then she reportedly was for the torture of [Abd al-Rahim] al-Nashiri at the same prison. It was a prison that the CIA was running in Thailand in fall of 2002. She was chief of base, which basically means the head of that particular prison site, when he was waterboarded three times there."

As Anders explained, Haspel was also involved in controversial activities by the time she rose through the ranks to become the second-in-command at the agency's counterterrorism center in 2005.

"It was becoming clear that there was going to be significant accountability for torture," Anders told Salon. "This was about a year after the Abu Ghraib torture became public. So she, along with her boss, was lobbying persistently the acting general counsel of the CIA to gain permission to order the destruction of the videotapes of the waterboarding that had been taken place in Thailand. And it seems to be undisputed that she drafted the cable that the director then sent to the personnel that were still in Thailand to destroy the videotapes. So that's the other window into her time."

Although a special prosecutor ultimately decided not to bring charges against Haspel for what happened in 2005, the incident has clearly lingered in the memories of those who follow American civil liberties issues. As the Post reported:

Last month, the CIA declassified an internal disciplinary review that “found no fault with the performance” of Haspel in the destruction of the videotapes. Haspel drafted a cable approving the destruction that her boss ultimately sent to field officers, who fed the tapes into a shredding machine. But she believed that he would first get the approval of senior CIA leaders before sending it, according to people with knowledge of the episode.

The release of the disciplinary review may persuade some lawmakers who had been undecided to support Haspel, said congressional officials tracking the nomination process.

Within the CIA, according to a spokesperson for the agency, the reaction seems to be one of defending Haspel against her attackers.

"There has been a fascinating phenomenon over the last few weeks. Those who know the true Gina Haspel — who worked with her, who served with her, who helped her confront terrorism, Russia and countless other threats to our nation — they almost uniformly support her. That is true for people who disagree about nearly everything else. There is a reason for that. When the American people finally have a chance to see the true Gina Haspel on Wednesday, they will understand why she is so admired and why she is and will be a great leader for this agency," Ryan Trapani, a CIA spokesman, told the Post.

Anders had a different assessment of Haspel's involvement as a leader of that agency.

"Two quick things to point out to your readers, which I don't think have gotten much reporting," Anders told Salon. "One is that any time a document is classified, under the executive order that deals with classification generally, there's the person who becomes the original classification authority. The original classification authority for this program, for the torture program, is the director of the CIA. That's the person who decides what classification that is at . . . That person, right now, is Gina Haspel. So Gina Haspel has the authority to either declassify or keep classified all the documents dealing with her role in the use of torture. And as far as we know, there hasn't been any effort to recuse herself from that process."

He added, "The other important point is, which may be why there was so much consternation at the White House about the questions that they were getting from the Intelligence Committee according to The Washington Post reporting yesterday, is that the Intelligence Committee already has these documents, because about five years ago they did this extensive investigation and 6700-page report on the CIA's use of torture. They already have the documents. They have it seems like a mountain of documents related to the program and they can and seem to be doing their own research."

In the end, Anders identified that the bottom line boils down to whether the truth of Haspel's record will be revealed to those who have the right to know.

"The question really is going to be much more, are all senators going to be able to be involved, in knowing what torture Gina Haspel's involved in, or is it only going to be those committee members?" Anders told Salon. "And then of course, is the American public going to be able to know what Gina Haspel's role was with torture, or is Gina Haspel going to decide as the official who can control declassification that she's not going to let any document out?"

As she arrived at Capitol Hill to meet with Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, The CIA delivered a tranche of classified documents on President Trump's pick for director related to her controversial undercover background at the agency. But key Democrats still appeared unmoved.

"There is literally an A to Z coverup going on here," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told CNN. "What you have is selective declassification; you have a public influence campaign being waged by the agency and just a boatload of misinformation."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Aclu American Civil Liberties Union Central Intelligence Agency Cia Donald Trump Gina Haspel Torture