Gina Haspel — a CIA operative who oversaw the torture of two terrorism suspects at a secret prison in Thailand and then helped destroy tapes of the interrogations — will likely be the next CIA director.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced a major shake-up in his national security team: Rex Tillerson is out as secretary of state, CIA Director Mike Pompeo heads over to lead the State Department, and Haspel — the CIA’s deputy director — will replace Pompeo as the head of the intelligence agency.
If confirmed, Haspel would be the first woman to lead the CIA. She’s widely respected in intelligence circles and has spent more than 30 years in the CIA, working undercover for most of that time. But she remains a controversial figure for her years-long involvement in a wider CIA program that led to the torture of dozens of suspects, which included stuffing people into coffins or depriving them of sleep.
Despite this, Trump clearly has confidence in Haspel, and she says she’s ready for her new role. “I am grateful to President Trump for the opportunity, and humbled by his confidence in me, to be nominated to be the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency,” Haspel said in a statement after the president’s announcement.
Whatever reservations Trump may have had about torture, he’s set them aside to promote Haspel to lead one of America’s most famous agencies.
Haspel’s long history with torture
Haspel ran the CIA’s detention site in Thailand, the agency’s first overseas secret prison.
It was there in 2002 that she reportedly oversaw the interrogation of two terrorism suspects. One was Abu Zubaydah, who, according to the New Yorker, “was tortured so brutally that at one point he appeared to be dead.” CIA operatives reportedly waterboarded Zubaydah 83 times and repeatedly slammed him into walls.
In a March 15 retraction of a 2017 article echoing the same narrative, ProPublica recently called into question Haspel’s involvement in this torture, noting that “Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended.”
The other, Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, was also waterboarded in 2002 and is currently being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The CIA also videotaped the torture. The 92 tapes were held in a safe until the agency asked for their destruction in 2005. Haspel, who then worked out of Langley overseeing the CIA’s torture program, had her name on the cable that ordered their eradication. However, the CIA said at the time that Haspel’s boss, Jose Rodriguez, made the call. The Justice Department investigated the tape-destruction order but ultimately filed no charges.
President Barack Obama ordered the closure of CIA black sites in 2009, but it’s unclear if Haspel’s nomination means they’ll make a comeback. Trump previously advocated for the return of torture against terrorism suspects until Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis convinced him otherwise.
Haspel — who may get a lot of face time with the president delivering his daily intelligence briefing — may have the chance to change Trump’s mind on this controversial issue.
Haspel has her detractors
When Pompeo announced Haspel as his deputy in February 2017, civil rights advocates widely criticized her appointment.
“Pompeo must explain to the American people how his promotion of someone allegedly involved in running a torture site squares with his own sworn promises to Congress that he will reject all forms of torture and abuse,” Christopher Anders of the American Civil Liberties Union told CBS News last year.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and other Senate Democrats protested her appointment to the CIA’s No. 2 job last year. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who once led the committee, blocked Haspel’s promotion to lead the CIA’s clandestine operations because of her role in the torture program and involvement in the destruction of the tapes.
But the latest pushback is bipartisan. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee and who was famously tortured in Vietnam, put out a less-than-positive statement: “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process. I know the Senate will do its job in examining Ms. Haspel’s record as well as her beliefs about torture and her approach to current law.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), an Iraq War veteran, was critical of the Haspel nomination. “I voted against Mr. Pompeo’s nomination to be CIA director because he failed to express moral opposition to torture, but Ms. Haspel has done much worse,” Duckworth said in a statement. “Not only did she directly supervise the torture of detainees, but she also participated in covering it up by helping to destroy the video evidence. Her reprehensible actions should disqualify her from having the privilege of serving the American people in government ever again, but apparently this president believes they merit a promotion. I could not disagree more.”
But even former Obama intelligence officials have previously praised Haspel. When Pompeo named her as his deputy director, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he was “very pleased,” and former acting CIA Director Mike Morell said, “I applaud the appointment.”
As of now, there is no indication that the GOP-controlled Senate will block Haspel’s nomination, which has yet to be scheduled. But it’s likely that she will prove a divisive figure in an administration already filled with controversial leaders.