clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Gina Haspel, Trump’s controversial pick for CIA director, explained

The White House says she’s a “patriot.” Critics say she’s a torturer.

Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee to be the new CIA director, faces a tough confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday over her role in the Bush-era torture program.
Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee to be the new CIA director, faces a tough confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday over her role in the Bush-era torture program.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The White House says she’s a “patriot” and “the best of the best.” Critics say she’s a torturer.

Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s controversial pick to be the next CIA director, faces what’s certain to be a tough confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee over her role in a Bush-era torture program — so tough, in fact, that she apparently considered withdrawing her nomination altogether.

Haspel, 61, would be the first woman to head the spy agency. She’s a 33-year veteran of the clandestine service — the branch of the CIA formally known as the “Directorate of Operations” that does all the secret undercover spy work most people picture when they think of the CIA.

But because most of her work was done undercover, the American public — and the senators who have to vote on her nomination — know very little about her.

Thanks to the CIA declassifying parts of her record, we know she’s a big fan of country music legend Johnny Cash. And we know she’s received a number of CIA awards, including the George H.W. Bush Award for Excellence in Counterterrorism.

But, thanks to reporters, we also know she oversaw one of the Bush administration’s most notorious “black sites” — secret prisons the CIA set up around the world to hold and torture suspected terrorists away from the prying eyes of lawyers, human rights groups, and the American public — in Thailand.

And we know, based on internal CIA documents, that she was directly involved in the destruction of nearly 100 videotapes documenting the CIA’s brutal interrogation and torture of two prisoners, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, at that black site.

CIA operatives there subjected Zubaydah and al-Nashiri to waterboarding, “walling” (slamming them repeatedly into walls), sleep deprivation, nudity, and behind held in confined spaces (including a wooden box the size of a coffin) for hours at a time.

Haspel didn’t officially take charge of the black site until after Zubaydah’s interrogation was over. But she was in charge during al-Nashiri’s interrogation.

All of which helps explain why many observers, including some senior White House officials, think she might be defeated. CNN reports that some national security officials and even some Republicans are starting to come up with a backup plan if Haspel isn’t confirmed.

On paper, Republicans currently have a razor-thin 51-49 advantage in the Senate. In practice, as long as Sen. John McCain is away undergoing treatment for brain cancer, it’s an even thinner 50-49 margin.

That means Republicans have to either hold their caucus together perfectly or get one Democrat to defect for every Republican defection. Republican Rand Paul has already said he opposes Haspel, so Republican leadership will definitely need at least one Democrat to vote for her.

With Haspel’s nomination facing increasingly long odds, President Trump on Tuesday defended Haspel and blamed Democrats for trying to block her nomination:

But both Democrats and Republicans have voiced concerns about Haspel. Indeed, McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, wrote a letter to Haspel demanding she explain in detail her exact role in the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program.

Haspel’s confirmation hearing Wednesday will be her chance to clear her name — or at least explain some of the darkest stains on it.

If you ask the CIA, Haspel is an American hero, not a torturer

Before Trump announced Haspel’s nomination on March 13, very few people outside of the intelligence community had ever heard her name. She’s not on social media or LinkedIn. She doesn’t give public speeches.

That’s no accident. A clandestine service officer’s work is done in the shadows. If you know an operative’s (real) name and her face, something has gone horribly wrong.

But now that Haspel has been nominated to be the next director of the CIA, the agency has begrudgingly decided to release a very limited amount of biographical information about the operative, who is currently the spy agency’s deputy director.

In an article with the cheery title “Get to Know Our Deputy Director,” the CIA shared details about Haspel’s background and career, including that she’s originally from Kentucky and that she has a 5-foot-tall poster of Johnny Cash in her office. She is not married and has no children.

“For the past three decades,” the article reads, Haspel has “quietly devoted herself to serving on the front lines of the Agency’s mission.”

The agency also released a declassified timeline of her career that offers a bare-bones sketch of her trajectory from a young case officer in Africa in the late 1980s to the chief of station for the “Eurasia Division” in the 1990s to becoming the first female deputy director of the CIA in 2017.

As David Ignatius of the Washington Post points out, her time working in the Eurasia Division in particular gave her up-close experience working against one of the CIA’s toughest foreign adversaries: Russia.

“She has a Ph.D. in the FSB, SVR and GRU,” Dan Hoffman, a former Moscow CIA station chief who worked closely with Haspel, told Ignatius, referring to the initials of the three main Russian intelligence agencies.

But, critically, the CIA timeline explicitly states that it “does not cover more than 30 short-term, temporary duty (‘TDY’) assignments over the course of her career.”

Assignments like running a CIA black site in Thailand, for instance.

During the time period in question, 2001 to 2004, the CIA timeline merely says Haspel was a deputy group chief and then a senior-level supervisor in the agency’s Counterterrorism Center.

However, mostly thanks to journalists, we actually know a lot more about where Haspel was during those years and what she was doing. It’s ugly, and possibly illegal.

Haspel ran a notorious black site where detainees were tortured

The New York Times, ProPublica, the New Yorker, and others have all independently reported that Haspel oversaw a secret black site prison in Thailand, code-named “Cat’s Eye.” Other CIA black sites are said to have existed in Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Kosovo, and elsewhere.

Abu Zubaydah was the first prisoner interrogated at the Thailand black site. The CIA suspected him of being a high-level al-Qaeda operative involved in the 9/11 attacks (even though it later turned out that not only was he not a high-level operative, he wasn’t even a member of al-Qaeda). He’s been described as the Bush administration’s — and the CIA’s — “guinea pig” for the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the Obama administration would later call torture.

Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002 alone, according to a 2005 memo from then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury to John Rizzo, who was acting general counsel for the CIA at the time.

He was also slammed repeatedly into walls, sometimes 20 to 30 times consecutively; put into painful stress positions; forced to endure extended sleep deprivation (more than 96 hours), during which he had to wear an adult diaper; kept naked for extended periods; and put in confined spaces like a wooden box the size of a coffin for hours at a time.

Zubaydah’s brutal interrogations were also videotaped (more on this in a minute).

According to the New York Times, Haspel took over control of the Thailand black site in late October 2002. That would put her there after the torture of Zubaydah took place (though some reports still put her at the scene during his interrogation).

But according to numerous credible reports, she was in charge during the November 2002 torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Al-Nashiri was believed to be an al-Qaeda “terrorist operations planner” who was “intimately involved” in planning the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000. He was captured in the United Arab Emirates in mid-October 2002 and was eventually moved to the black site in Thailand.

According to the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee Torture Report, “al-Nashiri was interrogated using the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, including being subjected to the waterboard at least three times” while he was at the Thailand black site (which the report refers to as “DETENTION SITE GREEN”).

The Thailand black site was shut down shortly after, in December 2002, after a US newspaper discovered that Zubaydah was being held in Thailand. Zubaydah and al-Nashiri were transferred to a different black site (this one in Poland), where al-Nashiri’s interrogation continued. (Both Zubaydah and al-Nashiri are still in US custody today at the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.)

But although Thailand black site was officially closed, the videotapes documenting what the CIA did there remained.

Haspel helped destroy video evidence of CIA torture

In 2004, journalists uncovered gruesome photos documenting the torture and abuse of detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison by US soldiers. The photos shocked the world — and scared the shit out of senior officials at the CIA, who feared they’d face a similar backlash if the tapes of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation ever got out.

John Rizzo, the former CIA acting general counsel for the CIA, described what happened in a 2015 interview with Frontline:

We were talking among ourselves about how awful, horrific the pictures, photos were coming out of Abu Ghraib. And John [Bellinger, President George W. Bush’s national security legal adviser at the time] asked, I think as a rhetorical question, something to the effect of: “Thank God, the agency doesn’t have any photos of any of its detainees. You don’t, do you?” And of course, we, Scott Muller, the [CIA] general counsel at the time, and I had to concede that, well, actually, we do.

Rizzo said he’d actually gotten requests from CIA officials for legal permission to destroy the tapes as early as October 2002 — around the time Haspel was about to take over command of the Thailand black site — but he and other senior Bush administration lawyers repeatedly denied the requests.

Then in November 2005, Rizzo got a cable out of the blue saying: “Pursuant to headquarters’ directions, the videotapes have been destroyed.”

It turns out that a few days before, a cable had gone out from CIA headquarters directing black site managers to destroy the tapes.

The person who issued that cable was Gina Haspel.

Why most of the CIA rank and file still support Gina Haspel

Haspel was serving as chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, the director of operations overseeing the CIA’s entire clandestine branch, when she issued the cable. Haspel’s supporters argue she was just following orders and had no part in the decision to order the tapes’ destruction. That decision was made by Rodriguez alone — something he’s also stated publicly before.

Indeed, a recently declassified internal CIA “disciplinary review” conducted in 2011 backs up this account. The review, conducted by former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, “found no fault with the performance of Ms. Haspel.”

“She drafted the cable on the direct orders of Mr. Rodriguez,” the review stated. “[S]he did not release that cable. It was not her decision to destroy the tapes; it was Mr. Rodriguez.”

In other words, Haspel was just following orders.

That sentiment — that Haspel was just a good soldier following orders during one of the toughest, most controversial periods in CIA history — may help explain why so many former CIA officials, including officials appointed by President Obama, have come out in support of her nomination.

A group of 53 former top intelligence officials, including three former directors of national intelligence and six former CIA directors, sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee expressing their “strong support” for Haspel to become the next CIA director.

“Ms Haspel’s qualifications to be CIA Director match or exceed those of most candidates put forward in the Agency’s 70-year history,” the letter said.

As Vox’s Alex Ward noted, the White House also released a full-throated defense of Haspel last week, calling her “the Right Person to Lead the CIA.” The fact sheet contained laudatory statements by former US intelligence leaders, including John Brennan and James Clapper, whom Trump routinely attacks because of their service in the Obama administration.

Clapper, the director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama, said he “think[s] the world of Gina; she is capable, smart, very experienced, well respected by the Agency rank and file, and a great person,” per the fact sheet. Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, said Haspel “has the experience — the breadth and depth — on intelligence issues.”

But no matter how many letters and statements of support Haspel gets, she will still have to face the Senate Intelligence Committee’s questions about her actions during the Bush administration.

“The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history,” Sen. McCain wrote on Twitter on March 13. “The Senate must do its job in scrutinizing the record & involvement of Gina Haspel in this disgraceful program.”