Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee for CIA director, is facing a tough confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday over her controversial role in the Bush-era torture program.
But her latest critic isn’t a human rights group or a Democratic senator — it’s Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (commonly referred to by his initials, KSM) was the sinister architect of the terror attacks that killed more than 3,000 innocent people on September 11, 2001.
He was also tortured by the CIA, including being waterboarded — that is, held down and repeatedly suffocated by having water poured over a cloth into his mouth and nose until he was near drowning — 183 times over 15 sessions while in US custody.
He’s currently sitting in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — and he’s apparently got something to say about Gina Haspel.
The New York Times’s Charlie Savage reports that KSM has requested permission from a military judge at Guantanamo to share “six paragraphs of information” about Haspel with the Senate Intelligence Committee.
What those six paragraphs of information might contain remains a mystery, and it’s entirely possible that whatever KSM has to say is either completely false or exaggerated and that he’s trying to use this as an opportunity to espouse anti-American propaganda.
But KSM’s defense lawyers seem to think the information he has is significant enough that the Intelligence Committee should see it.
Marine Lt. Col. Derek Poteet, who is one of the lawyers defending KSM against the death penalty in his case before the military commission at Guantanamo, told the Times that KSM’s defense lawyers “agreed that the information was important.”
And while Poteet and KSM’s other defense lawyers are in the business of, well, defending KSM, Poteet is also a US Marine. The fact that he and his fellow defense attorneys think the information KSM has is worth sharing with the Senate Intelligence Committee does give one pause.
Haspel ran a notorious black site where detainees were tortured
In Thailand, Haspel 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,
And we know, based on recently declassified 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 holding them in confined spaces (including a wooden box the size of a coffin) for hours at a time.
Whether she had any involvement with KSM’s torture is currently unknown, and it’s unclear if the information KSM claims to have would shed any light on that question.
Lt. Col. Poteet, KSM’s defense lawyer, would not describe the information but did tell the New York Times that “it came from Mr. Mohammed himself, not from files turned over by the government to defense lawyers about the treatment of their client in C.I.A. custody.”
KSM’s play may end up helping, not hurting, Haspel
Ironically, regardless of whether the Senate Intelligence Committee does see the information KSM wants to share, his gambit could actually end up helping Haspel.
Many observers, including some senior White House officials, think she might be defeated in the Senate. 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 GOP 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:
My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists. Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 7, 2018
The fact that the architect of the 9/11 attacks may be complaining that Haspel was too tough on him or his associates plays right into Trump’s narrative: that Haspel is not a torturer but a patriot who fought on the front lines of the war on terror to defend Americans.
That’s a powerful political message that Democrats and Republicans in the Senate may have a hard time pushing back against.