President Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel, a longtime clandestine officer now serving as the CIA’s deputy director, to head the agency is an intensely provocative and unsettling move.
Haspel was a key figure in the Bush administration’s secret detention and torture program — one of the darkest parts of the post-9/11 War on Terror era. From 2003 to 2005, Haspel ran one of the most notorious of the CIA’s “black sites”: prisons in countries around the world that were specifically created for the detention and interrogation of “high value” detainees, including the masterminds of 9/11. Detainees at those sites were subject to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” cruel and abusive treatment that amounted to torture
Despite the efforts of countless journalists, and a major report by the US Senate — which was made public only in abbreviated, censored form — the public still lacks details about the activities of Haspel, the people who worked alongside her, and their peers at other black sites.
Her nomination is a slap in the face to those who embrace the rule of law, and who view the program as a stain on the United States. But her confirmation hearing also offers the country an opportunity to disclose and declassify more information about the program. Doing so would help ensure that the United States never again goes down road of using brutal, cruel and coercive techniques on detainees.
If senators permit her to evade public questions about her participation in the interrogation, they should be condemned. And if she refuses to answer questions in a public session, her nomination should be rejected.
But the more information that is made available, the more likely it is that public sentiment will turn against Haspel — and the greater the pressure for further disclosures.
What we know, and don’t know, about what happened at those “black sites”
Since spring 2004, when 60 Minutes II revealed the disturbing pictures of appalling prisoner abuse at the notorious Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib, journalists and others have worked hard to uncover the details of the Bush administration’s secret interrogation program.
Thanks to reportage and documentary films, investigations by lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees (including some who were tortured at Haspel’s black site), and the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee Torture Report, we know a fair bit of what went down at the black site in Thailand that Haspel ran, known as Detention Site Green.
Two of the most brutal interrogations — that of two suspected al-Qaeda operatives, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — took place at Detention Site Green. Although there has been much confusion on the point, it now appears, according to ProPublica, that Haspel oversaw the interrogation only of the latter.
ProPublica retracted a 2017 story that had included particular damning details — which they now say were incorrect — about personal interactions Haspel supposedly had with Abu Zubaydah during his interrogation. That her role in the Zubaydah interrogation remains unclear at this late date underscores the importance of making more information available.
We know from the Senate Torture Report that both Zubaydah and al-Nashiri were deprived of sleep and subjected to long periods of isolation. They were waterboarded — Zubaydah 83 times. Both were put in situations intended to make them think they were about to die: Zubaydah was confined in a coffin-like box, and an interrogator pointed a drill at al Nashiri’s head.
But there is still much we don’t know. Only a heavily-redacted 525-page version of the report was actually made public. The actual report, still classified, is a whopping 6,000 pages. And even in the public version, nearly all the names of CIA employees involved in the torture and detention program were redacted.
Still, we know enough about these black sites to be deeply concerned about Haspel’s nomination. The treatment of Zubaydah was so bad that the CIA report at the time insisted that if he died he would have to be cremated — presumably to eliminate evidence of abuse. If he had lived, it was imperative, CIA officials wrote, “to get reasonable assurances that [the detainee] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”
And Haspel herself played a role in destroying evidence of what occurred at the site she oversaw.
All of this makes clear why senators have a duty to try to pin down what Haspel did and did not do during her tenure as chief of base of the Thailand black site — and making that information public.
Haspel, at her hearings, is likely to insist on answering questions about the black site only in a closed session — if at all. The senators should reject that request, insisting that she be questioned fully in an open session.
The remarkable lack of accountability among officials in the torture program continues to this day.
We have never had a full reckoning of what was done in the name of the American people during the War on Terror, and that failure has made Haspel’s nomination possible.
Disappointingly, President Obama took a firm stand against investigating or prosecuting those suspected of creating and implementing the interrogation program, saying he wanted to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
And few people have paid a professional price for involvement in the interrogation program. John Yoo, the author of the famous August 2002 memos declaring torture legal, remains a tenured professor at Berkeley. Last November, Stephen Bradbury, who in 2005 wrote several memos authorizing “enhanced” techniques, was confirmed as general counsel of the Department of Transportation.
Trump’s nomination of Haspel was not a casual gesture. It reveals a stubborn defiance of civilized norms about permissability of torture, and builds upon the indefensible secrecy that still surrounds the program
But perhaps Haspel’s nomination will provided the country with the opposite of what Trump intended — a chance to examine in detail, and unequivocally condemn, the policies of the past. We must also condemn the deceptions that have been visited upon the American people. We have never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on torture; these confirmation hearings could be a start.
Lawmakers could also decide it’s time to declassify the full 6,700 pages of the Torture Report. Only when the details are made public will the country be able to accept responsibility for what happened, to declare it wrong, and in so doing to move forward — decisively away from torture.
Karen J. Greenberg is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, the author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, and the editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib and The Torture Debate in America.
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