The truth about torture: Trump’s CIA pick can't lead without facing her past
In the coming weeks, the Senate will have a chance to ask Gina Haspel about torture at CIA black sites during her confirmation hearings
The CIA often likes to pretend that we don’t know the things we know. With the nomination of Gina Haspel to head the agency, public tolerance for this habit will face a major test.
A little over a year ago, to defend themselves in a lawsuit brought by three victims of torture in CIA black sites, James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, the architects of US enhanced interrogation techniques, issued a subpoena to depose “Gina Doe”.
Legal documents identified her as “Gina Doe, former chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez when he served as the chief of the CIA’s Clandestine Service and former deputy to Jose Rodriguez when he served as director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center”.
The two contract psychologists needed Doe’s deposition, they argued, because she was effectively their boss: her testimony could support their claim that everything they did to prisoners in the CIA’s interrogation chambers was “under the plenary and direct control of the CIA” and “within the scope of properly delegated authority”.
It didn’t take long for “Gina Doe” to become Gina Haspel in court documents.
In February 2017, two months after that subpoena was issued, Donald Trump appointed Haspel deputy director of the CIA, and the subsequent flood of reporting about Haspel’s clandestine career so clearly linked her to the black site torture program that the court dropped the thin veil of pseudonymity.
Still angling to have the court compel her testimony, Mitchell and Jessen could now be more direct in their court filings, linking Haspel by name to one of their most notorious “enhanced interrogations”.
“As has been recently reported in the press,” their attorneys wrote, “Haspel ran the black site at which Abu Zubaydah was detained and interrogated. She would have been personally involved in the communications between CIA Headquarters and Defendants concerning that interrogation.”
She had “direct, first-hand knowledge of the extent of defendants’ involvement in the development of interrogation efforts”, and was “in a position to confirm that defendants never engaged in any interrogation activities that had not been previously and specifically approved in advance by the CIA on a case-by-case basis”.
Haspel was never required to share with the court her knowledge about Mitchell and Jessen’s “interrogation activities”, or her own.
Claiming “state secrets” privilege, government lawyers successfully argued that the CIA had never officially acknowledged that she had a role in the secret detention and interrogation program, and “to confirm or deny that fact would itself disclose classified information”.
Mitchell and Jessen, who would eventually reach a settlement with the torture victims, cried foul in court, arguing that they were being left holding the bag for the agency’s rendition, detention and interrogation program.
No sympathy is due Mitchell and Jessen, who designed, promoted and profited from the hare-brained brutality that they and dozens of CIA agents visited on prisoners in secret dungeons scattered around the globe. But Mitchell and Jessen were not the ones who sent a CIA cable on 15 July 2002 from the CIA’s black site in Thailand titled “Additional Operational and Security Considerations for the Next Phase of Abu Zubaydah Interrogation”.
In the form in which it was produced for the court in the lawsuit, the cable is entirely redacted except for two passages:
If subject develops a serious medical condition which may involve a host of conditions including a heart attack or another catastrophic type of condition, all efforts will be made to ensure that proper medical care will be provided to subject. In the event that subject dies we need to be prepared to act accordingly keeping in mind the liaison equities involving our hosts. If subject dies, we plan on seeking [redacted] assistance for cremation of subject.
Several redacted lines later, it continues,
Regardless which option we follow, however, and especially in light of the planned psychological pressure techniques to be implemented, we need to get reasonable assurances that subject will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.
Though this is all the CIA allowed the court to see, we have additional information about the contents of that four-page cable.
The Senate intelligence committee, in the executive summary of its still largely suppressed report on the CIA torture program, records that this same cable “stated that only the detention site green chief of base would be allowed to interrupt or stop an interrogation in process, and that the chief of base would be the final decision-making authority as to whether the CIA’s interrogation techniques applied to Abu Zubaydah would be discontinued”.
To this day, the CIA wants us to pretend that, despite extensive reporting since the intelligence committee described that cable, it is still a secret that the chief of base at the CIA’s Thai black site at the time that cable was written was Gina Haspel, and that she personally signed much of the cable traffic reporting on Abu Zubaydah’s torture, and that she also signed the order to destroy the videotapes of the torture sessions she supervised. But with Haspel’s nomination to head the CIA, the time for pretending is over.
When Trump appointed Haspel deputy director of the agency last year, Senators Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich wrote to outgoing CIA director Mike Pompeo demanding that he declassify information about Gina Haspel’s background in the agency. That letter included this surreal passage:
As you are aware, on February 2, 2017, we sent a classified letter to the president making this request and specifically describing the nature of the information to be declassified. Since then, at least two senior CIA officials have made public statements about Ms Haspel’s background. Former acting director Michael Morrell has written that Ms Haspel drafted a cable directing that CIA interrogation videos be destroyed, and former director of the National Clandestine Service John Bennett has spoken about her role in the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. We have nonetheless received no response to our letter, which we are resending to you through classified channels.
In the coming weeks, Wyden and Heinrich, like the rest of their colleagues on Senate intelligence committee, will have a chance to ask Haspel about her black site past directly during her confirmation hearings.
They will not be in the mood to entertain the fiction that there is not an evidence room full of exhibits from the CIA’s torture program, many of them bearing Gina Haspel’s fingerprints. And we shouldn’t either.
This article also appears on the Just Security blog, an online forum for the analysis of US national security law and policy. The author is a writer and human rights activist who has written extensively about the post-9/11 torture program, and chief of staff of the Knight First Amendment Institute.