There was a sharp intake of breath from those of us who litigated civil rights last year, when Gina Haspel, one of the key players in America’s post-9/11 torture drama, was made the CIA’s Deputy Director. Now she’s been tapped to lead the entire agency.
In 2002 Haspel presided over a CIA black site in Thailand where, prior to her arrival, prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, had waterboarded 83 times in a month. Zubaydah’s torture was so severe that at one point he appeared to die on the waterboarding table: he became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his full, open mouth” and had to be resuscitated. Haspel apparently ran the black site when at least one other detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded*.
These sessions were taped. The tapes would have been clear evidence of criminal conduct by U.S. officials, had they survived. But the then-Director of Operations, José Rodriguez, sent orders to destroy them. The officer who received and carried out those orders: Gina Haspel.
Some of the CIA’s victims were female. I have represented multiple survivors of the CIA’s torture program in court. Two of my clients, a married couple called Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar, were tortured at a CIA blacksite in Bangkok just like the one Haspel ran. The CIA then shipped them to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya—where the dictator’s thugs locked Fatima, who was heavily pregnant, in a cell until shortly before she gave birth. The ordeal was so traumatic that her son was born weighing just four pounds.
There’s one silver lining to this appointment. To take up the directorship, Haspel has to stand before the Senate and answer, under oath, to the American public. Here are the questions Senators should ask at her confirmation hearings:
Why did you destroy the waterboarding tapes, and what will you do when a controversial order comes around again?
In a sworn deposition, Haspel’s former boss at the CIA, José Rodriguez, admitted he ordered the destruction of the waterboarding tapes “because it would make the CIA look bad” —so bad “it would almost destroy the clandestine services.” He compared the tapes, which apparently showed “vomiting and screaming,” to the Abu Ghraib photos.
Haspel should explain why she carried out the order to destroy the tapes, and whether she even considered the order’s legality. She should also be asked what she would do if given similar orders now. Given President Trump’s cheerleading for prisoner abuse, it’s hardly farfetched to imagine a scenario where Haspel is called into the Oval Office and asked to put her experience with torture to use again.
She should also be asked whether she would give similar orders to destroy evidence as director herself.
If torture was so effective, why hasn’t the CIA brought it back?
The CIA pushed back against the Senate Select Committee’s landmark 2014 Torture Report with an aggressive PR campaign. Former CIA directors took to the airwaves to defend the torture program—and former CIA officials launched a website, ciasavedlives.com, to contest the report. (This notion, that torture “saved lives,” is directly contradicted by the findings of the Torture Report, which says that the CIA repeatedly exaggerated the effectiveness of its torture techniques against other, less coercive interrogation methods.)
Of course it shouldn’t matter: torture is illegal and immoral even if it “works.”
How many women and kids were subject to rendition?
In just two of my cases, the CIA subjected two women (one pregnant), and four children between the ages of 6 and 12 to rendition. At least one other woman (Aafia Siddiqui) was rendered. But there may have been more: Threats were made about detainees’ children. The Senate Torture Report won’t have captured these cases because its terms explicitly excluded detainees who were rendered to third countries. (This is why you didn’t hear more about the known abductions of a pregnant woman and children: they were classified as ‘rendition’ rather than ‘CIA detention’ cases, and so did not form part of the SSCI study.)
How many prisoners died in CIA custody or after CIA renditions to third countries?
The death of Gul Rahman, who was doused with cold water in the CIA’s Salt Pit facility in Afghanistan, is public knowledge. There was also Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who was tortured in Egypt into giving false intelligence that was used to justify the Iraq War. (Former Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell later said his speech to the UN, which used some of the false torture intel derived from al-Libi, was a “blot” on his record.) Al-Libi was later rendered to Libya, where he died under mysterious circumstances.
But the same gaps in the Senate Torture Report about ‘rendered’ prisoners mean post-rendition deaths weren’t always captured. More worryingly still, the Senate report makes clear the CIA wasn’t even sure how many human beings it actually held over the years.
Is the CIA currently engaged in secret detention or rendition, and who oversees those practices?
Rendition is still on the table. Even President Obama’s presidential order closing the black sites preserved a residual ‘rendition’ program. This was used during his presidency to seize a small number of suspects abroad, secretly detain and question them on ships, and bring them to the U.S. for trial. Under President Trump there is at least one U.S. citizen held abroad who was detained without access to lawyers (until the ACLU brought a suit for him.)
The CIA’s post-9/11 history proves that without stringent oversight, abuses happen.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said the CIA deceived it about its use of torture. Why should we believe you will level with Congress now?
Haspel ought to be questioned about her approach to congressional oversight in general. The CIA’s systematic effort to obstruct investigations into the torture program (going so far as to spy on Senate staffers’ computers) were at least as corrosive to democracy as the abuse of detainees. The CIA got into a major fight with the Senate Intelligence Committee after staffers got hold of an internal document called the Panetta Review, which showed that the CIA’s own assessment of the torture program echoed many of the findings the committee would later make. This spat was the subject of an extraordinary speech by Feinstein on the Senate floor, in which she said the CIA’s actions “may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function.”
There have also been worrying signs the CIA is seeking to eliminate various copies of the full Torture Report, now that the Administration in place is less likely to protect it. This, too, suggests a lack of respect for democratic oversight.
What has torture done to America’s relationships with its allies?
As head of the CIA, Haspel will be responsible for intelligence liaison relationships with America’s friends overseas. Many of these allies ran into serious political and legal difficulties because of complicity in the torture program. One of the main categories redacted from the Senate Torture Report was information about the nature of allied assistance.
In Great Britain, for example, the British intelligence agency MI6’s complicity in CIA torture was the subject of a massive political scandal and a rift between the U.S. and U.K. Cases arising from the rendition program are still pending in British court. Haspel should account for the torture program’s cost in American relationships abroad—and, by extension, U.S. national security.
How did the torture program affect terrorist recruitment?
The other consequence of CIA abuses to national security was, of course, blowback. It’s no accident that al-Qaeda recruitment videos routinely harp on American torture, or that ISIS staged its snuff films by dressing its victims in Guantánamo orange. Multiple national security experts agree: Torture drives disaffected and desperate young people into the arms of extremists who would hurt the United States. Haspel will be leading on international security policy in many respects and should answer for her part in this.
How did the torture program affect the U.S.’s ability to criticize others for abuse?
Just last week Russian intelligence operatives carried out an assassination attempt on the streets of the U.K. At least 21 people have been injured in the attack, including a British policeman. America’s ally Saudi Arabia, in a supposed crackdown on “corruption,” rounded up a number of businessmen and held them in secret in the Ritz, in conditions that make it sound like an ersatz five-star Guantánamo. Elevating people who support torture to run American intelligence agencies makes it difficult to take a moral stand against Russian aggression or Saudi secret detention.
Will the CIA allow the Senate’s full study on the torture program, and the Panetta Review, to be declassified and stored in the Library of Congress?
What is known as the Senate Torture Report is five hundred-plus pages of grim reading. But it’s just the Executive Summary—the tip of the iceberg. The full report, over five thousand pages, is the fullest historical record of post-9/11 torture we are likely ever to have. Haspel should be asked to commit to full declassification of this record, as well as the Panetta Review—the CIA’s secret internal assessment that the torture program was a colossal mistake. A copy of the documents should go in the Library of Congress, so the American public can understand, once and for all, what was done in their name.
*Editor’s Note: On Tuesday night, ProPublica retracted the story that first identified Haspel as having overseen the “black site” during Abu Zubaydah's interrogation. Haspel's tenure began after the Zubaydah episode, ProPublica said, but coincided with at least some of the torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. This story has been updated to reflect the latest available information.