CIA Nominee Gina Haspel Actually Did Not Supervise the Agency’s Most Notorious Use of Waterboarding

CIA deputy director Gina Haspel, who was responsible for some but not all dubious interrogations at a “black site” in Thailand. Photo: CIA

Part of the problem with official secrecy is that when information is only partially disclosed it is easy for watchdogs to get some crucial information half-wrong. This seems to have been the case with CIA deputy director — and now the president’s choice to succeed Mike Pompeo as director — Gina Haspel.

When Haspel was first appointed deputy director — a position that does not require Senate confirmation — in early 2017, it was widely reported that she supervised a CIA “black site” in Thailand beginning in 2002 where two highly controversial interrogations took place, the most notorious being that of Abu Zubaydah. He was a man whose intelligence value was never clearly established. But he was permanently damaged (and nearly killed) by interrogations in Thailand that included 83 waterboardings, and later tortured some more at a second black site in Poland (for which Poland was ultimately fined by the European Court of Human Rights). Haspel was also charged with responsibility for a second interrogation that involved much less serious waterboarding, and then for either recommending or actually carrying out the destruction of tapes of both interrogations.

All these alleged acts were troubling and borderline-illegal and contributed to the closure of the black sites by President Obama in 2009 and the establishment of new restrictions on torture by Congress in 2015. But it was the Zubaydah interrogation that became the center-piece of a national debate on torture. And it now appears that claims of Haspel’s responsibility for torturing Zubaydah, based on heavily redacted material from the CIA, much of it conveyed to the public in a 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report, may have been erroneous.

Yesterday ProPublica issued a correction of its 2017 report on Haspel and the Thailand black site:

On Feb. 22, 2017, ProPublica published a story that inaccurately described Gina Haspel’s role in the treatment of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al-Qaida leader who was imprisoned by the CIA at a secret “black site” in Thailand in 2002.

The story said that Haspel, a career CIA officer who President Trump has nominated to be the next director of central intelligence, oversaw the clandestine base where Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding and other coercive interrogation methods that are widely seen as torture. The story also said she mocked the prisoner’s suffering in a private conversation. Neither of these assertions is correct and we retract them. It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended.

Interestingly enough, the New York Times reached the same conclusion in a report earlier this week that was largely overlooked:

Ms. Haspel arrived to run the prison in late October 2002, after the harsh interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah, a former senior C.I.A. official said. In mid-November, another Qaeda suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri arrived. Mr. Nashiri, accused of bombing the U.S.S. Cole, was the man who was waterboarded three times.

And so, in ProPublica’s summary of where we stand now, the charges against Haspel have shrunk but hardly disappeared:

The February 2017 ProPublica story did accurately report that Haspel later rose to a senior position at CIA headquarters, where she pushed her bosses to destroy the tapes of Zubaydah’s waterboarding. Her direct boss, the head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, ultimately signed the order to feed the 92 tapes into a shredder. Her actions in that instance, and in the waterboarding of al-Nashiri, are likely to be the focus of questions at her confirmation hearings.

Because of the lurid nature of the Zubaydah interrogation, and particularly the hints we’ve gotten that whoever was in charge of the black site at the time was personally involved, a lot of the thunder and lightning about Haspel has involved that particular case. Now conservative media outlets are drawing attention to the ProPublica retraction of its earlier story as a big setback for her opponents.

Had Haspel not (allegedly) participated in the destruction of the most compelling evidence about the torture of Zubaydah, of course, she would have not been accused of being involved in it in the first place. So she doesn’t exactly come to the table for discussion of that mistaken charge with clean hands. And the CIA itself could make Haspel’s confirmation hearings a lot easier by declassifying more of the relevant information.

The other big question is whether Donald Trump appointed Haspel as CIA Director precisely because he wants a renewed debate over torture, which he seems to favor even more avidly than the Bush administration officials with ultimate responsibility for the CIA black sites. Perhaps he will even be disappointed if it transpires that Gina Haspel wasn’t quite the avid torturer she was alleged to have been in earlier reports. But there remains enough issues with her record to sustain a robust confirmation hearing.

CIA Nominee Didn’t Supervise Most Notorious Waterboarding