Gina Haspel, Torture, and the ProPublica Correction

ProPublica’s comprehensive correction to significant portions of its earlier reporting on Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s recent nominee for CIA Director, provided an important update last week to the public’s understanding of Haspel’s relationship to the CIA’s so-called Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) program, but the correction also made significant news of its own.

While a laudable and no doubt painful exercise in journalistic integrity on ProPublica’s part, the outlet’s admission does nothing to change the basic facts surrounding why Haspel’s nomination is so controversial, and why human rights groups, like the one I help lead, feel that her confirmation would send exactly the wrong message to the American people, U.S. government personnel, our allies, and our adversaries.

To summarize the record, ProPublica’s correction dealt with a widely cited article it produced in 2017 that erroneously indicated that Haspel had been installed as the chief of base at a CIA “black site” in Thailand during the summer of 2002, at which time al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was subjected to various forms of torture and cruel treatment. In fact, it appears Haspel did not arrive to lead the black site until October 2002, after Zubaydah’s violent interrogation at that facility had concluded.

But the ProPublica correction does not pertain to several other aspects of her troubling record that remain unchallenged, or about which we have insufficient information. Consider the following related to Haspel’s relationship with the RDI program, which Human Rights First highlighted in a backgrounder we made public last week:

  • Haspel served as chief of base of the CIA black site referred to as Detention Site GREEN in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a secret prison in Thailand where detainees were subjected to torture and other unlawful abuse. At GREEN, she directly oversaw Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri’s interrogation using so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding;
  • According to a May 2004 report from the CIA’s Inspector General, Haspel may have had involvement in the application of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” that “went beyond the projected use of the technique as originally described by [the Justice Department (DOJ)]” (which, it should be added, DOJ later opined “[were] not significant for purposes of DOJ legal opinions”); and
  • In 2005, she drafted and signed her name to a cable, on behalf of her boss, Jose Rodriguez, ordering the destruction of dozens of videotapes capturing the interrogations of both Zubaydah and Nashiri, despite directives to the contrary from the White House, the Department of Justice, and members of Congress. Haspel was working as chief of staff to Rodriguez, who was then director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. Rodriguez wrote in his memoir that in 2005, “my chief of staff drafted a cable approving the action we had been trying to accomplish for so long. The cable left nothing to chance. It even told them how to get rid of the tapes. They were to use an industrial-strength shredder to do the deed.”

Judging by the accounts of several well-respected leaders in the national security arena, Haspel is a deeply knowledgeable and esteemed career intelligence officer. Those who support her candidacy tend to argue that she was following what she believed to be lawful instructions that fell within the ambit of guidance from DOJ (although even this defense does not fully address her role in the destruction of the interrogation videotapes). If confirmed, she might well serve as a stabilizing influence in an intelligence community frequently under assault from the commander-in-chief. It is also conceivable that, during the confirmation process, she may ultimately state publicly that she regrets her involvement in the RDI program.

Yet none of these factors should override the simple truth that Haspel’s confirmation and subsequent installment as a cabinet-level official will be seen, at home and abroad, as a referendum on America’s condoning of torture, as its proponents have already made clear.

The fact that Haspel has attracted some bipartisan support from former officials should not blur this point. Unless there are missing facts, it is well established that Haspel was involved, over the course of at least three years, in actions that permanently stained America’s reputation, increased risk to U.S. service members operating overseas, hindered cooperation with allies, and provided a ready-made propaganda tool to extremists.

Of course, it remains possible that there is information that has yet to surface that would cast Haspel in a more favorable light. Indeed, as the ProPublica correction demonstrates, the American people still know very little about Haspel’s actions related to the RDI program. To inform the public, and members of Congress, in advance of any confirmation vote on Haspel, it remains essential that the CIA declassify and release all relevant documents related to her personal involvement in America’s legacy of post-9/11 torture.

If dispositive new facts fail to emerge, however, the current record is too troubling to ignore. The years after 9/11 marked a dark and difficult time, but Gina Haspel did not have to do what she did. She could have asked to be reassigned. She could have sought another job. Others faced with similar choices chose differently. Based on what we currently know, a vote for Haspel is therefore ultimately a vote to erode U.S. credibility as an opponent of torture at a time when that credibility has already been seriously tested. For those in the Senate and beyond who believe this is an issue that goes to the core of what the United States stands for, or should stand for, her confirmation stands as a stark moment of truth.

 

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Rob Berschinski

Senior Vice President for Policy at Human Rights First, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Follow him on Twitter (@RobBerschinski).