A Torturer to Critics, a Consummate Professional to Colleagues

Trump's CIA pick could break the agency's glass ceiling — if she can answer tough questions on interrogation methods.

Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel speaks at the OSS Society's annual William J. Donovan Dinner in 2017. YouTube/The OSS Society
Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel speaks at the OSS Society's annual William J. Donovan Dinner in 2017. YouTube/The OSS Society


In the chaotic months that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, CIA veteran Gina Haspel found herself on the very darkest front of the CIA’s newly minted global war on terrorism.

Dispatched to Thailand by her agency bosses, Haspel was put in charge of a secret CIA prison that housed al Qaeda operatives snatched by the agency and transported to Southeast Asia.

Under Haspel’s supervision, staff at the secret prison waterboarded Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri three times. Before her arrival at the prison in October of 2002, CIA officers at the prison repeatedly waterboarded the al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, nearly killing him at one point.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate Haspel as the next director of the CIA after firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who he indicated would be replaced by Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director.

With her nomination, Haspel can expect to have the darkest chapter of her 32-year CIA career picked over in minute detail.

While key questions remain about Haspel’s exact role in al-Nashiri and Zubaydah’s torture, former agency officials argue that her personal responsibility for the CIA’s brutal interrogation program has been overstated by critics.

“Picturing her as the bloodthirsty female ready to rip terrorists apart is hardly the Gina Haspel I know,” says Michael Sulick, a former director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service.

CIA veterans describe Haspel as a consummate professional, among the agency’s very best. If confirmed, she would be the first woman to lead the agency, and the first chief from the operations division since William Colby, who led the agency from 1973 to 1976. “If you were picking a professional officer to head the agency I can’t think of a better person than Gina,” says John E. McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA.

Currently the number two official at the agency, Haspel has served as chief of station in multiple foreign countries, helped oversee CIA espionage against Russia, and served as the National Clandestine Service’s deputy director for foreign intelligence and covert action, the branch of the CIA responsible for recruiting assets abroad.

But for all that experience, her work in Thailand and the brutal interrogation that immediately preceded her arrival in Bangkok have assumed an outsize importance as symbolic of the violent American reaction to the 9/11 attacks.

While in CIA custody, Zubyadah appears to have suffered a mental breakdown. According to CIA cables described in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 report on the agency’s interrogation methods, when an interrogator “raised his eyebrow, without instructions,” Zubaydah “slowly walked on his own to the water table and sat down.” When his jailers snapped their fingers twice, Zubaydah would lie flat to be waterboarded. CIA cables described Zubaydah as at times “hysterical” and “distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate.”

The waterboarding of Zubaydah — as frequent as 83 times a month during the most intense period of his torture — left him on the edge of death.

It was only after his interrogation that the CIA concluded it had overstated his importance in the al Qaeda hierarchy.

These incidents have dogged Haspel’s career — unfairly, in the view of CIA insiders. According to this line of thinking, Haspel was following orders when she oversaw a facility used to torture detainees. Haspel used tactics that had been approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government and cleared by Justice Department lawyers.

“It isn’t just that she thought it was legal — it was legal,” McLaughlin says.

Some of the outstanding questions regarding Haspel’s time in Thailand are hard to answer since evidence has been destroyed. In 2005, Haspel’s supervisor at the CIA, Jose Rodriguez, ordered tapes documenting the interrogations at the Thailand site to be destroyed. Haspel wrote the cable with the order sent to the CIA station in Thailand, where the tapes were dumped in a shredder.

Before she can take over the reins at Langley, Haspel will face confirmation hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee and a confirmation vote by the full Senate, and she’s likely to face tough questioning from lawmakers.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was tortured by his Vietnamese captors while held as a prisoner of war, said in a forceful statement on Tuesday that Haspel must clear up her record. “The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history,” McCain said. “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process.”

Human rights groups and some Senate Democrats have reacted with dismay to Haspel’s appointment and are calling for additional documents related to her tenure to be declassified. “Gina Haspel was a central figure in one of the most illegal and shameful chapters in modern American history,” says Christopher Anders, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. “She was up to her eyeballs in torture: both in running a secret torture prison in Thailand, and carrying out an order to cover up torture crimes by destroying videotapes.”

On Tuesday Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, renewed his call for the CIA to declassify materials related to Haspel’s tenure — a call he first made when she was tapped as deputy director in 2017.

Other Democrats on the committee pledged to grill Haspel on her past. A spokesman for Sen. Kamala Harris, a prominent possible 2020 presidential candidate, said the California Democrat “plans to critically evaluate Ms. Haspel’s full record, including troubling press reports on her involvement with torture programs.”

If confirmed, Haspel would likely keep a far lower profile than than the voluble Kansas Republican she would replace. As director, Pompeo has staked out a series of hawkish policy positions on Iran and North Korea, public statements that have endeared him to Trump but have broken a tradition of relative silence by CIA chiefs on matters of policy.

With Pompeo serving as a surrogate to Trump and spending significant time at the White House briefing the president, Haspel has taken on a more low-key role, one she would likely bring to the director’s office if confirmed. “I know they have a good working relationship,” McLaughlin says. “She’s basically run the agency while Pompeo has been the outer face of the institution.”

Haspel’s nomination represents an institutional victory for the CIA. Since his election, Trump has railed against what he has described as the “deep state” officials plotting to undermine his administration. He has cast doubt on the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia mounted a covert campaign to boost his election chances.

“It’s really funny to me that this administration said so many nasty things about the deep state,” said John Sipher, a retired 28-year veteran of the CIA who oversaw operations against Russia. “Gina is the deep state.”

Editor’s note: Following the publication of this story, the CIA press office circulated a correction issued by ProPublica regarding Gina Haspel’s supervision of a secret agency prison in Thailand. According to that correction, Haspel did not supervise the interrogation of Zubaydah at the secret prison. Haspel had been described in multiple press reports as the chief of base during the Zubaydah’s August 2002 interrogation. Those reports were based on declassified CIA cables and congressional investigations reviewed by Foreign Policy. These reports, along with interviews with former senior CIA officials with insight into the interrogation program, served as the basis of FP’s description of Haspel’s work in Thailand. Widespread redactions of those cables and reports and the classified nature of Haspel’s past service prevented the correct identification of when she arrived in Thailand. A former senior intelligence official familiar with the matter confirmed to FP that Haspel arrived in Thailand in 2002 after the August interrogation of Zubaydah, during which he was repeatedly waterboarded. Another prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded three times while Haspel ran the Thailand prison. This story has been edited to reflect these facts. 

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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