Political News

Haspel Portrays CIA Torture as a Bad Idea in ‘Hindsight’

Posted May 15, 2018 3:19 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, declared that the agency should not have undertaken its interrogation program in which al-Qaida detainees were tortured after the Sept. 11 attacks — a condemnation she refused to make at her confirmation hearing last week.

In a letter to the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, Haspel said one of the “hard lessons since 9/11” was the costs of the agency’s use of torture, which she called “enhanced interrogation.” The committee is set to vote on her nomination Wednesday.

“While I won’t condemn those that made these hard calls, and I have noted the valuable intelligence collected, the program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world,” she wrote. “With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken. The United States must be an example to the rest of the world, and I support that.”

The letter, delivered to Warner along with her written responses to other questions posed by senators, struck a different tone than Haspel took at her confirmation hearing last week. Though she vowed during her testimony never to restart a detention and interrogation program and said she would obey current law, she also refused to condemn the agency’s defunct torture program and insisted that it had been legal at the time.

In 2002, Haspel ran a secret CIA prison in Thailand during which a captured al-Qaida detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, was tortured. He was subjected to waterboarding, forced nudity, prolonged sleep deprivation and other coercive interrogation tactics.

At the conclusion of last week’s hearing, Warner noted that John Brennan, who led the CIA in the second term of the Obama administration, had during his 2013 confirmation process “quite explicitly repudiated” the agency’s interrogation program.

Brennan told the committee at the time that he was not involved in creating the interrogation program and did not try to stop it, but “had expressed my personal objections and views to some agency colleagues about certain” techniques, such as waterboarding and nudity and others.

Haspel’s written responses also briefly addressed other important issues that did not come up at her hearing. Asked about the Iran nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from last week, she said that Iran had continued to substantially meet its commitments, including by observing limits on its centrifuges and amounts of low-enriched uranium and by not pursuing the original design of its heavy water research reactor.

She also said she agreed with the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and pledged to “fully cooperate” with the investigations into it, including by special counsel Robert Mueller.

But most of the written questions, like in her hearing, addressed issues related to the CIA’s defunct torture program and her role in it. Several addressed apparent discrepancies in her testimony.

For example, Haspel had testified that she was only briefed about the interrogation program after a year. But the agency developed its torture techniques in the summer of 2002 and she was running a prison where they were used later that year.

Asked about that disconnect, she wrote that she meant she was told about the program a year after President George W. Bush had signed a then-classified memorandum of notification authorizing the CIA to capture and detain terrorists in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. The agency considered its interrogation program to derive from that authority.

Haspel was also involved in the CIA’s destruction, in 2005, of 92 videotapes of detainee interrogation sessions. As chief of staff to the head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez, she drafted an order he issued to destroy the records as congressional scrutiny of the program increased.

During the hearing, she said that only one detainee was depicted on those tapes. That raised questions because declassified documents show that two of the tapes recorded the interrogations of al-Nashiri, the detainee tortured in her custody, and the rest were of another prisoner, Abu Zubaydah.

Asked about that apparent discrepancy, Haspel disclosed that a CIA lawyer who reviewed the tapes in 2002 found that there were no viewable videotapes of the interrogation of al-Nashiri, so only one detainee was depicted on them when they were destroyed. (Several of the tapes were blank and two were broken, but it has never been made public which ones; she did not explain how both of the Nashiri tapes were rendered unviewable.) The tapes’ destruction prompted a special investigation by Justice Department prosecutor John Durham, who in 2010 apparently recommended against charging either Rodriguez or Haspel. The Justice Department has provided to the Intelligence Committee the executive summary of a classified report by Durham laying out his factual findings and legal analysis, and several senators of both parties have asked the department to make that available to the full Senate as well.

In addition, Senate Democrats have now asked the Trump administration to provide a little-known second report by Durham related to his investigation. It centered on whether anyone who was interviewed by investigators or testified before a grand jury made false statements or committed perjury.

Durham completed the review in 2012 and provided a copy to the office of the deputy attorney general, according to a declaration he filed with a court during a New York Times lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act seeking his reports to the department.

Durham did not charge anyone with such a crime, and it is not clear whether anything said by Haspel, as opposed to some other CIA subject or witness, contributed to his decision to open a follow-up review. It is also not clear whether the Justice Department will provide that second report to the lawmakers before the committee votes on her nomination.