Trump’s new CIA chief pick’s torture past clouds her future

CIA Handout/ AFP | Gina Haspel has been nominated as the CIA's new director.

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday hailed Gina Haspel as “the first woman” tapped to be the new CIA director. But with her track record of links to secret overseas detention sites and torture, Haspel may not be the best woman for the job.


In March 2002, an FBI agent fluent in Arabic was called in to interrogate a suspect captured in a raid on a suspected al Qaeda safe house in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad.

The suspect had been wounded during the raid and when Ali Soufan, a Lebanon-born FBI agent, arrived to question him, he found the detainee in bad shape: he had been shot in the thigh, testicle and stomach, and appeared delirious.

Soufan and another FBI colleague did what they could to ease the detainee’s suffering. They held ice to his parched lips, helped change his soiled clothes and asked for clean bed linen. A rapport -- built on kindness -- was established between the suspect and agents. Gradually, the suspect began to talk in his native Arabic.

What he revealed turned out to be solid gold for the US military campaign against al Qaeda.

The suspect was Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, a Saudi citizen better known as Abu Zubaydah.

Within the first few days, Zubaydah revealed that the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was a certain Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani national who was not known to have al Qaeda links at that time. The detainee also provided information on an active terror plot, which immediately led to the arrest of an al Qaeda suspect in Chicago.

But suddenly the flow of valuable intelligence stopped.

In his 2011 book, “The Black Banners”, and in a testimony before the US Senate Judiciary Committee, Soufan identified what he believed was the problem: torture.

The former FBI agent who now heads the Soufan Group -- a New York-based security intelligence company -- insists that torture as an interrogation technique does not work and often backfires.

In Zubaydah’s case, the flow of intelligence stopped after the Saudi citizen was transferred to a “black site” -- or secret, CIA-operated prison established in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

That black site was in Thailand and run by Gina Haspel, a little-known undercover CIA operative.

On Tuesday, Haspel entered the annals of American history when Trump announced her nomination as the first female director of the CIA.

Destroyed torture videotapes

Haspel’s nomination was part of the domino effect caused by the ouster of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. With CIA director Mike Pompeo tapped to replace Tillerson as the top US diplomat, Haspel is now being considered for a promotion from CIA deputy director to US spy chief.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Trump called the 61-year-old CIA deputy director “an outstanding person” and noted that he had worked closely with her.

Hours after Trump’s shock announcement, Sen. Richard Burr (R), chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, said he expected to support Haspel’s nomination as CIA chief and that he would ensure the process would be completed “without delay”.

In a statement, Burr noted, "I know Gina personally and she has the right skill set, experience, and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies."

Democrats and human rights advocates, however, are bound to disagree.

In 2013, when the CIA attempted to make Haspel the head of the agency’s clandestine service department, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D), then head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, worked the phones in a successful bid to block Haspel’s confirmation to the post.

Of particular concern was Haspel’s involvement in one of the darkest chapters of the spy agency’s history: the 2005 destruction of interrogation videotapes stored in a safe at the CIA station in Thailand.

According to a May 2013 Washington Post report, Haspel’s former colleagues claimed she'd lobbied for years to have the videotapes taken in Thailand destroyed.

Raking up old demons

The issue of the destroyed Thailand videotapes is likely to resurface, this time publicly, during congressional confirmation hearings for the new CIA chief.

Last year, when Haspel was appointed deputy director of the agency, a number of US media groups published details of the career CIA officer’s controversial past. In a report titled, “The New CIA deputy chief’s black site past,” the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins noted that Haspel’s appointment showed that the “debate about torture in the President’s mind, if there ever was one, is over”.

But while the CIA deputy director position is exempt from congressional confirmation, the top job at the spy agency isn’t and the confirmation process is bound to rake up old demons of the George W. Bush years.

In a statement expressing his opposition to Haspel’s nomination, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, noted, “Her nomination must include total transparency about this background, which I called for more than a year ago when she was appointed deputy director. If Ms. Haspel seeks to serve at the highest levels of US intelligence, the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from her past."

Lawsuits across the Atlantic

Haspel’s nomination could also spark human rights campaigns and lawsuits across the Atlantic.

A Berlin-based civil rights group has filed a criminal complaint to the German authorities to issue an arrest warrant for Haspel, over claims she oversaw the torture of terrorism suspects.

Following Haspel’s promotion to CIA deputy director last year, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) updated its legal briefing requesting her arrest.

The New York-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is also suing two psychologists contracted by the CIA to use torture techniques. The ACLU submission claims the two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jensen, were answerable to Haspel.

While the human rights cases go through the courts, few expect Haspel to spend time behind bars.

For some of the victims of the torture programme she oversaw, though, that horrific chapter of their lives is not yet over.

More than 15 years after Zubaydah was hooded, handcuffed and dispatched from Pakistan to Thailand, the Saudi national is still being held at the Guantanamo detention facility without charges. Zubaydah is among a group of detainees deemed too innocent to charge but too dangerous to release, and his case is subject to period reviews.

In the course of one month at the CIA station in Thailand, a US investigation revealed that Zubaydah had been waterboarded 83 times and his head repeatedly slammed into walls.

“As head of the secret prison in Thailand, Gina Haspel followed each day of Abu Zubaydah's torture from Aug. 4 to 23, 2002, and she alone had the responsibility to end this torture but failed to do so," reads the ECCHR submission to German authorities.

If the Senate Intelligence Committee approves the country’s first female CIA director, it’s not likely to be welcomed by women’s rights activists across the world.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning