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What the Senate Needs to Know About Gina Haspel

With this nomination, Trump forces the CIA’s shameful past of torture yet again into the present

Gina Haspel, nominated by President Donald Trump on Tuesday to be the next CIA director, is perhaps best known for running a “black site” prison in Thailand, where she oversaw state-sponsored torture at the start of a program designed at the behest of the CIA and approved at the highest levels of the George W. Bush administration.  (Photo: CNN/Screenshot)

President Trump announced Tuesday on Twitter that he has decided to elevate Gina Haspel to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, succeeding Mike Pompeo, who he has nominated for secretary of state.

While the ACLU does not take positions on nominees, we do take a strong stance against torture.

Haspel is perhaps best known for running a “black site” prison in Thailand, where she oversaw state-sponsored torture at the start of a program designed at the behest of the CIA and approved at the highest levels of the George W. Bush administration. It was at this facility that the agency’s brutal tactics were first tested. One inmate, Abu Zubaydah, was waterboarded 83 times — with cruel methods continuing even after his abusers concluded that he did not have the threat information they sought.

In addition to waterboarding, for 19 days Zubaydah was repeatedly slammed into walls, kept for hours at a time in painful stress positions, denied sleep, beaten, starved, and locked for hours in coffin-like confinement boxes. These torture methods became a “template” for a program designed to psychologically break other detainees held in a network of secret CIA prisons.

Throughout this horror, Haspel reported to CIA headquarters on progress — including the failure to get any meaningful intelligence. Her participation was reportedly hands on. One of the CIA contractor psychologists who designed the program asserted in his memoir that a CIA official, widely understood to be Haspel, walked into an interrogation room to mock Abu Zubaydah, saying, “Good job! I like the way you’re drooling; it adds realism. I’m almost buying it. You wouldn’t think a grown man would do that.”

Yet the Trump administration maintains that Haspel’s role in the torture program is an official secret. Her job title, chief of base, is listed in a study about the torture program released by the Senate in 2014 and in documents released in the ACLU’s torture survivor clients’ litigation, but not her name — and important aspects of her wrongdoing are still blacked out. The Senate cannot credibly carry out its constitutional role to “advise and consent” on her nomination without full access to that information — which must be made public.

The CIA must declassify and publicly release all information relating to Haspel’s participation in the CIA’s torture program before any confirmation proceedings take place. The Senate — and more importantly, the American people — should know the full extent of her role in one of the darkest chapters in modern American history. Only then can senators fully and meaningfully assess whether she has the character, judgment, and experience to serve as CIA director.

The Senate must also look into Haspel’s role in the lawless destruction of videotapes documenting torture at the CIA black site in Thailand, including the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah. Former CIA official Jose Rodriguez reportedly referred to Haspel when he wrote in his memoir, “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.” Haspel played a key role in the destruction of evidence of the torture crimes that she herself had overseen in her prior CIA job. The general counsel of the 9/11 Commission has stated that the destruction of the videos may have amounted to obstruction of justice.

Despite this shocking record, Haspel continued to rise through the ranks of the CIA, which she has now been tapped to lead. Her promotion is perhaps the strongest symbol of the impunity granted to the program’s architects, who were effectively let off the hook by former President Obama’s decision to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

Given this deeply compromised background and her position as an agency veteran for over 30 years, Haspel will also likely offer little in terms of independent oversight. Instead, she will become a shining example of the agency’s impunity and recklessness. Particularly now, when the House Intelligence Committee seems to no longer take its oversight role seriously, there are even fewer real checks left on the CIA.

“I love it. I love it, I think it’s great,” Trump said of waterboarding during the presidential campaign. With this nomination, Trump forces the CIA’s shameful past yet again into the present. It’s now up to senators to decide if overseeing a secret torture cell should be a step on the way to running the CIA.

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Christopher Anders

Christopher Anders (@ChrisAndersDC) is deputy director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office.

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