Today, the U.S. Senate begins confirmation hearings for Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee for Director of the CIA. In 2002 and 2003 Haspel ran one of the CIA’s so-called “black sites,” where we detained suspected terrorists and tortured many of them. The hearings will be a referendum on this shameful and too often ignored chapter in U.S. history, and the outcome will show the world how the American government thinks Americans should behave, and what we think of the laws of war and human rights that we wrote ourselves. In the name of national security and basic human decency, Haspel should be humiliated and ultimately rejected for the role she played in this abuse, which brought shame on our government and weakened national security.
It seems Haspel has a sense of what’s coming. Last week she reportedly tried to withdraw her nomination out of fear for—get this—not her own reputation, but that of the CIA. Some Senators, it’s clear, will use the confirmation hearings to shine a blacklight on the bedsheets of the Enhanced Interrogation Motel. Under similar circumstances, Mike Pompeo, the former director of the CIA, roundly disavowed the use of torture in his confirmation hearings last year. Haspel, though, who ran one of the CIA detention facilities, is a special target. Yet the Trump administration—who have attacked the U.S. intelligence community more than they’ve defended them—encouraged Haspel to press on. It’s not about torture, they’re saying. It’s about feminism.
She is not the first woman to serve as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as Representative Devin Nunes of California said. (Avril Haines was the first.)
I’d love to see a woman run the CIA. Please nominate one who also didn’t run a torture site.
We have an opportunity here to stand up for the right thing, but will our elected leaders, in desperate defense of an increasingly hopeless GOP agenda, have the sense to agree that torture isn’t a partisan issue? Here’s some background on Haspel, and a reminder of just how bad what she, and we, did really was. Read this quick refresher, then please call your Senator and tell them to reject Gina Haspel’s nomination as CIA Director.
Gina Haspel Oversaw, Excused, and Covered Up the Torture of Human Beings
The American public still hasn’t reckoned with the fact that for years we tortured people in secret, sometimes to death. In 2014 the Senate put out a 500-page declassified report (the classified version is some 6,000 pages) that condemned the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation technique” program, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein described in her introduction as “a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values.” Sadly, President Obama didn’t want to dwell on this, either, and said like a coward that he “wanted to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” Haspel’s nomination, however, gives us an opportunity to do exactly that: look backwards and hold ourselves accountable for years of paleolithic brutality, often against people who never should have been detained to begin with.
Here are some things we did at these black sites (this doesn’t count Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay):
—Locked humans in small crates so they couldn’t straighten their limbs for hours, leading them to “scream unconsciously,” as one detainee put it
—Dragged them down hallways, naked, while punching them
—Slammed their heads into walls
—Deprived them of sleep for up to 180 hours at a time (more than a week straight)
—Simulated drowning (waterboarding) until they frothed at the mouth and their torsos and limbs convulsed
—Chained them up and watched while they froze to death, then blamed them for it
—They gave at least one detainee medical treatment for swelling so they could continue depriving him of sleep while standing.
That’s right: They helped someone get better so they could keep torturing him.
That’s basically a list of stuff psychotic children do to bugs. And that’s just the physical abuse, the stuff I figure will have the most impact on you in writing. We also, of course, tortured detainees psychologically.
The CIA knew exactly how bad and how illegal this all was. (It all pretty much rapes the Geneva convention.) One official said he was retiring before the public learned about the “enhanced interrogation” program, which he described as train wreck waiting to happen.
But what role did Haspel have in this?
From 2002 to 2005 Gina Haspel ran one of the most brutal CIA “black sites” (prisons), a facility in Thailand called Detention Site Green. The CIA created these sites to detain what they believed to be “high-value” terrorist prisoners, including some of the people behind the 9/11 attacks. Many of these people were tortured for information, most of which was useless, but more on that later. Haspel arrived at Site Green in September or October 2002, after we’d waterboarded one man there, Abu Zubaydah, 83 times the previous month. The abuse of Zubaydah was so bad that the CIA reported that if he died in custody he’d have to be cremated—which would destroy the evidence of torture. And if he survived? In that case, CIA officials said they would “need to get reasonable assurances that [the detainee] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.” And according to the Senate report:
...the CIA instructed personnel that the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah would take “precedence” over his medical care, resulting in the deterioration of a bullet wound Abu Zubaydah incurred during his capture.
But Haspel got there after Zubaydah’s waterboarding. No harm no foul, right?
First, Haspel did preside over the waterboarding of another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. But that’s arguably not the worst of it: The CIA videotaped the torture of Zubaydah, and Haspel, who soon served as chief of staff to the head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, advocated her boss destroy the tapes of Zubaydah’s waterboarding. They put the 92 tapes through a shredder. Her boss, Jose Rodriguez, wrote in his 2005 memoir that his chief of staff, Haspel, “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.”
The reason they shredded the tapes? The CIA had by that time learned they were wrong about Zubaydah. He wasn’t, as the CIA had believed, a top-five al Qaeda official. Those waterboardings, which they did 83 times because he wasn’t giving them intelligence, didn’t fail because he was withholding information. They failed because he wasn’t even a member of al Qaeda. He didn’t have information to give.
And Haspel covered it up. Even though she and her defenders (who include not only Republican representatives such as Devin Nunes, but Obama officials John Brennan and James Clapper) might argue Haspel in her interrogations had abided by what she believed was the letter of the law (as the DOJ defined it at the time), that doesn’t account for her role in covering up what turned out to be a criminal mistake, one that should disgrace any decent American.
But Haspel’s complicity didn’t stop with the destruction of the tapes. That was in the early 2000s, but she continued the cover-up even after she had a decade to think on it. In 2014, the Senate investigation of the torture program caused the intelligence community to catch all sorts of reasonable hell. In response, the CIA launched a media campaign to defend the program and win public support. But it turned out that this media campaign was based on the leaks of false, misleading, and incomplete information. Haspel contributed to these leaks.
That’s right: She’s a liar and a leaker.
Gina Haspel represents, through her own actions and her subsequent CIA promotions, not only one of the most cruel and indecent programs in the history of our country, but the lies we continue to tell in order to justify it.
Given this context it’s more than reasonable that, as the deputy director of the ACLU pointed out, it’s the duty of outgoing CIA Director Mike Pompeo to “explain to the American people how his promotion of someone allegedly involved in running a torture site squares with his own sworn promises to Congress that he will reject all forms of torture and abuse.”
But Sometimes You Gotta Play Dirty
Some people feel that even though CIA lied about the program, and in spite of the convincing arguments about its illegality, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. This was a different time, and you need to remember the context: We’d just been attacked, and our national security was in immediate danger of more attacks. Bin Laden was reportedly talking to nuclear scientists and had an anthrax-testing program. The need was urgent, or in the language of the intel community, it was a Ticking Bomb scenario.
Sadly, over the last two or three years we’ve seen a large percentage of the American population express an eagerness to draw hard lines between Americans and others, and use those lines to define not just nationalities but personhood. Only Americans are people, this argument goes, and to hell with the rest of them. We call this “nationalism.” It’s racist and inhumane, and wasn’t only expressed in our hair-trigger torture of innocent Muslims abroad, but in how we’ve treated the Muslim-American community, which many people still blanket blame for terrorist attacks here, with no basis in reality.
There’s no better representative than the man these people elected President, who is quick to single out Muslim terrorist attacks (so quick he’s sometimes wrong about them) but slow to condemn attacks carried out by white Americans. If he condemns them at all.
It’s no surprise, then, that Trump himself has expressed a willingness to bring back torture, because, like many of his supporters, he believes that savagely abusing captives in chains = strength. And if some of them are innocent, well, you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet, right? But this logic is flawed: You break every egg, and you throw them all into the omelet, but your omelet tastes like butt and a few hours later it gives you food poisoning.
Most of Trump’s nominees — such as General Mattis, Admiral Rogers, and Mike Pompeo — understand that torture is not only inhumane but ineffective and counterproductive, yet many Americans either don’t know or care enough to understand, or, like Trump, they have a misguided understanding of how counter-terrorism works. If you’re one of those “we can’t be weak so we gotta torture em” people, note that 109 retired U.S. generals and admirals signed a letter urging the Senate to reject Haspel.
So even if you’re willing to break international law and sacrifice a few people in the name of saving American lives, there’s a practical argument: Torture doesn’t even work.
According to neuroscientists and history and the torturers themselves, it doesn’t work.
According to Trump’s own beloved generals, it doesn’t work.
And more specifically, according to the Senate’s 6000-page retrospective on the program, we didn’t get much information from the people we tortured, and what little we did get was either redundant or inaccurate. The Senate concludes that, according to CIA records, seven out of the 39 detainees the CIA tortured gave them zero information, but detainees did give up significant and accurate intelligence before they were tortured, when they were simply presented with known intelligence information.
The CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques actually made things worse. According to the Senate report, several prisoners fabricated information about urgent matters, including “the terrorist threats which the CIA identified as its highest priorities.”
When the CIA tried to prove the “effectiveness” of the program to lawmakers and the Department of Justice, they omitted relevant information from other, un-tortured sources. This, the report said, gave “the false impression the CIA was acquiring unique information from the use of the techniques.” In truth, that information was redundant. What’s more, the Senate reports some of the plots that the CIA claimed it had disrupted were “assessed by intelligence and law enforcement officials as being infeasible or ideas that were never operationalized.”
And in perhaps the most clear testimony to the ineffectiveness of the program, it made things harder for the U.S.
First, other U.S. intelligence agencies didn’t want to work with the CIA. (This is further reflected in our allies’ refusal to work with the CIA in the wake of the revelations.) This cut both ways: The CIA rejected requests for intelligence from other agencies such as the FBI, information the FBI said they needed in order “to understand the CIA’s reporting on threats to the U.S. Homeland.” The CIA also refused to give the government access to information the torture program yielded.
As a response to the illegalities and immorality of the torture program specifically, the FBI and the Department of Defense restricted their involvement in CIA interrogation. According to the Senate report, this “reduced the ability of the U.S. Government to deploy available resources and expert personnel to interrogate detainees and operate detention facilities.”
On top of this, obviously, torture is free propaganda for extremists.
Those who defend the CIA program often make the point that it’s easy to forget the context. It was in many ways a different, more urgent and more confusing fight. Any tool they could use at the time was useful.
But that context proves the point: We rushed to used a tool that was extreme, illegal, and inhumane, and it turned out to be useless. We should indeed remember the context, but as a reminder of what not to do should we find ourselves in a similar time. Haspel’s confirmation hearings should remind us of our post-9/11 security scramble, and of what we did wrong.
Though the hearings might yield new information that in part exonerates or justifies Haspel’s decisions, it’s unlikely, given that she wanted to withdraw just last week. And indeed, if she’s asked about the program she might say she could only answer in a closed session, given the purported sensitivity of the information. That, however, shouldn’t stop Senators from pressing her publicly. As for those Senators, I emphasize again that this isn’t a partisan issue: Democrats and Republicans alike support Haspel. We can hope the opposite is true, too.