As has just been announced, President Trump has announced the sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. This has set off a shuffle at the CIA. CIA Director Mike Pompeo has been nominated to head State. Pompeo’s deputy, Gina Haspel, has been nominated to run the CIA.
While I don’t expect smooth sledding for Pompeo, we can expect Haspel’s nomination hearing to be particularly rough. Because of one word: waterboarding.
Ordinarily, nominating a career intelligence officer (she joined the Agency in 1985), particularly one from the operations side of the house (she ran the Operations Directorate/National Clandestine Service and served undercover overseas) rather than a pencil-neck analyst, and a woman, would be considered an inspired choice in an administration where staffing seems to be constantly in flux. But Haspel’s nomination was controversial in a lot of quarters when she was promoted to the non-Senate-confirmed deputy director position:
The Intercept: The CIA’s New Deputy Director Ran a Black Site for Torture
The New Yorker: The New C.I.A. Deputy Chief’s Black-Site Past
Did I mention waterboarding?
The big dings on Haspel are that she was involved in the extraordinary rendition program which is where terrorists captured by the United States were handed over to other countries for interrogation. She ran a “black site” prison in Thailand where she was pretty meany-pants to Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Abu Zubaydah:
For example, when interrogators at a C.I.A. black site prison in Thailand confined Mr. Zubaydah in a cramped box on Aug. 5, 2002, they observed to headquarters that he showed “signs of distress,” according to one of the cables from a group the government declassified as part of a lawsuit against the psychologists who designed the program. The lawsuit is being brought by detainees represented by lawyers including from the American Civil Liberties Union. The A.C.L.U. provided the documents to The New York Times.
Mr. Zubaydah remembered the box experience in more vivid terms.
“I felt I was going to explode from bending my legs and my back and from being unable to spread them not even for short instants,” he wrote to his lawyers in 2008, noting that the box was so short and tight he could not sit up or change positions. “The very strong pain made me scream unconsciously.”
Other C.I.A. cables also clinically recount applying torture methods like the suffocation technique known as waterboarding. (Previously disclosed documents and the Senate report executive summary had already discussed Mr. Zubaydah’s waterboarding in extensive detail, including that he was subjected to the treatment 83 times in one month.) The contemporaneous cables describe him crying, but generally use bland descriptions, like: “Water treatment was applied.”
For Mr. Zubaydah, it felt as if he was “dying.” “They kept pouring water and concentrating on my nose and my mouth until I really felt I was drowning and my chest was just about to explode from the lack of oxygen.”
The waterboarding, alone, is guaranteed to be like catnip to Senate Democrats. While the renditions and roughing up of terrorists implicated in hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths will certainly draw the most attention, the biggest issue, in my view, is something different.
The sessions were videotaped and the recordings stored in a safe at the C.I.A. station in Thailand until 2005, when they were ordered destroyed. By then, Ms. Haspel was serving at C.I.A. headquarters, and it was her name that was on the cable carrying the destruction orders.
The agency maintains that the decision to destroy the recordings was made by Ms. Haspel’s boss at the time, Jose Rodriguez, who was the head of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service.
But years later, when the C.I.A. wanted to name Ms. Haspel to run clandestine operations, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, then the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, blocked the promotion over Ms. Haspel’s role in the interrogation program and the destruction of the tapes.
The destruction of the tapes is understandable…anyone who was alive during the Church Committee days knew the moment Democrats were in power they were going to savage the CIA for being effective. What is less understandable is signing off on the destruction without establishing an extensive record of your reluctance to do so.
As I posted at the time, I think Haspel’s appointment to deputy and now to director send a very strong message to the CIA about priorities. But we can expect a lot of fireworks as waterboarding is trotted back out, the word “torture” is hurled about, and the use of mean tactics against terrorists is condemned. Haspel will be confirmed…unless something a lot worse is revealed…but it will be very, very ugly.