Why Gina Haspel, the Queen of Torture, Was Able to Rise to the Top of the CIA

Why Gina Haspel, the Queen of Torture, Was Able to Rise to the Top of the CIA

Why Gina Haspel, the Queen of Torture, Was Able to Rise to the Top of the CIA

Obama’s decision not to pursue accountability has given Bush administration criminals golden-shield powers.


President Trump finally found the opportunity to parade his pro-torture bona fides. In the latest cabinet shuffle, he promoted Gina Haspel as new director of the CIA. If Congress confirms her, she will replace Mike Pompeo, who is slated to become the new secretary of state. While Pompeo is a torture enthusiast like Trump—and many other Republican politicians—Haspel is the real deal. A career CIA agent, she played a leading role in the agency’s program of torture, kidnapping, and forced disappearance during the Bush administration.

In 2002, Haspel was assigned to run the black site (secret prison) in Thailand, where the first person taken into CIA custody, Abu Zubaydah, had already become a guinea pig for the human experimentation that would come to define the torture program. In Jose Rodriguez’s CIA-approved autobiography, Hard Measures, he explains how Haspel got that job: “Another superstar whom I recruited was ‘Jane’ [Gina Haspel], who had served extensive time overseas and was working in an Agency organization that provided surveillance support. I stole her away and had her head one of our earliest ‘black sites,’ where terrorists were interrogated.”

By the time Haspel arrived at the Thai black site, Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded 83 times, placed in a tiny confinement box, bashed into walls, and subjected to protracted sleep deprivation and other torture techniques—all with the approval of the Bush White House. This decision-making process is laid out, albeit in redacted form, in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s investigative report on the CIA program (see pages 29-49). Shortly after her arrival, Haspel oversaw the interrogation and torture of a Saudi national named Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was also waterboarded.

Only later did the administration admit that Abu Zubaydah was not only not a “top leader” of Al Qaeda, he wasn’t even a member of the terrorist organization. At the time, a declassified CIA cable from the site in Thailand to headquarters sought assurances that Abu Zubaydah “will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”

By the summer of 2002, the CIA wanted another kind of assurance as well: that operatives and agents would not be at risk of future prosecution for what they were doing to Al Qaeda. This is the origin story of the infamous August 1, 2002, “torture memo” authored by John Yoo when he was deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. In order to provide anxious CIA agents with a “golden shield” that would protect them from prosecution, Yoo crafted a memo that reinterpreted the definition of torture so narrowly that it would exclude tactics then already in use at the Thailand black site. Thus, Haspel plays a starring role in the US government’s attempt to “legalize” torture.

In 2003, Haspel was promoted to become Rodriguez’s chief of staff when he served as director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and she climbed up the clandestine ladder with him when he was promoted to director of operations. In 2005, she, along with her boss, played an integral role in the decision to destroy 92 videotapes of Abu Zubaydah and one other prisoner being waterboarded. The timing of this destruction is telling: The Bush administration’s authorization for torture was blowing up in the public domain, and Rodriguez and Haspel wanted to eliminate evidence of criminal wrongdoing, since torture is a crime. Haspel drafted the order to destroy the tapes, which were then locked in a CIA safe at the US embassy in Bangkok.

Although the CIA’s torture program effectively stopped while President Bush was still in office, it was canceled decisively in January 2009, when President Barack Obama signed an executive order on his second day in office. However, the Obama administration opted not to pursue accountability against those responsible for torture. Obama rationalized this inaction with the facile mantra that it was time for the nation to “look forward, not backward.” Thus, it was Obama who gave the torture memos the golden-shield powers that their authors had intended.

Nevertheless, the cancellation of the prerogative to torture riled up the right. Former Vice President Dick Cheney derided the new president as soft on terror. Cheney, who described waterboarding as “a no-brainer,” saw the repudiation of torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques” as it is euphemized, as a reversal of the inroads he and his ideological allies had made in building up an imperial presidency unfettered by law. Other right-wing politicians and pundits followed Cheney’s lead, and public support for torture, which had been increasing slowly since 2004, tipped over the 50 percent mark after the program was canceled. Among Republicans, support lurched upward, indicating that partisan adherents take their cues on such matters from political and media elites. Today, public support for torture is a litmus test for a brand of hard-eyed patriotism in which the universal principle of human dignity is scorned as a politically correct liberal fiction.

Trump rode this right-wing wave when he ran for president on a platform that promised to reverse many Obama-era policies, including a pledge to bring back the waterboard and “a hell of a lot more.” These aspirations hit a snag when Gen. James Mattis, who was being considered for secretary of defense (a position he now holds), told Trump there were better ways to get information than violently abusing detainees. But Trump was able to assuage his pro-torture constituency by appointing Haspel to be deputy director of the CIA, a position she has held until her latest promotion.

Haspel’s ascension illuminates what happens when there is no accountability, no truth, and no justice for torture. Because of the power and influence of the United States, this lack of accountability, truth, and justice undermines the power of international law and the strength of the anti-torture norm globally. Moreover, letting officials of past administrations get away with torture does nothing to deter the possibility of a future administration attempting to do it again. For these reasons, all possible pressure must be brought to bear on Congress to vote down Haspel’s nomination. This won’t right the wrongs of the past, but it would be an important political victory against Trump and the torture enthusiasts who live among us.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Gina Haspel had authority over the interrogation, detention, and torture of Abu Zubaydah, and mistakenly attributed to Haspel a quote that was actually from the interrogation team in Thailand. These mistakes have been corrected, and we have added language pointing out that Haspel did oversee the interrogation and waterboarding of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy