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.