Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee for CIA director, acknowledged during her confirmation hearing that she was a staunch advocate for the destruction of CIA torture videotapes in 2005.
Ninety-two tapes of the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri were destroyed. Jose Rodriguez, who was the director of the CIA’s clandestine service, wrote in his memoir that Haspel, his chief of staff, helped draft the cable that ordered the destruction.
According to Haspel’s prepared statement, which she gave at the beginning of the question-and-answer portion of hearing, the issue with tapes “lingered at the CIA for a period of about three years.” She argued CIA was concerned about the safety of officers depicted on the tapes. “Those security issues centered on the threat from al Qaida should those tapes be irresponsibly leaked.”
Rodriguez was the sole person responsible for the decision. CIA lawyers informed Rodriguez and Haspel there was “no legal impediment to disposing of the tapes” because there was a “complete and written record of the interrogations” in the form of cables. And Rodriguez ultimately chose not to further consult with CIA Director Porter Goss.
Haspel cited investigations that found no fault with her actions—one was conducted by the House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence, another was conducted by CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell (who has endorsed Haspel for CIA director).
California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was at the forefront of the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation into torture, asked Haspel if she was an “advocate for destroying the tapes.”
“Absolutely was an advocate if we could within and conforming to U.S. law and if we could get policy concurrence to eliminate the security risk posed to our officers by those tapes,” Haspel stated.
“And you were aware of what those tapes contained?” Feinstein added.
“No, I never watched the tapes but I understood our officers’ faces were on them and that was very dangerous at a time of unauthorized disclosures that were exposing the program,” Haspel said.
“But it also exposed how the program was conducted because they were tapes of the actual interrogation” of two detainees, Feinstein asserted.
Facts Undermine Haspel’s Testimony
The version of events described by Haspel is undermined by the facts in the Senate intelligence committee’s report on the CIA torture program.
The investigation that resulted in a 6,300-page report and a declassified 525-page summary was sparked by the destruction of tapes. It documents what transpired around the tapes’ destruction.
In October, the Senate passed a version of the Detainee Treatment Act as concerns over abuse and torture of detainees became more and more public. Vice President Dick Cheney had his office brief Republican Senators John McCain, Ted Stevens, Thad Cochran, Bill Frist, and John Cornyn, who could help defend the CIA program outside of the intelligence committee.
Senator Carl Levin proposed an independent commission to investigate U.S. detention policies and allegations of detainee abuse on November 4. Days later, Haspel drafted the cable ordering destruction. His amendment failed on November 8, 2005, and the following day the CIA destroyed the tapes.
During the hearing, Senator Mark Warner asked Haspel about these ongoing actions with legislators. She claimed to be oblivious but also said there were plans to talk to the CIA director about how to deal with objections outside the agency.
The Senate report clearly demonstrates risks to interrogators were not the key motivation for destroying the tapes.
On October 31, 2005, CIA General Counsel John Rizzo wrote in an email, “Sen. Levin’s legislative proposal for a 9/11-type outside commission to be established on detainees seems to be gaining some traction, which obviously would serve to surface the tapes’ existence.”
“I need to be the skunk at the party again and see if the director is willing to try one more time to get the right people downtown on board with the notion of our destroying the tapes,” Rizzo added.
A senior CIA attorney, who viewed the tapes, responded, “You are correct,” and, “The sooner we resolve this, the better.” The legal department at the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) agreed this was a good idea, and a representative at CTC wrote, “Commissions tend to make very broad document production demands, which might call for these videotapes that should have been destroyed in the normal course of business [two] years ago.”
On November 16, 2006, CIA witnesses testified that the CIA did not videotape interrogations. They were speaking about the present and obscured the reality that past videotaping and destruction of videotapes occurred.
Damaging Information Kept ‘Under Wraps’
Haspel and officials at the CIA have deliberately made it difficult for the public to judge her past by refusing to declassify records that would reveal wrongdoing or further embarrass her, as she goes through her confirmation.
“There is no greater indictment of this nomination process than the fact that you are deciding what the country gets to know about you and what it doesn’t,” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon declared. “And so far the American people have only been given information that is designed to help you get confirmed. Everything else has been classified.”
Feinstein complained, “The CIA selectively declassified only small pieces of information to bolster your information while keeping damaging information under wraps. Given the CIA’s refusal to make your record public, I’m very limited in what I can say.”
In fact, Feinstein asked a basic question: “In November and December of 2002, did you oversee the enhanced interrogation [torture] of al-Nashiri, which included the use of the waterboard, as publicly reported? Yes or no?”
But Haspel refused to answer the question for the public.
“Anything about my classified assignment history throughout my 33 years, we can talk about in this afternoon’s classified session,” Haspel replied. “There are existing classification guidelines that apply to operational activity of any officer. It has been suggested to me by my team that if we try to declassify some of my operational history it would help my nomination. I said that we could not do that.”
“It is very important that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency adhere to the same classification guidelines that all employees must adhere to,” Haspel added, as if thwarting transparency was some kind of virtuous act.
Multiple executive orders on classified information prohibit keeping information hidden to conceal “violations of law” or to “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency.”
Haspel appeared to take offense when Wyden insisted she answer whether she called for the continuation of the torture program between 2005 and 2007.
“After 9/11, I didn’t look to go sit on the Swiss desk. I stepped up,” Haspel proclaimed. “I was not on the sidelines. I was on the front lines in the Cold War, and I was on the front lines in the fight against al Qaida.”
CIA Torture Techniques Were Never Legal
In defending herself and the CIA, Haspel declared, “We follow the law. We followed the law then, and we follow the law now.”
But New Mexico Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich countered, “I don’t believe those actions were ever legal. They certainly didn’t meet the bar set by either the Geneva Conventions or our own Army Field Manual, and I’m not aware of a single court ruling that affirmed [an Office of Legal Counsel] opinion.” (The OLC opinion was widely touted by officials in President George W. Bush’s administration as justification for torture.)
Federal prosecutor John Durham was appointed by Attorney General Michael Mukasey (who supports Haspel’s nomination) to investigate the torture tapes’ destruction in 2008. Durham ultimately declined to recommend criminal charges in 2010.
When Wyden asked if Haspel would support the declassification of Durham’s investigation, Haspel suggested she was not aware of the contents.
The Durham investigation was conducted within the Justice Department and could be revealing, since it was completed outside of the CIA—even though no charges were ever brought against Rodriguez, Haspel, or any other officials.
Multiple times, Haspel contended she would have the moral compass to stand up to President Donald Trump if she was asked to restart the CIA’s torture program. To which Heinrich asked, where was that moral compass when the program was operating at full capacity.
“That was 17 years ago. It’s CIA, like the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Marine Corps, is an organization. It’s a large bureaucracy, and when you’re out in the trenches at far-flung outposts in the globe and Washington says here’s what we need you to do. This is legal. The Attorney General has deemed it so. The President of the United States is counting on you to prevent another attack,” Haspel responded.
Haspel was stationed at a CIA black site in Thailand.
The record undermines claims that destruction had to happen to protect CIA officers’ identities. Even so, Heinrich wondered why the CIA did not simply black out faces, destroy the tapes, and then keep a digital record.
“Senator, I’m just not a technical person so I don’t know,” Haspel replied.
“It’s not that complicated,” Heinrich said.
“I don’t know if that was considered or not,” Haspel added.
To the argument that a transcript of the interrogations was enough to convey the inhumanity of what was done, Heinrich asked, “Do you think that a transcript that says that the detainee continued to scream or the detainee appeared to be drowning has the same gravity, the same reality, as an actual video?”
“I never saw the videos. I do know we keep a very complete and almost verbatim records in our cable traffic,” Haspel answered.
The question went completely over her head. Obviously, Heinrich was trying to communicate that citizens have a right to know what their government was doing in their name. Destroying public records is deeply unethical if not criminal.
Haspel, on the other hand, harbors no concerns. She only cares about the CIA’s public image and that is one of the main reasons why she can claim the CIA will never be in the interrogation business again. She does not know how to defend it and does not want to be in this position again.