The new deputy director of the CIA allegedly ran a “black site” prison in Thailand where suspects were waterboarded, a form of torture that Donald Trump supports.
Gina Haspel, selected by Trump and appointed by CIA director Mike Pompeo on Thursday, reportedly had a leading role in the intelligence agency’s covert post-9/11 programme in which simulated drowning and other painful interrogation techniques were used on detainees overseas.
She briefly ran a black site in Thailand where suspected al-Qaida members Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri were tortured in 2002, and Haspel later helped carry out an order that the CIA destroy its waterboarding videos, US officials told Reuters and Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
CIA cables on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah at the site, codenamed Cat’s Eye, were declassified last month. They revealed he was waterboarded 83 times in a month and had his head repeatedly slammed into walls.
Thai junta tightens grip on justice system with ‘black site’ for civilian suspects
Interrogators also used sleep deprivation and kept Abu Zubaydah in a “large box”, the documents said. His captors later decided he held no useful intelligence.
Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, said in an article endorsing Haspel on Thursday that she had drafted a cable instructing a “field station” to destroy videotapes of CIA interrogations.
“She did so at the request of her direct supervisor and believing that it was lawful to do so. I personally led an accountability exercise that cleared Haspel of any wrongdoing in the case,” he wrote.
A US justice department investigation into the destruction of the tapes ended without charges. Thailand has denied knowing about the black site.
Trump claimed last month that torture works and suggested that his leading security advisers were advocating a return to harsh interrogation techniques.
He added that he would defer to his defence secretary, James Mattis, and Pompeo to determine what could and could not be done legally.
“I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence, and I asked them the question ‘Does it work? Does torture work?’ And the answer was ‘Yes, absolutely’,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, we have to fight fire with fire.”
As well as significant overseas experience during a three-decade career, Haspel, 60, has held several senior positions in Washington, including deputy director of the National Clandestine Service for Foreign Intelligence and Covert Action. She also served as the agency’s top representative in London.
The Bush administration authorised the use of waterboarding after the 9/11 attacks, operating from unacknowledged overseas black sites to avoid domestic restriction on interrogation techniques.
Leon Panetta, the former CIA director who gave the orders to close the agency’s black sites, has said torture violates American values and its constitution.
Last week, news organisations obtained draft copy of an executive order reported to be circulating the White House that would reopen CIA detention facilities outside the US and review interrogation methods.
Christopher Anders, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, said he was “gravely concerned” about Haspel’s appointment.
“Pompeo must 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.”
During his confirmation hearing, Pompeo said he would “absolutely not” restart the use of illegal interrogation techniques. But he later added: “If experts believed current law was an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country, I would want to understand such impediments and whether any recommendations were appropriate for changing current law.”
Democrat Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said while he appreciated Haspel’s many years of service he wanted “reassurance from her that she intends to comply with both the spirit and the letter of the law, like director Pompeo testified that he would during his confirmation process”.
Other veteran intelligence officials praised the promotion of Haspel. James Clapper, the former national intelligence director, said in a statement that Haspel was a seasoned veteran of the agency who was widely respected by the workforce as well as those outside.
In Pompeo’s announcement, he said Haspel was a “proven leader with an uncanny ability to get things done and to inspire those around her”.
Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House aide and Trump’s former campaign manager, congratulated Haspel in a tweet, saying she was the first female to be second in command at the CIA. However, Avril Haines was the first woman to hold the position, from 2013-15.