President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he had chosen Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel to run the agency while her boss, Mike Pompeo, replaces Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Haspel’s legacy is marked by her time in charge of one of the CIA’s most controversial programs to boot ― the torture of terror suspects in the early fight against al Qaeda.
Working as a clandestine officer in Thailand in 2002, Haspel reportedly was involved in the interrogations of two suspects, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, several news outlets reported last year. The methods used against the men included waterboarding Zubaydah 83 times in one month, to the point where doctors once had to revive him, and ramming his head into walls. He lost sight in one eye.
The torture sessions were videotaped, and Haspel also allegedly played a part in the tapes’ destruction in 2005. The CIA has disputed this, saying the decision fell to Haspel’s boss at the time, Jose Rodriguez.
CIA agents were legally able to torture terror suspects in black sites across the globe until former President Barack Obama ended the practice via executive order in 2009.
“Ms. Haspel’s background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement Tuesday. “Her nomination must include total transparency about this background, which I called for more than a year ago when she was appointed deputy director. If Ms. Haspel seeks to serve at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence, the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from her past.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who blocked Haspel’s promotion to acting head of the agency’s clandestine service in 2013 for her involvement in the torture program, refused to make her stance clear on Tuesday.
“Well, I have spent some time with her, we’ve had dinner together, we have talked … everything I know is, is that she has been a good deputy director of the CIA,” Feinstein said. “I think hopefully the entire organization learned something from the so-called enhanced interrogation program. I think it’s something that can’t be forgotten. And I certainly can never forget it. And I won’t let any director forget it.”
Several congressional Democrats also rejected Haspel’s nomination to deputy director last year.
“I am especially concerned by reports that this individual was involved in the unauthorized destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes, which documented the CIA’s use of torture against two CIA detainees,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said last February. “My colleagues Senators Wyden and Heinrich have stated that classified information details why the newly appointed Deputy Director is ‘unsuitable’ for the position and have requested that this information be declassified. I join their request.”
Haspel’s likely promotion reflects Pompeo’s and Trump’s sympathetic approach to torture. Trump has said he wants to bring back waterboarding. Pompeo said he would consider reinstating it, although he couldn’t imagine that Trump would ask him to.
This post has been updated with statements from Wyden and Feinstein.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.