Haspel, first woman nominated to head CIA, controversial for 'black sites' role

Her involvement in the CIA's black sites program will likely draw scrutiny.

March 13, 2018, 12:04 PM
Gina Haspel is pictured here in an undated file photo.
Gina Haspel is pictured here in an undated file photo.

With CIA Director Mike Pompeo nominated to be the next secretary of state, career intelligence officer Gina Haspel will become, if confirmed, the first woman to head the CIA.

Currently serving as the agency's deputy director, Haspel is well-regarded within the agency, but her historic nomination is likely to focus attention on her reported role in the CIA's "black sites" - the overseas prisons the agency used to hold top al Qaeda terrorists.

Haspel joined the CIA in 1985 and has held a series of high-ranking positions at the intelligence agency throughout her lengthy career. She has served as the agency's Deputy Director since Feb. 7, 2017.

According to her official CIA biography, Haspel "has extensive overseas experience and served as Chief of Station in several of her assignments."

Haspel has held several senior leadership positions within the agency's National Clandestine Service, which oversees the agency's spy operations overseas and its most covert operations programs.

She served as Deputy Director of the National Clandestine Service, Deputy Director of the National Clandestine Service for Foreign Intelligence and Covert Action, and Chief of Staff for the Director of the National Clandestine Service.

PHOTO: Gina Haspel is seen here at  the 2017 William J. Donovan Award dinner, Oct. 21, 2017.
Gina Haspel is seen here at the 2017 William J. Donovan Award dinner, Oct. 21, 2017.

A decorated CIA officer, Haspel has been awarded the George H. W. Bush Award for excellence in counterterrorism, the Donovan Award, and the Intelligence Medal of Merit. She is also a recipient of the Presidential Rank Award, the most prestigious award in the federal civil service.

While Haspel's nomination to be the first female CIA director is historic, her Senate confirmation hearings will likely shine a spotlight on her role in the agency's controversial rendition program in which top al Qaeda detainees were held in secret CIA "black sites" overseas.

Haspel reportedly headed the agency's "black site" in Thailand that, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's rendition program, held senior al Qaeda operatives Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Raham al-Nashiri.

The report determined that Zubaydah was subjected to the controversial practice of waterboarding 83 times to gather intelligence about al Qaeda's operations. Waterboarding was among the "enhanced interrogation techniques" the CIA used on top al Qaeda detainees that human rights groups said amounted to torture.

According to the report, Zubaydah was also subjected to other "stress" techniques such as being slammed against walls, sleep deprivation and being placed in a coffin-sized box for up to 226 hours.

Human Rights Watch has pointed to her leadership positions during the timeframe that the CIA carried out its rendition program and "black site" prisons as a sign that she would have had direct knowledge of the controversial programs.

There have also been reports that she advocated for the destruction of video recordings of Zubaydah's interrogations conducted at the black site she ran in Thailand.

Those videos were destroyed by the CIA in 2005 and triggered an investigation that resulted in no charges.

Haspel’s nomination has strong backing among former colleagues in the intelligence community.

“She’s a great choice. She’s really, really solid leader,” said Richard Ledgett, the former deputy director at the NSA and an ABC News contributor. “I think that she will do a great job leading the agency.”

Ledgett does not think that Haspel’s links to the CIA detention program will slow down her confirmation.

“The fact that people disagree with the policy of that is their right, but I think that she executed correctly within the confines of the law and the guidance that she was given,” said Ledgett.

But influential Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona noted that Haspel's CIA career "has intersected with the program of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on a number of occasions."

A victim of severe torture by North Vietnamese guards while a prisoner of war, McCain is seeking assurances from Haspel made by CIA Director Mike Pompeo during his confirmation hearing that the agency "would comply with the law that applies the Army Field Manual’s interrogation requirements."

"The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history," McCain said in a statement.

“Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process,” he added. “I know the Senate will do its job in examining Ms. Haspel’s record as well as her beliefs about torture and her approach to current law."

Christopher Anders, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, demanded that the CIA declassify and release "every aspect of Haspel's torture record" before considering the nomination.

“Gina Haspel was a central figure in one of the most illegal and shameful chapters in modern American history," said Ander. "She was up to her eyeballs in torture, both in running a secret torture prison in Thailand and carrying out an order to cover up torture crimes by destroying videotapes.

He also raised questions about Haspel's independence if she is confirmed to lead the intelligence agency "since she has never left the agency."

In 2013, Sen. Dianne Feinstein blocked Haspel's promotion to be the head of the National Clandestine Service. Feinstein said Tuesday she will wait until Haspel's confirmation hearings to make a decision about her becoming the next CIA director.

Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters that since 2013 the two have “spent time together. We’ve had dinner together. We have talked. Everything that I know is that she has been a good deputy director of the CIA.”

“Hopefully the entire organization learned something from the entire Enhanced Interrogation program,” she added, “Right now, I’m waiting for the hearings.”

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