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 involvement in one of the CIA’s most controversial programs ― the torture of terror suspects in the early fight against al Qaeda.
As the head of a clandestine base in Thailand, Haspel oversaw the interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, according to several outlets, including The New York Times and ProPublica. The interrogation reportedly included techniques like waterboarding.
Another suspect, Abu Zubaydah, was also interrogated at the Thailand facility, although sources told those outlets Haspel had not been put in charge of the base yet when he was questioned. Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in one month ― to the point that doctors once had to revive him ― and lost sight in one eye.
The torture sessions were videotaped, and Haspel also reportedly 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 tortured 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. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also expressed skepticism about Haspel, given her background. “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process,” he said.
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.”
A CIA spokesperson said the story was wrong but did not comment further.
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 Feinstein, McCain and Wyden, as well as comment from the CIA.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated Haspel was in charge of a CIA black site in Thailand while Abu Zubaydah was tortured there. In fact, new reports say she took the helm of the site after he was tortured. Language in this story also has been amended to remove the indication that torture at CIA black sites during the Bush presidency was legal. The Bush and Obama administrations have disagreed on the legality of the interrogation techniques under U.S. and international law.