Trump’s CIA Pick Offered Forgetful Slip on Agency’s History of Torture

Perhaps it was just a slip, a memory lapse under relentless questioning and the bright lights of the Senate intelligence committee hearing room. But Gina Haspel was wrong Wednesday when she said the CIA, which she wants to lead, “never did” interrogations “historically.”

In fact, for decades, the CIA had a rigorous interrogation program, codified in a training manual, KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation—July 1963, which included a procedure akin to waterboarding. The agency ran an interrogation and assassination program called Phoenix against communist suspects in Vietnam. The CIA’s archives include a lengthy review of its years-long interrogation of senior North Vietnamese operative Nguyen Tai, immortalized by his CIA questioner Frank Snepp as “the man in the snow white cell.” The agency also subjected a Soviet defector, Yuri Nosenko, to three years of solitary confinement and questioning, under the false suspicion he was a double agent. And from the earliest days of the Cold War through the “dirty wars” of the 1970s and 1980s in South and Central America, CIA officers carried out, or collaborated with, brutal local secret police in “hard measures,” as the agency’s former head of clandestine operations, Jose Rodriguez, euphemistically called waterboarding and other harsh practices.

In 2015, former CIA interrogator David Martine told Newsweek of several sessions he’d witnessed or participated in around the world and exclaimed, “Torture works!” President Donald Trump has frequently insisted the same. “If we are talking torture, and I mean real torture,” Martine told said during two days of interviews, “where we are going to start taking off fingers or you're going to saw off his foot...they will tell you anything you want to hear.” Then “you tell them that if they give [you] false information, you'll be back the next day sawing off their other foot.”

Haspel, who if confirmed would become the first female director of the agency, insisted on Wednesday that the CIA would not engage in torture under her watch. No matter that she played a key role the Justice Department–approved program. But her statement that the CIA “never did” interrogations “historically” seemed to brush off such an ugly, deeply documented history.

Not so, insisted CIA spokesman Dean Boyd. What Haspel meant, he told Newsweek after the hearing, was that the agency “did not have...a detention and interrogation program” before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. And “Haspel made clear today,” he added, that under her leadership, ‘CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.’”

Haspel Gina Haspel testifies at her confirmation hearing before the Senate intelligence committee, in Washington, D.C., on May 9. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

But what about the agency’s practice of turning terrorist suspects over to friendly foreign intelligence services that are notorious for torturing prisoners? “There were no qualms at all about sending people to Cairo” and other brutal places to be interrogated, Michael Scheuer, the former head of the agency’s Osama Bin Laden unit, told Congress in 2007. There was a “kind of joking up our sleeves,” he added, “about what would happen to those people in Cairo, in Egyptian prisons.” The CIA stood by, he said, ready to pick up the gold the Egyptians had mined.

Would such practices continue under Haspel? The agency severed relations with two police-state regimes because of human rights concerns, it says (without identifying them), but it maintains ties to others, like Iraq, where waterboarding and worse are routine.

Nobody asked Haspel about these relationships in the public session of her confirmation hearing. But Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who questioned the nominee on Wednesday, inquired about them back in 2015 with then-CIA Director John Brennan.

His  answer befitted an intelligence agency that operates in gray areas of morality. We work with bad guys, he said, if we have to. “In some cases we have decided to continue those relationships, despite unacceptable behavior, because of the critical intelligence those services provide, including information that allows us to disrupt terrorist plotting against the United States,” he wrote Wyden.

Haspel gave a similarly vague answer about the efficacy of torture in the hearing, despite her pledge that the agency would not restart the program of transporting detainees to secret prisons for “enhanced interrogations.”

"Senator, I don't believe that torture works," Haspel told Kamala Harris, the California Democrat. But then she hedged. "We got valuable information from debriefing of Al-Qaeda detainees, and I don't think it's knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that."

That statement was not enough to satisfy many Democrats. "If you can't admit or recognize that mistakes were made, that makes me question whether you are going to be able to avoid those mistakes in the future," New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich said during Haspel's hearing. Two Republicans, Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Arizona’s John McCain, the latter of whom endured years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison, have also indicated they’ll vote against Haspel.

With only a 51-49 margin in the Senate, the Republicans may need a Democratic vote or two to push her nomination past a party-line roll call. And they seem to have found at least one yes vote in West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who called the 61-year-old Haspel a "person of great character” after the hearing.

“My parents raised me right,” she insisted under tense questioning Wednesday. “I know the difference between right and wrong.”

Surely, she does—in the abstract. But moral lines are not so bright in the murky, lethal world of clandestine operations, where Haspel spent her 33-year career. As Richard Helms, a legendary 1960s-era CIA director, was fond of saying, “We’re not in the Boy Scouts."

This story has been updated to include more information about CIA interrogations during the war in Vietnam.

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