In a flurry of unexpected news Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump fired beleaguered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a tweet, and then nominated CIA director Mike Pompeo to replace him. Trump then nominated Gina Haspel, the deputy CIA director, to succeed Pompeo. If Haspel, 61, is confirmed by the Senate, she would become the first woman to lead the intelligence agency since it was founded in 1947.
While on its face, the nomination of Haspel might seem like a forward-thinking move for a president who has seemed challenged, at best, to appoint many women to key roles in his administration, Haspel brings a fair amount of controversy with her.
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
As the New York Times reported last month when she was named deputy CIA director, Haspel has a bit of a dark past during the post 9/11 years. She’s a 30-plus-year veteran of the CIA, who has spent most of her career working undercover but, notably, she ran a CIA “black site” where torture tactics were deployed against terror suspects. In the immediate years following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, Haspel operated and oversaw a secret prison in Thailand codenamed the “Cat’s Eye,” according to The Washington Post, where officials detained suspects and often subjected them to extreme interrogations using tactics that are widely considered to be torture. Haspel, the Times reports, later took part in destroying video footage of the brutal interrogations, which included waterboarding.
VICE reports on the case of one terror suspect who endured torture at the Thailand black site in 2002, the details of which were made public when the Senate issued its torture report in 2014 and then last year, when a number of cables were declassified from the time period that described the methods CIA agents used.
Abu Zubaydah was brought to the black site run by Haspel in 2002. He’d been running a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan prior to being detained by the CIA. Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding 83 times over the course of a single month. He was also roughed up by agents who threw him into walls. According to one of the cables, “CIA Headquarters formally proposed that [Zubaydah] be kept in an all-white room that was lit 24 hours a day, that [Zubaydah] not be provided any amenities, that his sleep be disrupted, that loud noise be constantly fed into his cell, and that only a small number of people interact with him. CIA records indicate that these proposals were based on the idea that such conditions would lead [Zubaydah] to develop a sense of ‘learned helplessness.’” At some point during his stay at Haspel’s black site, Zubaydah lost one of his eyes.
After Trump’s announcement, Haspel said, “If confirmed, I look forward to providing President Trump the outstanding intelligence support he has grown to expect,” according to USA Today. Some Republicans welcomed her nomination, as The Washington Post pointed out. “I know Gina personally, and she has the right skill set, experience and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies,” Richard Burr, a GOP senator from North Carolina and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, according to the Post. “I’m proud of her work and know that my committee will continue its positive relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency under her leadership. I look forward to supporting her nomination, ensuring its consideration without delay.”
Not everyone, of course, was happy with Haspel’s appointment, as former ACLU deputy legal director blasted Haspel, saying she is “quite literally a war criminal.”
Should have put a finer point on this. Trump's nominee for CIA Director is *quite literally* a war criminal. This is the import of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which SCOTUS held that "war on terror" prisoners are entitled to basic Geneva Conventions protections. https://t.co/dDhO95ljxc
— Jameel Jaffer (@JameelJaffer) March 13, 2018
But within the CIA, she is a respected figure, the Times noted, with even some Obama-era intelligence officials having shown support for her as recently as her appointment to deputy director. Even James Clapper, the director of national intelligence under President Obama and one of Trump’s fiercest critics, said he was “very pleased” with her appointment last month.
EDITORS’ NOTE: This story has been updated to remove references to reports that Haspel oversaw the waterboarding of the terror suspect Abu Zubaydah at Cat’s Eye. New reports have been filed indicating that the waterboarding occurred before Haspel assumed command of the detention center. For more on the clarification, click here.