CIA Whistleblower Dishes on Torture as Haspel Faces Intel Committee

CIA, blood, lobby
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from CIA.

On the day President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the CIA, Gina Haspel, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee — and was questioned about her role in the US torture program — it bears remembering that nobody associated with the agency was ever held to account for this war crime.

There were several tense moments during the hearing, including this exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA):

The only person who ended up serving time in prison is John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on the systematic torture of prisoners in the “War on Terror.” WhoWhatWhy has repeatedly spoken with Kiriakou about his experiences and, most recently, about Haspel.


This article originally ran March 19, 2018.

The recent revisionist history about Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee for CIA director, should make very little difference in examining the totality of her record on torture and its cover up.

According to John Kiriakou, a 15-year CIA veteran, and the whistleblower on the CIA covert torture operation, Gina Haspel is the “godmother of the torture program.”

Regarding ProPublica’s correction of the record of her involvement, Kiriakou says that while she may not have actually overseen the torture of Abu Zubaydah, she did arrive at the secret CIA black-op site in Thailand in time for the waterboarding and torture of at least one other detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Kiriakou explains to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman how Haspel was also a key link in the destruction of the 92 tapes that contained the evidence of torture. She ordered the tapes destroyed, even though they had become federal records. They were shredded counter to the advice of White House and CIA counsel. Kiriakou reminds us that her defense of “just following orders” is far too reminiscent of Nazi apologia circa 1945.

On the basis of her “dark history,” Kiriakou argues that Haspel is clearly a poor choice for leadership of the CIA.


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
The appointment last week of Gina Haspel to be the Director of the CIA, has once again reopened the questions of the CIA’s role in waterboarding and torture back in the early 2000s.
It was reported at the time by ProPublica, The New York Times, and other publications, that Haspel was the chief of base in Thailand at the time of the torture and waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, then considered the number-two or -three ranking leader of Al Qaeda. One of several sources for those stories at the time was reported to be 15-year CIA veteran, John Kiriakou.
Kiriakou would become the first in the intelligence community to expose the CIA’s use of torture, and as a result, he became one of the very few Americans ever prosecuted under the Espionage Act. He was considered a whistleblower, and he served 23 months in federal prison.
Now, there seems to be a revisionist history with respect to the torture of Zubaydah at the black site in Thailand, which was run by Gina Haspel.
To try and clarify and put all of this in proper perspective, I am joined by John Kiriakou.
John, thanks so much for joining us.
John Kiriakou: Happy to do it, Jeff. Thanks for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Sometime ago you and I spoke, and at the time we were talking about the appointment of Mike Pompeo as the Director of the CIA, which you have thought pretty highly of in some respects, and one of the comments that you had at the time was that the biggest concern you had was the appointment of Gina Haspel as the Deputy Director of the CIA then. Talk a little bit about that.
John Kiriakou: Right. I’ve always thought that Gina Haspel was a poor choice for leadership in any position at the CIA. She has a dark history, and I said then, and I’ve been saying all week this week, that there are probably 50 different women across the government who would be marvelous CIA directors. I think Gina Haspel’s the wrong choice.
Jeff Schechtman: What did you know about her actions back at that time in the early 2000s, and what … Talk a little bit about that dark history.
John Kiriakou: Well, yeah, I think I’d like to preface that by saying something about ProPublica and its retraction. I wrote a piece about Gina Haspel a year ago, and I wrote that she had been at the secret site. I never identified the location of the secret site, as I’m not permitted to by the CIA. The press has reported extensively on its location, but that’s not what I had set out to do.
I pulled that information off the front page of The Post, because I was in a different position. By the time she got out to this secret site I was in a different position at CIA headquarters. Ray Bonner at ProPublica wrote an article saying that Gina Haspel was at this secret site and had overseen the torture of Abu Zubaydah. That was the conventional wisdom. It had been reported in The Post, and The Times, and everywhere else. I had repeated what The Post and The Times had said. He was forced to retract elements of that article in the last couple of days.
Now, one of the reasons why I think this is important, is that this is very typical of us on the left, Jeff, where we get wrapped around the axle over these details. Does it really matter if she got out to the secret site in August or in September? Does it really matter if she oversaw the torture of Abu Zubaydah or Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri? I think it doesn’t matter. What matters is she was the godmother of the CIA’s torture program. That, in and of itself, ought to be disqualifying. Furthermore, she was the one who physically wrote and sent the cable from headquarters to the secret site ordering them to destroy the evidence of the torture. That, also, should be disqualifying.
We need to be careful about not lose sight of the bigger picture; and the bigger picture is that she should not be in this job.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the destruction of those 92 tapes, which she really took direct responsibility for.
John Kiriakou: Yeah, she did. The secret site had a filming system so that the individual torture sessions, the waterboarding sessions, et cetera, were all filmed. Now, Jose Rodriguez, who, at the time, was the Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, later became Deputy Director for Operations, said that he had ordered the filming so that there would be a record, and it could be used for training purposes.
I’m not sure if that’s true or not. I don’t even think it’s relevant. What’s relevant is that they instantly became a federal record. As a federal record, they were subject to eventual declassification and release. When word leaked out, in December of 2007, that these tapes existed, Jose ordered their destruction. This was after he had asked for the legal opinions of the White House Counsel and the CIA’s General Counsel. Both the White House Counsel and the CIA General Counsel ordered him not to destroy the tapes; but then, he did it anyway. He told Gina Haspel to write this cable, and to order the base chief at the secret site to destroy all the evidence of the torture. And that’s exactly what she did.
Now, this is another problem that I have with Gina Haspel: she could have stood up, and she could have said, “Jose, this is wrong.” But she didn’t; and now, this week, her defense, that we’re seeing in the press, is that she was just following orders. Well, we heard that phrase in 1945. That’s not a defense. She could have stopped this illegality, and she did not.
Jeff Schechtman: What do we know about Gina Haspel’s career in the CIA before 2002?
John Kiriakou: Not much. I’m not sure that much of anything has been made public. I can tell you that she was respected as an accomplished Operations Officer. She served all around the world in places that you and I probably would not want to have served. She had a great reputation. Now, she was a protégé of Jose Rodriguez. That’s another thing that gives me pause, because I have some serious problems with Jose Rodriguez, and his actions and behavior at the CIA. She was a protégé of his, and then when he was made Director of the Counterterrorism Center, he pulled her in with him, and she became Chief of Staff.
But before that, she was a highly regarded Operations Officer.
Jeff Schechtman: Why was she so aggressive in this whole torturing program, when she did get to the base in Thailand?
John Kiriakou: Now, that’s one of the $64,000 questions. I can speculate, and I’ll tell you what I’ve told other journalists who have asked me: there were some people in the CIA, and especially in the Counterterrorism Center, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, that really believed, in their hearts, in their bones, that torture was right, and that it was good. I’ll tell you, too, that for a lot of them, it made them feel better. They liked it. It made them feel like they were extracting revenge for what had happened on September 11th. They lost sight of who we were. They lost sight of the Constitution, and the rule of law, and they went overboard, knowing at the time that the political environment was such that there was no one to stop them.
I think Gina Haspel was one of those people.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you expect to hear from her, and you’ve followed these things closely. You have a sense of sort of how people respond to this. What do you expect to hear from her when she has to face Congress to justify, or to talk about, these issues?
John Kiriakou: I think she’s going to lean very, very heavily on the Bush Justice Department’s ruling that these torture techniques were legal. I think that that is dissembling. It doesn’t matter if they were illegal, or if they were legal, rather; and I’ve said this before: I understand when President Obama says, “We need to look forward, not backward,” and elects to not prosecute people of the CIA. I understand, if we’re talking about the 10 techniques that were authorized under the Bush administration. But we’re not just talking about those 10 techniques.
What about when CIA interrogators killed prisoners during interrogations, because that happened? The Justice Department never authorized the CIA to kill people during interrogations. What about those officers, and we know this now from the Senate Torture Report, what about those officers who threatened to rape prisoners’ wives in front of them, or to kill their children in front of them, or the officer who had a drill and threatened to drill into Abu Zubaydah’s skull, because none of those techniques were authorized? What about locking Abu Zubaydah in a dog cage for three weeks, or in a coffin, and then putting insects in there with him, knowing that he had an irrational fear of insects? None of those things were authorized, so why weren’t those officers prosecuted? Those officers, at least some of them, were working for Gina Haspel; and those are some of the questions that she’s going to have to answer in this nomination hearing.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you expect bipartisan support from the CIA in terms of defending her and people coming forward as witnesses, people even like John Brennan?
John Kiriakou: Oh, I absolutely do. Don’t forget though, you know, people tend to think that John Brennan is this lifelong Democrat. He’s not. John Brennan was the number three at the CIA. He was the Executive Director of the CIA under George W. Bush. He was there at the creation of the torture program, so they all have a part in this. It’s not just that Mike Hayden’s a Republican and John Brennan’s a Democrat; they’re all in the same boat. They cover for each other, Jeff, and I think this is important: this torture program, this is a part of their legacy. When they die, and their obituaries are written, they want those obituaries to say that they had done a heroic thing by implementing this torture program, because it kept Americans safe. In fact, it did not keep Americans safe. If anything, it acted as a recruitment tool for our enemies. It kept us in danger, I would say, and it was illegal.
But they need to repeat this lie over, and over, and over again, hoping that people finally believe it. That’s what becomes the historical record.
Jeff Schechtman: Given that Mike Pompeo certainly had to know that appointing Haspel was going to reopen this subject and cause a relitigation of all of these issues, why do you think he did it?
John Kiriakou: I think he did it for a couple of reasons. First, I think Mike Pompeo’s not afraid of a fight. We know he’s a supporter of the torture program. He has said so. He said that he would refuse an order to reimplement it now, but he supported it as it was once structured. I think he’s not afraid of a fight. Secondly, I think that he and the White House see this as a way to divide Democrats, because you’ve got Democrats in the Senate, some of whom are running in states that Donald Trump won, and they need to look tough on national security, and tough on terrorism, and so voting against Gina Haspel would put them in a bad position politically. And at the same time, you’ve got some Democrats on the committee, and I’m thinking especially of Diane Feinstein and Mark Warner, who consider themselves to be moderate in some way. They think that they’re smarter than everybody else, because as Diane Feinstein said just this past week, she’s had dinner with Gina Haspel, so she, “knows her,” and, “knows that she’s a good person.”
I think that, you know, if the vote were held today it would be close, but Gina Haspel would win, and it’s because of these weaklings on the Democratic side. When you have already the likes of Rand Paul and John McCain saying, “This nomination is a mistake,” all you really need to kill it is the Democrats to remain steadfast, and perhaps one Republican more to vote, “No,” or to just not show up for the vote. But I think we’re not headed down that road.
Jeff Schechtman: If Gina Haspel is confirmed, what, if any, changes do you think will happen, with respect to the CIA? What impact will it have today?
John Kiriakou: I think that the CIA will be more aggressive, specifically on Iran. It’s because Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel and H.R. McMaster and, God forbid, John Bolton — if he replaces McMaster, and that’s what the press seems to believe will happen— are laser focused on Iran. Then, when you have the added pressure of the Israelis and the Saudis and the Bahrainis just begging the United States to attack Iran, I think that’s the great fear. I would say that if Gina Haspel’s confirmed, she’s going to spend more time looking at Iran than doing anything else.
Jeff Schechtman: John Kiriakou, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy, then shedding some light on these important issues. Really appreciate it.
John Kiriakou: My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
And thank you for listening, and for joining us, here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gina Haspel (CIA / Wikimedia) and waterboarding (Mike Licht / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).

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