The CIA’s New Torturer-in-Chief

Gina Haspel, President Trump’s new pick to head the CIA, has played a key role in the agency’s torture program — and in covering it up, says Marcy Wheeler

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Story Transcript

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. President Trump has had several major Cabinet shake ups since taking office, but his latest is his boldest yet. Earlier today, Trump announcing that Rex Tillerson is out as Secretary of State, replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. And replacing Pompeo at CIA is his deputy, Gina Haspel. Trump spoke to reporters on the White House south lawn.

DONALD TRUMP: I’ve worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect. We’re always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good, and that’s what I need as Secretary of State. I wish Rex Tillerson well. Gina, by the way, who I know very well, who I’ve worked very closely, will be the first woman Director of the CIA. She’s an outstanding person who also I have gotten to know very well. So, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people very well over the last year, and I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.

AARON MATÉ: In elevating Pompeo, Trump would have a Secretary of State even more in line with confronting Iran. In installing Gina Haspel as head of the CIA, Trump also has someone who would be in line with one of his other defining views, embracing torture. Haspel was in charge of the CIA’s first secret overseas prison site in Thailand, and there she oversaw the torture of two prisoners and later ordered the destruction of video footage that caught their abuse on camera.

Joining me is Marcy Wheeler, national security reporter whose website is emptywheel.net. Welcome Marcy. Lots to talk about. Let’s start with the presumptive new CIA Director, Gina Haspel. Tell us about her record.

MARCY WHEELER: As you said, she was the Chief of Station for the first black sites or for Thailand, where the first black site, where our torture program was. She oversaw the torture of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in 2002, when really CIA was just experimenting with it. In that role, because people are already saying that she was just doing what she was told, she was just following orders, in that role, she was also particularly sadistic. She at times when other people said Abu Zubaydah’s fully compliant, he’s told us all he knows, would say, “You go back and keep torturing him until he tells us more.” That’s her role in torture.

And then while she was still Chief of Station there in 2002, she said, “Let’s get rid of all of the videos we took of this torture.” CIA didn’t permit her to do that in 2002 because there were ongoing investigations, but when, in 2005, she and Jose Rodriguez, who kind of instituted the torture program, when they were at a much more senior level at CIA, she said, “Hey, great idea. Let’s get rid of those videos that we took back in 2002, even though there are court rulings that say we should not be able to get rid of them.” So, she oversaw the destruction of them, so both the torture and the cover up of the torture. That’s who we’re getting to run the CIA.

AARON MATÉ: And for one of those prisoners who was tortured, last year, this nonprofit group in Europe, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, issued a statement calling for an arrest warrant for her. Now, I’m wondering, do you think that as the CIA Director if she travels overseas, especially to Europe where there have been cases around torture and there have been extradition requests for people who committed rights abuses, that she could be vulnerable to arrest?

MARCY WHEELER: I think people, activists in Europe, certainly will try and make that an issue because yes, she is on the record as having played a key role in our torture program. And Europe for years has used whatever leverage they can to try and at least shame us for the torture program we’ve had. By the way, both Abu Zubaydah, Abu Zubaydah has never been charged. He’s still at Gitmo. He’s one of those people in this kind of holding pattern. His lawyers every once in a while say, “Hey…” something about him. Then Nashiri’s trial is very troubled right now.

She will be undergoing confirmation process at the same time as daily crazy stuff happens in Gitmo as they try and move closer to finally try this guy. He was allegedly responsible for the USS Cole bombing in 2000, before 9/11. So, the entire background, both before and after she gets confirmed, is going to emphasize her role in the torture, which will make for a pretty antagonistic debate about her nomination, I think rightly so.

AARON MATÉ: Now, in terms of antagonism, the question for me is whether she’ll face serious antagonism from Democrats in the Senate. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the powerful Democratic senator from California, has already indicated today that she will support Haspel’s nomination. On this front, I’m wondering. We famously know that when President Obama took office, he talked about looking forward, not backwards, and essentially not prosecuting those who took part in torture. I’m wondering how much of a role Democratic inaction around torture has played in elevating someone like Gina Haspel to the top CIA post today.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, I can’t believe I’m going to defend Dianne Feinstein. I don’t think she said that she will support Haspel’s nomination. I think she has said she will give it a good listen, which probably means she’s going to support it, but she also has a real primary challenge this year. And, I think that, again, this is the kind of thing that people can bring some political pressure on Feinstein about. She’s no longer the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is the committee Haspel’s nomination will go through. That puts her in less of a position to influence it.

I mean, I expect that Wyden and Heinrich, and maybe Kamala Harris, will raise that as an issue in the confirmation process, but you’re right. Feinstein is one of those people who’s saying, “Well, she was just doing what she was ordered to do, and therefore, it’s not that big of a deal.” One of Feinstein’s laudable actions in her time as a senator is making sure that the Senate report, the Senate torture report, actually got finished. Then to have what could be her last year in the Senate, have her rubber stamp this torturer to run the whole CIA, because even, I mean, Aaron, it’s terrible enough that this torturer might run the whole CIA, but the other thing is the cover up, right?

There were congressional inquiries into the torture program at the time those videos were destroyed. Carl Levin, for one, was asking for precisely that kind of data. Jay Rockefeller even was, Feinstein’s predecessor as ranking member on the committee. And so, the notion that this woman who oversaw the obstruction of multiple investigations into CIA torture, including congressional investigations, the notion that she should become CIA Director, just invites CIA to continue to refuse all oversight from our democratically elected members of Congress. That, if you are a member of Congress, should be as important as the torture. They’re both important, but the obstruction, as a member of Congress, as somebody who is supposed to oversee this agency, that really ought to be disqualifying, but apparently it’s not for Feinstein.

AARON MATÉ: Right. Speaking of congressional oversight of the CIA, there also was the fact that the CIA, after the initial cover up with the videotapes and so forth, back when the Senate was compiling its torture report, you had the CIA actually spying on the senators who were writing it.

MARCY WHEELER: Under John Brennan, so yeah, that’s under Barack Obama. Obama did not side with Dianne Feinstein in that battle. That’s not the only obstruction. At one point, I made a long list, and it was a long list of all of the documents on the CIA torture program that disappeared into the ether. And it was a bipartisan effort from 2002 all the way to today, but yeah, this wasn’t fixed under Barack Obama. Gina Haspel not only stayed in government, but continued to get promoted. And now, she’s about to take over the agency. Again, for all the complaints about the deep state investigating Donald Trump and being out of control and what have you, confirming Gina Haspel as Director of CIA will further empower whatever uncontrollable power the deep state has.

AARON MATÉ: All right. We’re going to leave it there for part one. In part two, we’ll talk about Mike Pompeo as a new Secretary of State. Marcy Wheeler of emptywheel.net, thank you. And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Speaking to reporters today on the White House south lawn, President Trump said that Iran was a major factor in his decision to fire Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.

DONALD TRUMP: Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time. We got along, actually quite well, but we disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something. He felt a little bit differently. So, we were not really thinking the same. With Mike, Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well.

AARON MATÉ: So, with Trump and Mike Pompeo having a similar thought process, as he says, what does that mean for Trump’s plans on Iran and his wider global agenda?

Joining me still is Marcy Wheeler, national security reporter, whose website is EmptyWheel.net. All right, Marcy, what do you think is the significance of Tillerson’s replacement, his ouster, and his replacement with Mike Pompeo?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, a, he has to be confirmed first, and that’s not, I think Gina Haspel will be confirmed, unfortunately. But I’m not sure Pompeo’s confirmation is going to go that smoothly. Assuming he gets confirmed, I sort of think of this in what I call Jared Kushner’s peace deal, which is a move to remap the Middle East. It probably means war with Iran. It probably means continued coddling of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Israel. It means close relations with Russia. So, on all of those fronts, Trump is right. He’s moving Pompeo to state because he will get no pushback on some pretty stupid foreign policy goals and some pretty poorly thought out implementation of maybe better foreign policy goals.

He wants somebody who will do what he wants. So if he gets Pompeo in that position, that’s where, I mean, if he doesn’t get Pompeo in that position, we’re probably going to see someone equally as bad in that position. But Pompeo, if he gets that position, I assume that there will be war with Iran.

AARON MATÉ: But the Senate confirmed Pompeo as CIA Chief, so why wouldn’t they confirm him as Secretary of State?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, a, he has to get through the committee. The committee is an 11/10 split. One of the Republicans is Rand Paul who voted against Pompeo for the CIA Director position. There were two Democrats in that committee who voted for Pompeo. Jeanne Shaheen and Tim Kaine. But Pompeo has done things with regards to the Russian investigation that should make both of them oppose him for Secretary of State. Then there are people like Corker who was originally cool to the idea of a Pompeo Secretary of State. Jeff Flake, Marco Rubio, who both aren’t necessarily in lock step with the president on these foreign policy goals.

So, I’m just saying it’s quite possible he won’t get out of the committee because of the fact it’s a more even committee, because unlike the Senate Intelligence Committee, it’s not just a rubber stamp, and because of the specific make up of the committee. If it gets to the Senate, then a lot of it depends on whether people will filibuster him, but yeah, I think the place where it might get held up is in committee.

AARON MATÉ: All right. So, if he does get out of committee and he is confirmed, you say that means war with Iran. Why?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, because once Trump backs out of the Iran deal, we are not going to have the European allies with us because they were with us on sanctions to push Iran into the Iran deal up to a point, and I think they’ve reached beyond that point. For Trump to pull out of the Iran deal in the same way pulling out of the Paris Accord and a number of other agreements, I think Europeans are going to begin to say, “We’re not going to put your quasi leadership over our interests anymore, and we’re going to continue to engage with Iran. We also think that Saudi Arabia is a …” Look, Saudi Arabia is a bigger destabilizing force in the Middle East right now than Iran. They are committing genocide in Yemen with our help. So, when you look at things like that, I think the rest of the world is not as, I mean, aside from selling war toys for Saudi Arabia, the rest of the world is not as…blind to Saudi aggressions as we are. I think that under Pompeo it will continue to get worse.

AARON MATÉ: Okay. In terms of the Kushner peace plan that you mentioned and whether or not Pompeo will help elevate that, by that you mean, if I understand it right, basically Kushner wants to enlist the Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to help essentially buy off the Palestinians, pressure the Palestinian authority to accept a fragmented set of cantons that they’ll call a state. That will take Palestinians out of the equations and then free up the Trump administration to more forcibly confront Iran?

MARCY WHEELER: Right. Also, Qatar is involved in this. There were reports that a top Republican donor at the Emirates behest was pushing for Tillerson’s head last fall. Because Tillerson did not back their isolation of Qatar. So, it’s a Sunni, Shia thing, and we should expect Trump to get even more anti-Shia than American foreign policy has been for the last 30 years, which is saying something.

AARON MATÉ: Tell us a bit about Pompeo. What about his background do you think can give us an expectation for what he will be like as Secretary of State?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, I mean, he has politicized the CIA. He is politicizing the intelligence for more than…

AARON MATÉ: He wouldn’t be the first person to politicize the CIA.

MARCY WHEELER: No, I mean, he, but I think he is, I think it’s more dangerous under Trump even than under Bush. Because Bush at least had adults around him, whereas Trump doesn’t have people who understand how the world works around him. So yes, it’s terrible to have somebody who politicizes stuff and frankly, it’s probably less dangerous at state than it is at the CIA. That might be a better trade to have Gina Haspel at CIA and Pompeo at state. But I also just think he is a bigot. He has injected religion into foreign service CIA. He’s not a rational minded, civil servant of the kind that, he may be a better bureaucrat than Rex Tillerson, who kind of botched the state department. So, he may hire all of these positions that have been vacated by Tillerson. But he’s going to hire them with hacks. He’s going to hire them with people are party apparatchiks rather than diplomats. So, that’s not necessarily a better thing.

AARON MATÉ: Well, from hiring hacks to a lack of adults, all this just sounds like continuity to me. I don’t see a big difference from that and the Bush administration, for example.

MARCY WHEELER: I think there is a big difference. I mean, I think the number of actual career diplomats who have either been fired or who left is very significant. A fall off from the Obama administration. Already today, Trump said that he’s going to elevate the spokesperson, who’s a former Fox and Friends personality, to be the under secretary to replace the guy who got fired for telling the truth today. So, we are bringing in completely unqualified people to fill what have traditionally been career positions or professional positions, and in the span of a day, we’re seeing ideology, or loyalty, or just willingness to do whatever Trump says, especially up to, and including lying being valued over any kind of experience in the diplomatic-sphere.

AARON MATÉ: All right. Marcy, continuity or not, I think we can agree that there is cause for alarm and on that point of concord, I think we can leave it there for today. Unless you have any final thoughts.

MARCY WHEELER: Fight about Russia in 30 seconds or less?

AARON MATÉ: No. Definitely no Russia. We’ll leave it there.

Marcy Wheeler, national security reporter. Her website is EmptyWheel.net. Thank you.

MARCY WHEELER: Take care.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.