The New York Times has finally acknowledged Gina Haspel’s direct involvement in the Central Intelligence Agency’s policy of torture and abuse. On June 4, 2022, an article provided details of Haspel’s role as chief of the CIA base twenty years ago that was known for conducting the most sadistic acts of torture and abuse. At her confirmation hearings to become CIA director in 2018, Haspel refused to answer any direct questions about her role in the policy of torture and abuse, which included the waterboarding of a Saudi prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The CIA stopped me from writing about Haspel’s role in my 2018 memoir, “Whistleblower at the CIA.”
As a result of CIA’s censorship, I joined a lawsuit with four former federal employees to end the government’s suppression of our writings on national security issues. Last month, the Supreme Court allowed to stand a court ruling that denied our case, which had been presented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union. The government has a legitimate interest in protecting bona fide secrets, but the CIA’s review system is opaque, exceeding legitimate security boundaries, and compromising free speech. The Haspel case exposes the dangers of government censorship; the failures of the Senate’s confirmation process; and the CIA’s ability to avoid accountability for its transgressions.
At the closing of Haspel’s hearing, the chairman of the intelligence committee, Richard Burr (R/NC), told her that “you have acted morally, ethically and legally over a distinguished 30-year career.” Surely the members of the committee knew of Haspel’s role in torture and abuse. This would be particularly true for the senior Democrat on the committee, Diane Feinstein, who led the committee’s investigation of the CIA program.
For the second time, the Senate went on to confirm a former CIA official who had forfeited any claim to be director of the CIA. In 1991, the Senate confirmed Robert M. Gates, who had spent most of the 1980s politicizing intelligence as deputy director for intelligence and deputy CIA director. Moreover, Gates had lied to the committee in the 1980s regarding his knowledge of Iran-Contra. In 2018, the Senate confirmed Haspel, who had participated heavily in the unconscionable policy of torture and abuse. Like Gates, she lied to the intelligence committee regarding her role.
The Senate Intelligence Committee was created in the mid-1970s because of CIA transgressions that included illegal surveillance and political assassination plots. But the committee doesn’t understand that it creates cynicism at the CIA by confirming individuals who have committed transgressions. The CIA continues to create classification barriers and to claim national security protection in order to avoid embarrassment. The Senate confirmation process should have kept a Gates or a Haspel from rising to the top of the Agency. Congressional oversight should not be observed primarily in the breach.
The intelligence committee needs to reform the CIA’s Publications Review Board, which censors the writings of former employees who criticize the Agency, but is lenient in favoring writings that support the Agency. I was stopped from writing about the transgressions of Haspel in my 2017 memoir, “Whistleblower at the CIA,” while Jose Rodriguez, the CIA’s chief of operations during the period of torture and abuse, was allowed to publish a book and an oped in the Washington Post denying that any illegal activity took place. Haspel was Rodriguez’s chief of staff; Haspel and Rodriguez collaborated in ordering the destruction of the tapes that documented the torture and abuse at CIA’s secret prisons in Thailand and elsewhere. CIA censors even ordered me to remove a reference to an article in the New York Times that referred to torture and abuse, claiming the “title” of the Times’ article was classified.
The CIA’s Review Board also allowed its chief legal counsel, John Rizzo, to publish a book that falsely justified the torture of Abu Zubaydah, a senior al Qaeda operative, who did not provide sensitive information on the 9/11 attacks, and who suffered solitary confinement for years without any charges from the U.S. government. Rizzo argued that the torture tapes had to be destroyed to protect the identities of CIA officers who conducted the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In fact, the “techniques” went far beyond the recommended guidelines of the Department of Justice, and the torturers were hooded and could never have been identified from the videotapes. The only useful information from Zubaydah was elicited by FBI officers who used traditional interrogation methods that had nothing to do with torture and abuse.
Ironically, the controversial special prosecutor John Durham, who was appointed by then Attorney General William Barr to find wrong-doing by the FBI and the Hillary Clinton campaign in the Trump-Russia probe, previously investigated the CIA’s destruction of the torture tapes and the use of torture and abuse with terrorism subjects. Barr stated that Durham would expose “really dreadful behavior by the supervisors in the FBI.” Durham exposed nothing, and the only conviction that took place was a plea deal that involved wrongdoing discovered by the DoJ’s Inspector General. Years earlier, despite ample evidence of wrongdoing regarding the destruction of the tapes and sadistic torture and abuse, Durham said that he would “not pursue criminal charges.”
Even former CIA director Michael Hayden has acknowledged the problem, stating that “although the public cannot be briefed on everything, there has to be enough out there so that the majority of the population believes what they [i.e., intelligence agencies] are doing is acceptable.” Secret intelligence agencies will never be fully compatible with the democratic process so there will always be tension between an open society and secret agencies. Congressional inquiry and investigative journalism, essential to a democracy, require participation from former federal officials with extensive experience. These officials should not be obstructed by a biased review process that makes politicized judgments, violating the right of free speech.