‘We Think We Can Defeat Her’

Rights Groups Rally to Stop Torturer Turned Trump’s CIA Pick

Spencer Ackerman
03.14.18 10:00 PM ET

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

There were no legal consequences when Gina Haspel oversaw the torture of two men at a secret CIA prison in Thailand 16 years ago. There were no legal consequences 13 years ago when Haspel aided in the destruction of 92 videotapes showing Abu Zubaydah and Abdul Rahim Nashiri’s torture. But now that Haspel is two Senate votes away from running the CIA, a coalition of civil liberties groups is gearing up to ensure that she will at least face political consequences.

Those groups tell The Daily Beast that they intend to fight Haspel intensely. Their plans are still coming together, and their goal is ambitious: to defeat a CIA director with substantial agency support nominated by a Republican president before a Republican-controlled Senate. But this is a fight they feel compelled to wage, having spent Barack Obama’s presidency loudly warning that without prosecutions for torture, it will be a matter of time before torture returns.  

“Gina Haspel dishonored our country and disgraced herself by participating in the CIA torture program and the destruction of criminal evidence,” said Wells Dixon of the Center on Constitutional Rights, who is playing a leading role in the emerging effort to block Haspel’s directorship. “We do not believe she should be director of the CIA. Rather, she should be in jail.”

Civil liberties groups tend not to win these sorts of congressional fights. But they see Haspel as so directly implicated in waterboarding, mock executions and the persistent physical and mental consequences of those acts that she might prove to be the exception.

“We absolutely think we can defeat her,” said Raha Wala of Human Rights First, another key figure in the coalition. “Never have we faced a nominee so directly and operationally linked to a widespread torture program by the CIA. This really is a historic nomination.”

The stakes for all involved are substantial, and they explain the depth of the opposition to Haspel.

The CIA’s primary fear around the torture program it conducted during the Bush administration has been exposing its personnel to criminal consequences. It has Barack Obama to thank for that not happening. But the agency is highly mindful of the political consequences for the generation of officers that took part in the program, which is one reason why it waged such vociferous opposition to the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation of torture. (Ironically, Haspel and her boss Jose Rodriguez’s fateful decision to destroy the torture tapes directly prompted the Senate investigation.)

Now comes Haspel, a career CIA official by all accounts well respected by her colleagues over a 30-plus year career. She’s the first CIA director nominee since William Colby in the 1970s who would come to the job directly from the agency ranks without time on the outside. Accordingly, former senior intelligence luminaries have lined up behind her, suggesting in a Cipher Brief roundtable that she’ll be a counterweight to Trump deeply trusted by Langley and downplaying her role in torture. (“Gina Haspel did precisely what the agency and the nation asked her to do,” wrote Mike Hayden, who presided over the terminal phase of the torture program as CIA director.)

While some officials involved in the legal aspects of the torture program have been nominated for higher appointments, Haspel would be the first such nominee who played an operational role in mock executions and waterboarding. To civil liberties groups, the message a Haspel directorship would send to that generation of CIA officers is “that torture, or other activity outside the bounds of the law, is not a career-killer,” according to Christopher Anders, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.

And it’s not just any president who has nominated Haspel. Trump as a candidate spoke rapturously about implementing torture worse than waterboarding, and only Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appears to have swayed Trump. But now that Trump is ousting moderates like Rex Tillerson and elevating hardliners like Mike Pompeo – who as a congressman adopted an anti-anti-torture posture – “her appointment as CIA director could lead to a reemergence of torture, either as a matter of policy or in practice,” said Dixon. (Congress in 2015 reiterated the illegality of torture, but civil libertarians are quick to note that torture was illegal when the CIA enacted the Bush-era program in 2002.)

The civil-libertarian plan to defeat Haspel is still coalescing, as is its membership. Thus far on board ae Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Victims of Torture, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the ACLU, Center for Constitutional Rights, Demand Progress, Open the Government and Amnesty International (where, full disclosure, this reporter’s wife is a senior executive). Some of the campaigns contours are becoming clear as well.

Later this week, an open letter to the Senate will emerge from many of these prominent civil libertarian groups. It will call for senators to seek a substantial declassification of what, exactly, Haspel did at the Thailand black site she oversaw for Abu Zubaydah and Nashiri’s interrogation. By the CIA’s design, the public record is full of discrepancies and obfuscations, including those within the declassified text of the Senate torture report and the agency’s prevention of Haspel’s deposition in a torture lawsuit. (Similarly, a book from CIA contractor James Mitchell, a co-defendant in that suit that includes a quote from a figure who might be Haspel mocking a tortured Abu Zubaydah, but it’s not clear.) The groups will argue that those gaps are untenable for oversight of a potential CIA director.

“The confirmation hearings are going to be a bad joke if stuff isn’t declassified,” said Katherine Hawkins of the Project on Government Oversight, one of the most tenacious outside investigators of CIA torture. Hawkins, also part of the coalition to defeat Haspel, plans on drafting questions to ask Haspel for Senate staff.

In addition to fanning out to the airwaves to warn against Haspel, the groups are targeting key senators, and they see favorable math. They got a big boost on Wednesday, when Kentucky Republican Rand Paul came out against Haspel. In a 51-49 Republican Senate majority, Haspel’s nomination is no sure bet even before the fight begins in earnest.

But that depends on the civil libertarians convincing Democrats to stand together against Haspel – and that’s far from a certain thing, thanks in part to the reflexive fear amongst Democratic leaders about getting tarred as weak on security. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that he’s not instructing Democrats to oppose her “at this point.” And many civil libertarians were disappointed – even shocked – that the leading figure behind the torture report, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, did not reject Haspel out of hand, even as she seeks reelection this year in deep-blue California.

Feinstein told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that she “never announces a view before the hearing.”

She continued: “No one could doubt how much I care. And anyone that knows what we went through to get this report to see the light of day will understand that. Like everybody, I have to do my due diligence. And I don’t just make a kneejerk opinion. I wait, because I’m on the [Senate intelligence] committee and I have an opportunity to ask questions to do just that,” Feinstein said.

But now Paul is to Feinstein’s left on Haspel. “We’ll see if she has the courage of her convictions to actually vote no,” Paul jabbed on Wednesday.

Civil libertarians are also looking to a torture survivor to give a few Republicans cover to break with the White House on Haspel and to shore up Democrats: Arizona Republican John McCain. McCain stopped just short of opposing Haspel on Tuesday and called on her to “explain the nature and extent of her involvement” in torture. Along with Feinstein, McCain was the architect of the successful 2015 amendment formally prohibiting the CIA from returning to torture, so the civil libertarians consider McCain persuadable as a substantial voice against Haspel.

The groups believe they have some recent history is on their side. Last year, they came just short of stopping Steven Bradbury, a Bush-era Justice Department official who lent his legal imprimatur to CIA torture, from becoming the senior attorney at the Department of Transportation. Bradbury won 50-47, but all Democrats who voted were against him, as were McCain and Paul. And that was for a position unrelated to national security featuring a nominee without an operational role in torture. Additionally, the McCain-Feinstein amendment passed in 2015 by a wide margin, 78 to 21.

Civil libertarian groups do not win many major congressional battles. Capitol Hill is typically favorable territory for the security agencies, as crossing them opens politicians up to demagoguery. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming congresswoman whose father Dick was a pivotal architect of the torture program, tweeted that Paul was “defending and sympathizing with terrorists” by criticizing Haspel.

But whether they can succeed against Haspel or not, the civil liberties groups feel they cannot sit out a fight to prevent a woman deeply involved with acts like stuffing a wounded man into a box barely larger than a coffin and threatening another captive with a pistol from running the CIA.

“Everyone is super revved up on this,” said Human Right First’s Wala. “Torture is the quintessential human rights violation. [Preventing it] is so central to our cause.”

-- with additional reporting by Andrew Desiderio

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