National Security

CIA declassifies memo on nominee’s handling of interrogation tapes


President Trump’s nominee for CIA director, Gina Haspel, “acted appropriately” in carrying out orders to destroy videotapes of harsh interrogations at a black site prison in Thailand, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell says in a newly declassified memo. 

The CIA released the memo on Friday as part of its unusually public campaign to help Haspel win confirmation.

Haspel’s record at the agency has sparked a tense stand-off with Senate Democrats, thanks to her role in a particularly nightmarish episode in CIA history: a pair of interrogations that took place at one of the prison known as “Cat’s Eye,” which she briefly ran.

{mosads}In 2005, Haspel drafted the cable ordering the destruction of videotapes documenting the interrogations of two men at the Thailand prison, amidst growing scrutiny of the detention and interrogation program. The decision was made by Jose Rodriguez, then head of the agency’s clandestine service — but Haspel, at the time his chief of staff, has been reported as having strongly advocated for the choice.

The Justice Department investigated the destruction of the tapes, but no charges were ever filed — a decision that is still a source of controversy among interrogation experts, many of whom were baffled by the decision. 

In 2011, after the conclusion of the Justice Department review, then-Deputy Director Morell undertook an internal disciplinary review of both Haspel and Rodriguez that found no fault with Haspel.

“I have concluded that she acted appropriately in her role as Mr. Rodriguez’s chief of staff, including in her efforts to press for and facilitate a resolution of the matter, as well as in her drafting of the cable that authorized the destruction of the tapes,” Morell wrote. “She drafted the cable on the direct orders of Mr. Rodriguez; she did not release that cable. It was not her decision to destroy the tapes; it was Mr. Rodriguez’s.” 

Further, Morell said, Haspel believed “incorrectly, as it turned out,” that Rodriguez was going to obtain approval to destroy the tapes from then-CIA Director Porter Goss before sending out the cable ordering the destruction of the tapes.

“Although there is no ‘good soldier’ defense in the case of an act that violates the law or Agency regulations, the Special Prosecutor evidently found no prosecutable offense, nor did I find a violation of Agency regulations,” Morell wrote.

Morell did find fault with Rodriguez, but ultimately chose only to reprimand him rather than issue internal sanctions. He cited a host of factors in favor of the former official, including a distinguished career at the agency and the fact that Rodriguez had never attempted to deny the decision or cover his tracks.

The decision, Morell said, “was not motivated by personal gain or interest … [but] by what he believed to be the best interests of the CIA and its officers.”

Rodriguez was concerned that the videotapes might leak, potentially exposing individual officers to international scrutiny and personal danger. He also feared that if the tapes leaked, it would cause the same kind of international uproar raised by the publication of graphic photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq the year before.

“He says that he was concerned that publication of the tapes would damage the domestic and international standing of the CIA, perhaps significantly degrading our operational capabilities,” Morell wrote. “He says the worldwide reaction to the leak of photos of the actions of US military personnel at Iraq’s Abu Ghuraib prison in April 2004 cemented his view that the tapes represented a threat to his officers and the Agency.”

Although they are illegal now, the techniques used on the two detainees in the videotapes — such as waterboarding — were authorized by the Justice Department in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some supporters of Haspel say she has been unfairly vilified for carrying out orders that, at the time, were done under the protection of the U.S. flag.

But lawmakers on Capitol Hill have expressed serious reservations about Haspel’s role in the destruction of the tapes, with several lawmakers citing it as their primary concern with her confirmation.

In 2002, agency operatives captured al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah and sent him to the prison Cat’s Eye compound. There, he was waterboarded 83 times — at one point, leaving him “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth,” according to the 2014 report spearheaded by then-Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Haspel was sent by the CIA to run Cat’s Eye in October 2002, after the interrogation of Zubaydah, according to a former senior CIA official who spoke to The New York Times.

But in November of that year, another al Qaeda suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of bombing the USS Cole, was waterboarded three times at the prison.

A handful of members of the Intelligence Committee have been pushing the agency to declassify records related to Haspel’s history at the agency.

An agency spokesperson said the Morell review “shows that Deputy Director Haspel has been consistent and clear in describing her role in the incident.”

“She did not appear in the tapes, nor did she make the decision to destroy them. The review also makes clear that the decision to destroy the tapes was made by Jose Rodriguez, who has publicly taken responsibility for his actions,” the spokesperson said. 

The disclosure appears unlikely to satisfy Haspel’s critics, some of whom were quick to blast the disclosure on Friday. Several lawmakers — including libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — had already come out in opposition to her nomination on human rights grounds. 

Feinstein called it “completely unacceptable for the CIA to declassify only material that’s favorable to Gina Haspel, while at the same time stonewalling our efforts to declassify all documents related her involvement in the torture program.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called the report “highly incomplete, raising far more questions about Ms. Haspel than it answers.” 

“The Administration needs to release much more information about this episode, including the extensive record described in the Morell report,” he said in a statement. “As I have said in the past, my concerns about Ms. Haspel are far broader than this episode or anything else that has appeared in the press.”

But her status as a career professional at the CIA — rather than a politician — is seen as a major mark in her favor in an administration accused by critics of politicizing intelligence.

Haspel is by all accounts well liked by the workforce at Langley. She twice ran the CIA station in London, an important post because of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. When she was tapped for deputy director last year, the agency issued an unusual press release praising her that featured ringing testimonials from officials like former CIA Director Michael Hayden and Morell.

Her confirmation hearing is set for May 9.

Morell Memo by Geoffrey Rowland on Scribd

Tags CIA Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Enhanced interrogation Gina Haspel Rand Paul Ron Wyden

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