National Security

CIA will allow senators to review classified material on Haspel


The CIA will allow senators weighing the nomination of Gina Haspel to review some classified information related to her controversial undercover background following pressure from Democrats on Capitol Hill, the agency informed lawmakers on Tuesday.

The agency is also “actively working towards sharing additional information with the public to the greatest extent possible,” it said in a letter obtained by The Hill.

The letter provides no details about what episodes related to Haspel the agency will illuminate. Her confirmation hearing to head the agency is scheduled for early May.

Haspel’s record has sparked a tense standoff with Senate Democrats, thanks to her role in a particularly controversial episode in CIA history: a pair of brutal interrogations that took place at a black site prison known as “Cat’s Eye,” which she briefly ran.

Because so much of Haspel’s record is still classified — 32 of her 33 years at the agency were spent undercover — much of the fight in Congress has revolved around what information, if any, the CIA will make public about her past.

A trio of Democratic senators — Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (N.M.) — have been demanding that the agency declassify more information about Haspel to allow the public and lawmakers who aren’t on the Senate Intelligence Committee to review her nomination.

They quickly blasted the CIA’s response as “wholly inadequate.” 

“Concealing her background when no sources and methods are at stake shows nothing but contempt for the Senate and the public,” they said in a joint statement. 

“We believe senators and the American public have the need to know whether or not the nominee before us was a senior manager for a program that has been shown to be deeply flawed, as well as a number of other disturbing facts about her record.”

The three have complained that the CIA is selectively declassifying only positive information about Haspel and suggested that continuing to keep her record under wraps violates an Obama-era executive order prohibiting the use of classification to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error” or “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency.”

As members of the intelligence panel, Wyden, Feinstein and Heinrich have access to classified information that the rest of their colleagues do not, and Wyden has hinted repeatedly that there is much about Haspel’s background that remains unknown. 

In its three-page response to the trio of lawmakers — which also went to committee heads Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) — CIA congressional affairs head Jaime Cheshire defends the agency’s reticence, citing the need to protect officers who were involved in the agency’s now defunct detention and interrogation program.

She said the agency updated its classification guidance related to the interrogation program after Obama issued his 2009 order. But while “a large amount of information about the former [Rendition, Detention and Interrogation] Program has already been publicly acknowledged, CIA still protects information regarding personnel involved in the RDI Program as well as information about the operation and location of any overseas detention facilities,” including the name of any country in which the detention facility was located.

She noted that there are websites that aggregate publicly available information to identify officers and their family members and that some of the officials alleged to have been involved in the program have received death threats and were the victims of “other security incidents.”

“If the CIA were unable or unwilling to protect personnel’s affiliation with the CIA and activities, not only would this benefit our nation’s adversaries, future personnel may be less willing to accept dangerous job assignments, thereby significantly impairing the CIA’s ability to conduct its clandestine intelligence mission,” she writes.

Further, Cheshire says, Congress “has recognized the need to protect” agency personnel from public disclosure.

She writes that a pair of laws that established the agency — including the 1949 law that allows the CIA to keep its budget and much of its operations a secret — show that Congress intended to maintain that shield around the agency, “apart from any Executive Order classifications that might be applied by the Executive Branch.”

The debate over how much of Haspel’s record to make public in advance of her confirmation hints at the unusual nature of her nomination. Although there have been a handful of CIA nominees with operational experience at the agency before now, many of them had been in the public arena prior to their nomination. Haspel remained undercover until last year. Because so much of her record at the CIA is classified, there are limitations on what the agency can or will make public — something that critics say is just a convenient excuse designed to shield the agency from scrutiny.

The CIA on Friday did declassify a 2011 memo in which former Deputy Director Michael Morell found that Haspel “acted appropriately” when she drafted an order to destroy videotapes of harsh interrogations at the black site prison in Thailand that she briefly ran.

Feinstein, Wyden and Heinrich blasted the release of the memo, which they said was incomplete and selective, while still confirming troubling details about her record.

The public allegations against Haspel concern two incidents.

In 2002, the CIA sent Haspel to run Cat’s Eye, where the al Qaeda suspect accused of bombing the USS Cole was waterboarded three times.

Prior to Haspel’s arrival at the site, agency operatives waterboarded another al Qaeda suspect, Abu Zubaydah, 83 times — at one point leaving him “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth,” according to a 2014 report spearheaded by Feinstein.

In 2005, Haspel drafted the cable ordering the destruction of videotapes documenting the interrogations of the two men, amidst growing scrutiny of the detention and interrogation programs. 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.

In Morell’s 2011 memo, the then-deputy director concluded that Haspel was only following orders.

“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.

In a final appeal to lawmakers, Cheshire appears to urge the three lawmakers to lean on the structure of the Intelligence Committee rather than to push the agency to publicize more information about a woman who up until a year ago was essentially anonymous.

Established following the Church Committee investigation into CIA abuses in the 1970s, the Senate Intelligence Committee in theory was designed to act as a proxy for the public, providing adversarial congressional oversight of the intelligence community while still protecting clandestine sources and methods.

Critics say it has not always lived up to that lofty ideal, at times getting too cozy with the agencies it is meant to be overseeing.

In the final paragraphs of its response, the agency cites the committee’s “unique role.”

“We have benefited from the ability to have candid, transparent dialogue with the Committee within appropriate classified channels,” Cheshire writes.

“We are confident that the Committee and the full Senate can work with us on consideration of a nominee whose career was spent serving the country in classified operational assignments.”

Updated at 11:22 a.m.

Response Letter to Sen. Heinrich_4!24!18 by blc88 on Scribd

Tags Dianne Feinstein Mark Warner Martin Heinrich Richard Burr Ron Wyden

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