By Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An internal CIA review in 2011 cleared U.S. President Donald Trump's choice to head the agency, Gina Haspel, of wrongdoing in the destruction of videotapes depicting the harsh interrogation of an al Qaeda suspect, according to a memorandum that the CIA declassified and released on Friday.
The spy agency released the memo in response to demands by U.S. lawmakers for more details on Haspel's career and as part of its effort to bolster her nomination. Haspel's bid to be the first woman CIA director faces scrutiny on Capitol Hill due to her involvement in a discontinued interrogation program that many regarded as using torture.
"I have found no fault with the performance of Ms. Haspel," Michael Morell, then the CIA's deputy director, wrote in the December 2011 memo.
"I have concluded that she acted appropriately in her role" as chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, the head of CIA spy operations, Morell wrote.
At issue was a decision that Rodriguez has said he made in November 2005 to destroy videotapes showing the waterboarding of CIA detainee Abu Zubaydah who U.S. officials believed at the time - incorrectly - was a top-level al Qaeda operative.
Waterboarding is a form of simulated drowning. Zubaydah's role in al Qaeda was later found to have been overstated.
CIA officials have long said that Haspel drafted a cable from Rodriguez ordering agency officers in the field to destroy the tapes, and that she believed Rodriguez was going to clear it first with the agency's director at the time, Porter Goss.
At the time the cable was sent, Haspel worked in CIA headquarters outside Washington, D.C. Published accounts have said she was chief in 2002 of a base in Thailand where detainees were interrogated, but arrived there after Zubaydah's waterboarding.
The memo appears to support the CIA version of events.
Haspel "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," Morell wrote.
Rodriguez has said he ordered the tapes destroyed out of fear that, if leaked, they could put CIA officers at risk.
In a statement earlier this week, Rodriguez said he took full responsibility for destroying the tapes.
"I was under the impression that the chain of command did not think it was illegal to destroy the tapes but that no one wanted to make the decision at the time," Rodriguez said.
Haspel, who is now the agency's No. 2 official, is due to appear at a May 9 hearing on her confirmation before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Haspel has the backing of the committee's Republican chairman, Richard Burr, but several Democrats have expressed concern about the nomination.
"It’s 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 to her involvement in the torture program," Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said in a statement. "Senators and the public need to know more about her record."
Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Senator Mark Warner, the panel's ranking Democrat, said release of the memo was "a good step, but it was only one step. Senator Warner will continue to press the CIA to declassify additional documents and material regarding Ms. Haspel’s background."
(Reporting by Warren Strobel; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Leslie Adler)