President Trump on Tuesday announced the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, appointing CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson, and Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s deputy director at the CIA, to take over for Pompeo. If confirmed, Haspel will be the first woman ever to lead the U.S. spy agency.
In a statement, Trump called Haspel’s appointment “a historic milestone.”
Haspel, who has spent most of her 30-plus years in the CIA undercover and has held numerous posts overseas, is well regarded within U.S. intelligence circles. But she’s also a controversial choice.
“It’s no secret I’ve had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Tuesday. “To the best of my knowledge, she has been a good deputy director and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with her again.”
The Associated Press reports that Haspel “oversaw” a secret prison in Thailand, the agency’s first overseas detention site, where accused terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri were waterboarded.
Last year, the New York Times noted that she oversaw the torture of the terrorism suspects and “later took part in an order to destroy videotapes documenting their brutal interrogations.”
Haspel, the Times said, played a “direct role” in the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition program,” in which “captured militants were handed to foreign governments and held at secret facilities, where they were tortured by agency personnel.”
President Barack Obama ordered the so-called black sites shuttered in 2009, shortly after he took office.
According to the New Yorker, the torture program “subjected dozens of suspected terrorists to savage interrogations, which included depriving them of sleep, squeezing them into coffins, and forcing water down their throats.”
Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985, oversaw the secret operation in Thailand from 2003 to 2005, the AP said.
Later in 2005, she took part in the destruction of videotapes that showed the interrogation of Zubaydah and al-Nashiri. According to ProPublica, Haspel drafted the order to destroy the tapes, which was approved by her then-boss, Jose Rodriguez, the CIA’s director of operations for counterterrorism.
“The cable left nothing to chance. It even told them how to get rid of the tapes,” Rodriguez wrote in his memoir, according to ProPublica. “They were to use an industrial-strength shredder to do the deed.”
Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor turned whistleblower who is living in exile in Russia, expressed his disbelief about the selection of Haspel.
The new CIA director was a key part of the torture program and its illegal cover-up. Her name was on the Top Secret order demanding the destruction of tapes to prevent them being seen by Congress. Incredible. https://t.co/HjVHCPCbpo https://t.co/VamIGa1A8w
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) March 13, 2018
Both Trump and Pompeo have voiced their support for torture. Trump was blunt in doing so. “Torture works,” he said during the campaign, calling for bringing back techniques “far, far worse” than waterboarding. (During the transition, however, Trump said that Gen. James Mattis, who he was considering for defense secretary, convinced him that torture was not the right approach.)
During his confirmation hearings, Pompeo said that he would “absolutely not” be in favor of bringing back waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques that were previously utilized by the CIA.
But in written responses to questions after his hearing, Pompeo said he would be open to reviving the controversial torture program if circumstances warranted.
Although Haspel’s appointment to deputy director was exempt from Senate confirmation, her appointment by Trump to director requires one — and she will undoubtedly be grilled by lawmakers over her role in the Bush-era torture regime.
In 2013, Feinstein, then the senior Democrat on the intelligence committee, publicly protested Haspel’s promotion to acting head of the CIA’s clandestine service because of her participation in the torture program.
When Haspel was named deputy CIA director, in February 2017, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., sent a letter to Trump urging him to block her appointment.
“Her background makes her unsuitable for the position,” they wrote.
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