Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
A Prisoner in Gina Haspel’s Black Site
He was a small man, one interrogator recalled, and so thin that he would slip in his restraints when the masked CIA guards tipped the waterboard upward to let him breathe.
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a 37-year-old Saudi, did not deny having been a terrorist operative for Osama bin Laden. He admitted his role in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, an attack that killed 17 Navy sailors. Captured two years later in Dubai, he talked openly about planning more attacks.
But any bravado had disappeared well before Nashiri’s CIA captors strapped him naked to a hospital gurney in a windowless white cell and began pouring water into his nose and mouth until he felt he was drowning. He pleaded with them to stop. They continued.
They “were going to get the truth out of him,” the interrogator told Nashiri, according to a previously undisclosed CIA cable. “They were going to do this again, and again, and again until he decided to be truthful.”
More than 15 years after Gina Haspel oversaw the questioning of Nashiri at a secret prison in Thailand, she will go before the Senate on Wednesday to seek confirmation as President Donald Trump’s choice to become the next director of the CIA.
While her nomination has already revived the country’s unresolved debate over interrogation methods that many experts consider torture, nearly everything Haspel has done in her long CIA career has remained secret, blotted out by the black ink that obscures classified information in public records.
But a trove of partially declassified CIA documents, released earlier this year in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and provided to ProPublica, offers a glimpse at one coercive interrogation she is known to have supervised.
Those records describe how Nashiri was slammed repeatedly against a wall, locked up in a tiny “confinement box” and told (inaccurately) that the black-clad security officers guarding him were Navy sailors who would pummel him if he did not divulge his secrets. One interrogator told Nashiri he needed to be “tenderized” like a piece of meat.
As Haspel prepares for confirmation hearings before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the question is not whether her past will haunt her, but whether she can persuasively argue that her experience with harsh interrogations has convinced her not to allow their use again.
“She has told senators in her meetings with them that the CIA will not renew a detention and interrogation program under any circumstances,” a CIA spokesman said.
The Trump administration’s pitch for Haspel has not been straightforward. The president, who campaigned on a promise that he would bring back waterboarding and “a heck of a lot worse,” complained in a tweet on Monday morning that Democrats were opposing Haspel because “she was too tough on Terrorists.”
“Win Gina!” he exhorted her.
The agency itself, which generally prides itself on avoiding politics, has taken an unusually active and open role in lobbying for Haspel’s candidacy. On Monday, the CIA delivered a fuller set of classified records to the Senate, inviting senators to read a detailed history of Haspel’s career in secure rooms on Capitol Hill. But the agency has thus far declassified almost no substantive information about her work as an operations officer or senior official.
“Nominees will say practically anything to get confirmed,” Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democratic member of the intelligence committee, said in an interview. “I believe the American people have a right to know who this nominee is. I believe there is a significant amount of information about the key period, from 2002 to 2007, which can be declassified without compromising our country’s security.”
To provide a fuller picture, ProPublica interviewed current and former officials and reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including some that had not previously been made public. This story focuses on Haspel’s CIA career and her brief experience leading one of the agency’s so-called black sites. A second article will examine her role in the agency’s 2005 destruction of 92 interrogation videotapes that were recorded before and during her time at the secret prison in Thailand.
Agency colleagues cast her role in both the tapes affair and the interrogation program as evidence of her consummate loyalty — not only to her boss, but to CIA officers who served in clandestine prisons around the world. But her personal views on such issues as the morality and effectiveness of brutal interrogation methods have remained opaque.
For several years, former officials said, she was deeply involved in the agency’s fight against al-Qaida, often working closely with the detention program. Later, she held top posts in the Clandestine Service when the agency waged an extraordinary campaign to try to refute a scathing report on the program by the Senate intelligence committee. The vehemence of those challenges led both Democrats and Republicans to question the CIA’s own reckoning with the mistakes it made.
According to one intelligence official, it was Haspel’s bona fides as a front-line veteran of the campaign against al-Qaida that helped win Trump’s admiration early on in his presidency, when he named her the agency’s deputy director. “He likes the idea that she was a risk-taker,” the official said.
At the same time, many of the former CIA officials who have rallied to support her nomination say privately that it is because of Trump’s often-unbridled impulses to action that the leadership of a sober operations professional — and especially one reluctant to put her officers at risk — could serve as a crucial restraint.
Haspel would be the first woman to run the agency and the first operations officer since Richard Helms in the 1970s. But even she has at times seemed ambivalent about the idea.
As debate over her candidacy intensified late last week, officials said she had offered to withdraw if the debate over her candidacy might draw the CIA into a damaging new controversy over its interrogations after 9/11. At the urging of the White House, she later agreed to go forward, officials said.
In a gauzy biographical sketch, the agency has portrayed Haspel as a proud native Kentuckian, one of five children who grew up on military bases overseas while their father served in the Air Force. It describes her as a passionate fan of the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the country-music legend Johnny Cash, who stares down at visitors from a 5-foot poster on her office wall.
One of the few operations the agency disclosed in any detail is surely among her least controversial: She helped arrange a telephone call between then-President Ronald Reagan and Mother Theresa, who was concerned about a wheat shortage in an African nation where Haspel was stationed in the late 1980s.
Of her three decades of professional work as a CIA operative, midlevel manager and senior official, the agency has offered a list of vague titles like “deputy group chief” and “senior-level supervisor.” None of them reveal much about the work she did.
Haspel, now 61, joined the CIA in 1985, some seven years after graduating from the University of Louisville with an honors degree in journalism and languages.
The agency’s Directorate of Operations, where she began, was an environment that many women at the time found challenging, if not inhospitable. Many of the D.O. bosses believed that women were generally less effective than men at recruiting agents overseas — the crucial task of undercover case officers.
(In 1994, the CIA settled a series of gender-discrimination lawsuits that about one-third of the women in the directorate were reported to have agreed to join as a class action. The agency spokesman said he did not know and could not comment on whether Haspel was among them.)
Haspel did not strike colleagues as a woman who was uncomfortable in the gung-ho, macho environment of the D.O. After her childhood exposure to the military, she had also worked after college running the library and language lab for an Army special forces detachment at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.
“She’s pretty steely,” one former agency official said. “She’s smart and good and effective, but probably not who you’d ask out for a beer.”
In the waning years of the Cold War, Haspel shipped out to Africa as a case officer, work that she described in the agency biography as being “right out of a spy novel.” She later became chief of a small agency station in “an exotic and tumultuous capital” overseas, where she was credited with helping to organize the capture of two suspects wanted for the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Before 9/11, Haspel requested a transfer to the CTC, as the agency’s Counterterrorism Center is known, a unit that brought together undercover operatives like Haspel with intelligence analysts and other specialists. After the attacks, the CTC would grow exponentially, becoming a dominant power center within the Directorate of Operations.
According to one colleague who worked with her, she was also quick to absorb the anger of the most ardent CTC veterans — including some who shared a deep sense of guilt at having failed to act more effectively to prevent the 9/11 attacks. “It was, `Get the bastards,’” the officer recalled. “She was on that side of the quotient.”
There, Haspel quickly won the trust of Jose Rodriguez, a hard-charging former head of the agency’s Latin America Division who became the CTC’s chief of operations and then, in mid-2002, its director.
The challenges of counterterrorism work suited her, colleagues said. In the intense, almost frenzied environment, she was unflappable. “She never said no to an assignment,” one former colleague recalled. “If there was a problem, she’d throw a huge effort at it and fix it.”
The CIA would not disclose Haspel’s specific responsibilities during the two years after the 9/11 attacks, other than to say she was the deputy chief of a group within the CTC.
In the summer of 2002, in the months before Haspel went to Thailand to oversee the black site there known as the “Cat’s Eye,” the CTC had been consumed with its first “enhanced interrogation,” that of a Palestinian militant known as Abu Zubaydah.
The interrogation methods approved by the Justice Department for Zubaydah became the basis for a menu of coercive techniques that was later used on other “high-value” detainees — those who were believed to know about active terror plots. They included prolonged sleep deprivation; stress positions; confining the prisoner inside small, wooden boxes; slamming him into a plywood wall; and waterboarding.
Zubaydah’s interrogation was led by the two former military psychologists, James Mitchell and J. Bruce Jessen, who as private consultants helped to devise the CIA’s methods.
Having worked for years in military survival programs, the two men focused on a method they had seen “break” countless American commandoes who were being trained to resist interrogation: the waterboard. Over a 17-day period, the two psychologists subjected Zubaydah to the simulated drowning procedure 83 times, CIA cables show, as he gagged, vomited, became “hysterical” and suffered “involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities.”
The treatment shook some of the CIA officers who witnessed it, declassified documents show. “Several on the team profoundly affected … some to the point of tears and choking up,” one of them wrote on Aug. 8.
Members of the CIA team warned officials at the agency’s headquarters repeatedly that Zubaydah did not seem to have the information that the officials were so convinced he possessed, and that the interrogators might be pushing the harsh methods too far. At one point, Mitchell would later recall, CTC officials told the psychologists to stop acting like “pussies.”
By the time Haspel was “read in” to the highly secret program weeks later, the Zubaydah interrogation had been deemed an unequivocal success. The prisoner, who had been pronounced “fully compliant” and was being debriefed on a daily basis. He never did provide any kind of intelligence about future attacks CTC officials were convinced he had been hiding. (This year, ProPublica retracted a 2017 story that inaccurately reported Haspel was in Thailand overseeing the questioning of Zubaydah.)
In October, a few weeks after her 46th birthday, Rodriguez sent Haspel to Thailand to take over as chief of base.
Haspel quickly won the respect not only of the interrogation team but also, apparently, of the prisoner himself. Rodriguez wrote in his memoir that Zubaydah referred to her as the “emira,” the Arabic word for commander or princess. (The same term was commonly used for the commander of terrorist training camps, like the one in Afghanistan, Khaldan, for which Zubaydah had served as a recruiter.)
As base chief, Haspel supervised the interrogators, guards and medical personnel at the prison. Some records indicate that she would have been the only CIA officer on the ground empowered to halt the interrogation without headquarters authorization. The newly released records do not say if she ever exercised that authority or if she was physically present when Nashiri was interrogated.
A cable from the Thai black site on Oct. 29, 2002, suggests a moment of relative calm soon after Haspel’s arrival. It noted that the “COB,” or chief of base, had interviewed the prisoner herself, encouraging him “to take advantage of the opportunity to set the record straight on any issues about which he has either been less than forthcoming or has obfuscated.”
The pace quickened on Nov. 15 when Nashiri was delivered to the black site. Mitchell and Jessen had flown to Afghanistan to interview him. After a brief interview, they decided he was likely a “resister,” and officials at CIA headquarters authorized the use of what were euphemistically termed “enhanced methods.”
The new prisoner had long been in the agency’s sights. Agency analysts had tied him to a series of al-Qaida attacks, including the USS Cole bombing in the Yemeni port of Aden. He was also believed to have plotted the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, in which more than 224 people were killed. (He had not.)
Under Haspel’s supervision, the interrogators immediately set to work. Naked but for his shackles and hood, Nashiri was locked into a coffin-like wooden box for hours at a time. When his answers were deemed evasive or inadequate, he was sometimes moved into the smaller box for up to two hours as additional punishment.
After being extracted from one box or the other, the cables show, Nashiri would sometimes be led in his shackles to the plywood wall, where a rolled towel would be wrapped around his neck. That allowed the interrogators to slam him loudly into the wall while minimizing the risk of whiplash.
All the while, the interrogators threatened to do worse.
Nashiri did not do much resisting. After he was locked into the smaller box for the first time, early in his stay at the black site, he began to talk about two of the main operations to which he would be linked in U.S. intelligence summaries: an aborted plan to attack oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, and a plot — for which he was trying to raise funds when he was captured — to crash a small airplane into a ship in the Emirati harbor of Port Rashid.
By the seventh day of his “aggressive” interrogations, Nashiri earned modest rewards. A cable from that day said that his questioning began with the gift of a towel, which he could use to cover himself. But it noted that his answers were “confused” and “disjointed,” and the interrogators became angry. If they needed to, they warned him, they would “get his full attention the hard way.”
Finally, after answering questions in what the interrogators deemed “a useful way,” they promised him further rewards: They would remove the chain between his handcuffs and his shackles, but warned him that if he tried “anything aggressive,” the black-clad members of the security team “will kill you.”
The interrogators said Nashiri would also get a haircut and a shave, and a pair of pants to wear. As they left, the prisoner “appeared to relax,” the cable states. But then he made the mistake of asking if someone could possibly clean his dirty fingernails, or if he could do so himself. One interrogator turned and asked Nashiri to repeat what he said.
“Listen to me,” the American said angrily, squatting down to look him in the face. “This is not — not — a hotel. We are not in the business of kissing your ass. We are not in the business of grooming you.”
As the interrogators stepped out of the cell, the security team surrounded the prisoner. They then forcibly shaved his head and beard with an electric razor, the cable states, as he “cried and grimaced theatrically.”
On the 12th day of aggressive methods, documents show, the interrogators turned to the waterboard.
The guards, who were typically clad in black fatigues and balaclavas, tied him to a hospital gurney, an arrangement that turned out to be precarious. Nashiri was so slight that he nearly slid off as the gurney was tilted upward to let him clear the water from his sinuses. “We were concerned that he would fall off the gurney and get hurt,” Mitchell wrote. “We were all feeling uncomfortable.”
After three sessions, the waterboarding was stopped because “he gave us enough to convince us that the harshest of our approved tactics no longer were needed,” Mitchell wrote.
Nashiri’s questioning unexpectedly halted at the end of November when The New York Times learned that al-Qaida suspects were being held in Thailand. CIA officials persuaded the newspaper not to publish the information. They nonetheless ordered Haspel to shut down the black site immediately, assuming that if Times reporters could learn of its existence, others would soon find out.
The interrogators tried to turn Nashiri’s imminent transfer to advantage. They told him he was being sent to “a much worse place,” one cable notes. Comparing the prisoner to a piece of meat, the interrogators said the dark days he faced were their fault because they had failed to “tenderize” him properly.
As Nashiri wept, the interrogators ticked through another list of questions, warning that if he did not give them the answers they wanted, “conditioning methods would be applied.”
On Dec. 4, Zubaydah and Nashiri were put aboard a CIA jet and flown to a new black site, code-named “Quartz,” that had been set up in a two-story villa that Polish intelligence used for training in a remote northeastern corner of their country.
Haspel appears to have returned to CIA headquarters. A CIA spokesman declined to comment on whether she had any further input into Nashiri’s interrogation or made any recommendations to the officers who managed his interrogations in Poland.
Various psychological evaluations of Nashiri have found lasting scars. In addition to a phobia of water, he has been diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. A psychiatric expert, Sondra Crosby, called him “one of the most damaged victims of torture” she had ever examined.
Nashiri is now facing death-penalty charges before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay stemming from the attack on the Cole and on a French-flagged oil tanker.
Over the two years that followed, former officials say, Haspel’s career continued to intersect with the rendition and detention program. The CIA created a new mini-organization to manage a global network of secret prisons that expanded to include Romania, Lithuania, Morocco and elsewhere.
Beginning in December of 2002, the CTC’s Renditions Group — previously charged with the capture and transport of suspected terrorists — took over management of all detention and interrogation facilities. It was renamed the Renditions, Detentions and Interrogations Group, or RDG.
By its scale and scope, the group’s work was breathtaking. CIA officers swept up suspects all over the world, in ever-greater numbers, with many undercover operations running simultaneously. The large majority of the 119 men detained and sent to black sites were captured during this period.
There were notable errors. Some of the detainees turned out be victims of mistaken identity or false accusations. More than two dozen failed to meet the agency’s own minimal standards for being picked up.
As some of the agency’s post-9/11 secrets have been declassified, it has become clearer that some officers within and around the CTC tried repeatedly to stop what they considered the excessive and pointless use of waterboarding and other methods. Haspel’s position in those debates could not be ascertained, but she has more often been identified with officials like her former boss, Rodriguez, who often overruled those challenges.
By 2003, however, the political winds had begun to shift. That summer, CIA officials grew concerned after statements by the Bush administration that the United States was treating detainees humanely and complying with the international Convention Against Torture.
On July 29, the CIA director, George Tenet, met with selected members of President Bush’s National Security Council, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, seeking formal reaffirmation of their support for the interrogation program.
According to the Senate intelligence committee report, the CIA officials made their case by exaggerating both the amount and importance of the intelligence they had gained from the interrogations to that point. A slide from the CIA presentation claimed that the “termination of this program will result in loss of life, possibly extensive.”
The agency won the reaffirmation it sought.
In the late summer of 2004, Haspel finally left the CTC.
She was promoted to become deputy chief of the CIA’s National Resources Division, a branch of the agency that recruits foreign students, diplomats and others inside the United States, and gathers voluntary information from Americans who work or travel abroad.
It was a bit of a backwater after CTC, but much lower stress and a significant rise in rank. The division chief, Hank Crumpton, was also a CTC veteran, having led paramilitary operations against the Taliban after 9/11. He had kept his eye on Haspel.
“She was by then a leader within CTC,” he recalled in an interview. “She was gritty. A real great, blue-collar work ethic. She would take on any challenge. And just a great team player because she had no ego. People wanted to work with her.”
Haspel’s respite was short-lived. In November 2004, the CIA’s two most senior operations officials quit in a dispute with aides to Porter Goss, a former Republican congressman from Florida who had replaced Tenet as the CIA director. Where Tenet had worried about waning political support for the black site program, Goss wanted to ratchet up the pressure on al-Qaida. He elevated Rodriguez to run the operations directorate, and Crumpton heard from him not long thereafter.
“Jose called and said he was taking her to be his chief of staff,” Crumpton recalled of Haspel. It was not a negotiation. “He basically told me to quit whining and go find another deputy.”
Her title notwithstanding, the job carried important operational responsibilities and was an even bigger step up the ladder. Some colleagues questioned privately whether Haspel was a suitable pick.
“She has been underestimated her entire career,” Crumpton said. “One, because she’s a woman. Two, because she’s not an extrovert, she’s not a back-slapper. She’s all steak and no sizzle.”
In another high-pressure environment, Haspel continued to be known for her remarkable work ethic. Colleagues also appreciate the way she complemented her boss: Rodriguez was the forceful personality; Haspel commanded the details.
Haspel joined Rodriguez in advocating for the destruction of the videotapes that had been recorded of Zubaydah and Nashiri in 2002, officials said.
Rodriguez gave the order to destroy the tapes in 2005, and the revelation two years later that he had done so prompted a separate, criminal investigation by a special prosecutor in which Haspel was brought back from London, where she was the agency’s station chief, and questioned at length. No charges were ultimately brought in the case, in part, officials said, because those involved had acted on the advice of lawyers that what they were doing was legal.
The destruction of the tapes prompted new congressional scrutiny of the interrogation program. Democratic staffers on the Senate intelligence committee sifted through a mountain of classified documents and compiled a highly critical report that accused the CIA of repeatedly misleading the White House, the Justice Department and the public about the brutality and efficacy of the effort.
In 2013, Haspel’s past seemed to catch up with her. President Obama’s director of the CIA, John Brennan, had named her as acting director of the Clandestine Service, putting her in charge of spying and covert operations. But Brennan dropped the idea of giving her the job permanently when Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee vociferously objected.
Soon after his inauguration, Trump moved Haspel up once again, naming her the agency’s deputy director under former Republican congressman Mike Pompeo.
While Trump has not hesitated to reignite the debate over torture, he later suggested that he would seek the advice of Defense Secretary James Mattis and other senior national security officials on the subject. A CIA spokesman also said Haspel had in fact told several senators early on in her tenure as the deputy director that she opposed any resumption of an “enhanced” interrogation program.
One factor complicating Haspel’s position is that her most prominent supporters include former agency officials who led an aggressive campaign to refute the Senate report, arguing anew that the interrogation methods they sanctioned were both necessary and effective.
Most of those supporters now acknowledge that “some mistakes were made,” as former CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden put it last week. They underscore that highly coercive interrogation methods are prohibited by current U.S. law, and suggest that the CIA has no stomach for getting back in that business.
“There is no way that an agency officer of Gina’s character and experience will send CIA officers out there to do this again,” Hayden said on a podcast last week. “If you’re worried about the future on this particular question, Gina Haspel — you can’t pick a better person.”
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.