The Slatest

Publication Which Identified CIA Nominee as Supervisor of Abu Zubaydah Torture Retracts Report (Corrected Post)

CIA headquarters on Jan. 21, 2017.
CIA headquarters on Jan. 21, 2017.
Olivier Doulier/Pool/Getty Images

Correction, March 15: ProPublica, which reported in 2017 that Gina Haspel supervised the torture of Abu Zubaydah, has retracted its report. From the site:

The story said that Haspel, a career CIA officer who President Trump has nominated to be the next director of central intelligence, oversaw the clandestine base where Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding and other coercive interrogation methods that are widely seen as torture. The story also said she mocked the prisoner’s suffering in a private conversation. Neither of these assertions is correct and we retract them. It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended.

ProPublica writes that it made errors determining who was being referred to as “chief of base” in “declassified agency cables and CIA-reviewed books which referred to the official overseeing Zubaydah’s interrogation at a secret prison in Thailand.”

ProPublica says its original report that Haspel was involved in the destruction of video recordings depicting Zubaydah’s torture was correct, and that she did supervise the waterboarding of a suspect who was not Zubaydah.

Original post, March 13: Rex Tillerson has been fired as Secretary of State; CIA director Mike Pompeo has been nominated to replace him. Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Pompeo at the CIA is Gina Haspel, who had been the agency’s deputy director.

In 2002, Haspel was present, in a supervising role, at a “black site” in Thailand where an individual named Abu Zubaydah—believed to be a top al-Qaida official—was tortured. Zubaydah was waterboarded, slammed against a wall, and confined in a “coffin-like” box. As ProPublica reported in 2017, though, “CIA analysts were wrong when they had identified Zubaydah as the number three or four in al-Qaida after Osama bin Laden. The waterboarding failed to elicit valuable intelligence not because he was holding back, but because he was not a member of al-Qaida, and had no knowledge of any plots against the United States.” The U.S. government acknowledged in a 2009 court filing that Zubaydah was not a top al-Qaida official but maintained that he was an “affiliate” of the group; the New York Times has written that Zubaydah may have been “a helpful [terrorist] training camp personnel clerk.” He remains imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay and, as the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins has noted, lost his left eye at some point after being captured under circumstances that remain unclear.

More on the “enhanced interrogation”:

Zubaydah vomited, passed out and urinated on himself while shackled. During one waterboarding session, Zubaydah lost consciousness and bubbles began gurgling from his mouth. Medical personnel on the scene had to revive him. Haspel allowed the most brutal interrogations by the CIA to continue for nearly three weeks even though, as the cables sent from Thailand to the agency’s headquarters repeatedly stated, “subject has not provided any new threat information or elaborated on any old threat information.”

At one point, Haspel spoke directly with Zubaydah, accusing him of faking symptoms of physical distress and psychological breakdown. In a scene described in a book written by one of the interrogators, [Haspel] came to his cell and “congratulated him on the fine quality of his acting.” 

The sessions were recorded on video. Here’s what happened to the recordings:

When questions began to swirl about the Bush administration’s use of the “black sites,” and program of “enhanced interrogation,” [Haspel] began pushing to have the tapes destroyed. She accomplished her mission years later when she rose to a senior position at CIA headquarters and drafted an order to destroy the evidence, which was still locked in a CIA safe at the American embassy in Thailand. Her boss, the head of the agency’s counterterrorism center, signed the order to feed the 92 tapes into a giant shredder.

Two points of note, for context:

• The CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program was designed under the George W. Bush administration’s supervision by two quack psychologists who had never interrogated a suspect or worked in intelligence.

• Barack Obama chose not to order the investigation or prosecution of Americans who were involved in torture, asserting at one point that he was not interested in “refighting old arguments” about the subject.

Well, now what was old is new again!

Ben Mathis-Lilley is Slate’s chief news blogger.