By Arab News
By James Reinl
President Donald Trump’s choice for director of the CIA has led some former spies to warn that the US could go back to deploying the controversial tactics it used to interrogate terrorist suspects in the decade after 9/11.
The US president chose Gina Haspel, a veteran undercover CIA officer, for the role this week despite a checkered past in which she has been accused of overseeing a notorious secret prison in Thailand. Senators and ex-CIA members have said that under her watch detainees at the site were subjected to waterboarding, a technique that involves water being poured into the mouth to simulate the effect of drowning.
Former CIA staffers told Arab News that Haspel’s rise could herald a return to the kind of detention methods that were a feature of the post-9/11 era, when suspected militants were held indefinitely at clandestine “black sites” and forced to endure everything from “rectal rehydration” and sexual humiliation to punching, slapping and prolonged isolation.
“She didn’t just follow orders, she was a cheerleader who ran a secret prison in Thailand where people were water-boarded,” Melvin Goodman, a former CIA agent-turned- whistleblower, told Arab News. “It was a terrible period in American history that we should put behind us.”
Trump courted controversy when campaigning for the presidency in 2016 by announcing plans to “load up” Guantanamo Bay detention center with “bad dudes” and reintroduce waterboarding. His decision to pick Haspel has inevitably led to speculation that he may now follow through on some of these pledges.
Haspel joined the CIA in 1985 and has previously served as chief of the CIA’s station in London and New York. She has many admirers among colleagues at the CIA, where she has been working as deputy director under Mike Pompeo, whom Trump nominated to be the next secretary of state on Tuesday after sacking Rex Tillerson.
But agents who served alongside her, and congressional officials, say that in 2002 during President George W. Bush’s administration she was responsible for a secret CIA prison in Thailand, code-named “Cat’s Eye.”
Two suspected Al-Qaeda militants — Saudi citizen Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian who grew up in Riyadh — endured waterboarding and other harsh “enhanced interrogation techniques” at the facility in Southeast Asia, which was better known as Detention Site Green.
In 2005, also during Bush’s presidency, Haspel drafted a cable ordering the destruction of video footage showing Al-Nashiri’s and Zubaydah’s interrogations at the Thai site. The outcry over this eventually helped lead to a landmark investigation into US detentions and interrogations by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
In 2014 the select committee reported that waterboarding was “physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting.” Zubaydah and Al-Nashiri are now being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Ivan Eland, a defense analyst who spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues and for NATO and the CIA, told Arab News that Haspel was “unsuitable” for the role of CIA chief and warned that her appointment could mark a return to the “lawlessness of the Bush administration.”
He said that Trump and Haspel could work without oversight to relaunch Bush-era black sites and the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were outlawed under President Barack Obama, who also described waterboarding as “torture.”
“They could do that under Trump’s unilateral power as commander-in-chief,” Eland said.
Other former CIA agents are less anxious about Haspel’s appointment. Paul Pillar, who had a 28-year career in US intelligence with postings in the Middle East and South Asia, said America was not heading back to the anti-terror hysteria that followed the 9/11 attacks.
“We didn’t use torture because we had a particular person in the job, we had torture because of an angry, scared national mood after 9/11 and different standards about how to properly handle suspected terrorists,” he told Arab News.
“Years have passed. There hasn’t been another big terrorist attack in the US. Our standards have changed, our laws have changed.”
Others noted that Trump has toned down his torture talk and done little to expand the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
Jeffrey Kaye, a psychologist and writer, remains concerned. Hagel and other Bush-era agents were never prosecuted and US forces still use “isolation and sleep and sensory deprivation in interrogation,” which amounts to torture, Kaye told Arab News.
Haspel does not have the job yet. She must be confirmed by the US Senate, where she will doubtless be grilled by Democratic lawmakers about her role at the black sites.
Her nomination faces an uncertain fate in the chamber, which Trump’s fellow Republicans control 51-49. She could be opposed by all the Democrats, including their top man on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, who spoke of “a lot of questions” for Haspel.
Some Republicans object, too, including Rand Paul and John McCain, who was himself tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and has said that Haspel must “explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program.”