A crucial Democratic senator suggested that Donald Trump’s pick to run the CIA bears some responsibility for the rendition and torture of an innocent man. But soon after Gina Haspel provided a vague answer, the senator nevertheless announced his support for her controversial nomination.
Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who serves as the ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee, wanted to know if Haspel bears “responsibility” for kidnapping Khaled el-Masri in Macedonia in 2004—and, possibly, responsibility for other wrongful renditions cases. Taken to a black site in Afghanistan, el-Masri was tortured by the CIA for months before discovering he was a case of mistaken identity, and was never a terrorist.
In the final round of questions for Haspel ahead of Wednesday morning’s vote in the Senate committee, Warner referred to Haspel’s earlier recognition in written questions that el-Masri “did not meet the standard for rendition,” though she couched that in terms of an inspector general’s finding and did not concede el-Masri’s innocence.
Quoting the inspector general’s assessment of “inaccurate legal text” that the CIA used to justify el-Masri’s rendition, and potentially those of other people, Warner asked Haspel: “Do you believe you have responsibility for any of these flawed decisions? What steps did you take to ensure that another innocent individual would not be wrongfully rendered?”“I take full responsibility for all my actions,” Haspel replied, in answers released Tuesday, though Haspel did not say explicitly that she considers herself partially culpable for el-Masri or other mistaken renditions cases.
“Throughout my career, I have sought to ensure that CIA operations have been conducted professionally and in accordance with appropriate legal guidance. Even so, I have learned hard lessons through my experience in the Counterterrorism Center. One of those lessons is a need to foster a culture of questioning in the workforce in which junior officers feel comfortable challenging the process to make sure CIA’s activities adhere to the highest standards.”Asked whether Haspel was admitting responsibility for el-Masri’s rendition, a CIA spokesman, Ryan Trapani, said he had “nothing to add to the extensive on-the-record statements and responses Acting Director Haspel has provided.”
But Haspel hasn’t been linked to the el-Masri debacle before. Nor has she substantially been tied to the CIA’s torture-era renditions, the aspect of the program that not even the Senate intelligence committee’s 2014 torture program shed light upon, despite being believed to be the largest component of what the agency calls “Renditions, Detentions, and Interrogations.”
The exception has come in the form of a letter John McCain, a torture survivor who opposes Haspel, wrote in March asking Haspel if she believed it was “justified” to kidnap and turn over to Moammar Gadhafi a Libyan dissident couple. McCain stopped short of accusing Haspel of involvement in the rendition. The woman in question, Fatima Boudchar, who was pregnant during her CIA kidnapping, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed with her own “questions” for Haspel, but conceded: “I don’t know what Ms. Haspel’s part in what happened to me was or what she thinks about it.”
El-Masri’s rendition occurred in January 2004. Boudchar’s occurred in March 2004. During that time, Haspel was part of the Counterterrorism Center, which ran the rendition, detention and interrogation program, but she has not publicly detailed her role in it.
Captured in Macedonia, el-Masri told his CIA jailers that he was sure they had the wrong man. Internal CIA doubts about him ultimately led to his unceremonious release in May 2004—after which, according to a European court, he was sodomized, drugged, and shackled naked to a ceiling. The agency dumped el-Masri, a German citizen on a Macedonian road with his belongings and about $17,000. It has never apologized to him, even though a 2007 CIA inspector general’s report says his capture and torture “was not supported by available intelligence,” according to the Senate torture report. The episode left el-Masri suffering persistent mental and emotional scars.
Warner, however, pledged his support to Haspel on Tuesday afternoon, following a letter from Haspel that went somewhat further than she did in her hearing of admitting that the torture program was wrong.
“While I won't condemn those that made these hard calls, and I have noted the valuable intelligence collected, the program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world,” Haspel said—framing the wrongness of the program in terms of its ultimate damage to the CIA and America, not in terms of the at least 119 people the CIA brutalized.
“I’m going to support Gina Haspel’s nomination to be Director of the CIA. I also respect my colleagues who have made a different decision,” Warner said in a Tuesday statement.
“If she is confirmed, the Senate Intelligence Committee will continue to conduct thorough and vigorous oversight over the nation’s intelligence agencies.”
A Warner spokesperson, Rachel Cohen, noted that the question and Haspel’s answer are unclassified, but said that she understood Haspel to be providing “a general statement,” rather than acknowledging culpability in el-Masri’s case.
“Without discussing anyone’s specific involvement in the el-Masri issue, the question is not only who’s responsible, but what steps the agency (or in this case Haspel) takes to learn from mistakes. I took her answer to be a general statement that while at CTC, she observed mistakes that convinced her that you have to empower people in the bureaucracy to question the process and ask questions to stop things from going wrong. That is a good thing,” Cohen told The Daily Beast.
Fielding her latest round of questions from the Senate panel, Haspel shed no additional public light on her involvement in torture, saying her “classified” activities would need to remain the subject of closed-door scrutiny—including her role in the 2002 torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, which she oversaw as chief of base for the Thailand black site where it occurred.
But Haspel did clarify her bizarre claim at last week’s hearing that she wasn’t “read into” the torture program for a year into its operation. Haspel backdated the program to begin on September 17, 2001, pursuant to a George W. Bush executive order, even though the CIA didn’t capture its first detainee, Abu Zubaydah, until March 2002 and didn’t receive legal cover from the Justice Department to torture him until August 2002.
Haspel, in her final answers before the vote, clarified that she was “read into” the torture program in October 2002—the month she arrived at the Thailand black site where al-Nashiri would arrive weeks later.
With Warner’s support, the likelihood of Haspel receiving Senate confirmation has gone up substantially—and may guarantee that a CIA official involved in its torture program will become its next director.