‘Iranian adventurism’ among concerns of CIA under new director
WASHINGTON - The new director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pledged the agency would not resume torturing terrorism suspects and indicated that she would defy a presidential order directing the CIA to use interrogation techniques that she considered “immoral.”
Gina Haspel took over as head of the CIA on May 21, after intense questioning and scepticism from US lawmakers over her role in the CIA’s torture of suspects captured mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan and transferred to secret prisons around the world for interrogation.
Haspel said the CIA under her would focus on terrorist threats, China’s rise as a global power, Russian brutality and “destabilising Iranian adventurism.”
On May 21, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the Trump administration’s aggressive stance against Iran in which the US military would “crush” Iranian operatives “and their Hezbollah proxies” around the world. “Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East,” Pompeo said.
Haspel, a CIA officer for 32 years until becoming the agency’s deputy director in early 2017, supervised a secret CIA prison in Thailand in 2002 where agency interrogators tortured a suspected al-Qaeda leader, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri of Saudi Arabia. He was subjected to waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and had his head slammed into walls.
In 2005, Haspel helped her supervisor destroy CIA videotapes of the torture of Nashiri and of another terrorism suspect, Abu Zubaydah, another Saudi citizen. Both men are being held at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The torture, which the CIA called “enhanced interrogation,” drew international condemnation when it became publicly known in 2005 and was halted in 2009 by then-US President Barack Obama. Many members of the US Congress were alarmed when Haspel was nominated to run the CIA by US President Donald Trump. He had said during his election campaign that he “would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
During a bruising confirmation hearing before the US Senate, Haspel noted the CIA’s use of torture had been approved by top officials under former US President George W. Bush but said she would not use such techniques even if requested by a president and authorised by government lawyers.
“My moral compass is strong,” Haspel said in response to a senator’s question. “I would not allow CIA to undertake an activity that I felt was immoral even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.”
She added: “I believe that CIA must undertake activities that are consistent with American values. America is looked at all over the world as an example to everyone else in the world, and we have to uphold that, and CIA is included in that.”
Asked what she would do if a president “ordered you to get back in that business,” Haspel replied: “I would not restart, under any circumstances, an interrogation programme at CIA.”
Haspel downplayed her role in the CIA interrogations, saying she was not involved in the torture of Nashiri. When the CIA videotapes were destroyed in 2005, she said, she wrote a memo at the request of her boss directing CIA officials in Thailand to put the tapes through an industrial shredder. From 2002-08, the CIA tortured 39 of the 119 detainees it held at secret prisons, a US Senate report released in 2014 stated.
Haspel’s repudiation of torture helped her win confirmation by the Senate on a 54-45 mostly party-line vote. Six Democrats voted to approve the nomination and two Republicans voted against.
Haspel is the first woman to head the CIA, which was created in 1947, and she is the first director in 50 years who ascended through the agency’s ranks. Other CIA directors, such as Haspel’s immediate predecessor Mike Pompeo, have been members of Congress, former military leaders and White House advisers. Pompeo left the position in April when he became US secretary of state.
Haspel’s background helped her win support from dozens of former CIA leaders, who praised her knowledge, professionalism and presumed independence from Trump.
“It’s best if we have a career, non-partisan, non-political, non-crony of the president running the agency. I think that’s precisely what we want,” Jeremy Bash, who was the CIA’s chief of staff under Obama, said recently on National Public Radio.
Bash said Haspel would help the CIA focus on intelligence gathered from human sources, so-called “humint,” which the CIA has been accused of downplaying in favour of electronically captured signals intelligence (“sigint”) that involves intercepting communications such as phone calls and e-mail.
“She is an expert in her craft, particularly humint operation, which is the bedrock of CIA collection,” Bash said.