Gina Haspel Watched the Waterboarding at CIA ‘Black Site’

It still makes me sick to my stomach – this time the sworn testimony of CIA contract psychologist/torturer James Mitchell that Gina Haspel was watching as he and psychologist/torturer colleague John Bruce Jessen waterboarded Saudi captive Ab al-Rahim al-Nashiri in Thailand.

For services performed (and obfuscated), Haspel passed muster in the Senate and was confirmed as CIA Director on May 17, 2018. It was hard for me to believe she had been nominated, harder still to believe the Senate Intelligence Committee, knowing what they knew about Haspel, would give her a pass. So I went to the Committee hearing on May 9, 2018.

Letting Haspel Off the Hook

It was very difficult to watch some of my former colleagues file into the front rows in full support of the nomination of a torturer to head the CIA. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who had published a damning report on CIA torture in Dec. 2014, lost her nerve and let Haspel off the hook when she asked her if she had overseen the interrogation of al-Nashiri. Haspel: it’s classified. And, in fact, the answer was successfully kept out of the media until now, with Mitchell’s testimony.

Intelligence Committee Chair, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) waxed eloquent, telling Haspel:

“You are without a doubt the most qualified person the president could choose to lead the CIA and the most prepared nominee in the 70-year history of the agency. You have acted morally, ethically and legally over a distinguished 30-year career.”

See what I mean by getting sick to my stomach?

Point of Order!

I interrupted the hearing to expose the farce, reminding the senators that they knew a boatload of disqualifying facts about Haspel – including the answer to Feinstein’s question; and that, yet, they were about to approve her nomination to be director of the CIA.

Burr had me seized. Joe Lauria described what happened next. The 24 hours I had to spend in a very small cell in a dank DC jail felt right – even at the time. Feels more so in retrospect.

I have this moral thing about torture; I had thought almost everyone did! It turns out that Pete Hoekstra, chair of the House Intelligence Committee (2004-2007), had a different view. On March 2, 2006. I visited Hoekstra’s office to return the Intelligence Commendation Medallion given me at retirement for “especially meritorious service,” explaining, “I do not want to be associated, however remotely, with an agency engaged in torture.” It was no secret he fully supported the CIA methods; I did not hear back from him.

Years later, however, I welcomed the chance to elicit from Hoekstra open acknowledgment that he knew of and condoned the abuses carried out by the CIA (over which his committee was supposed to exercise oversight). On Dec. 11, 2014, I confronted the former Congressman live on CCTV’s “The Heat,” while discussing the Senate Intelligence Committee findings released two days before damning CIA torture. It was a unique chance to hold Hoekstra publicly accountable for condoning torture, and the Michigan congressman rose to the occasion better than I could have hoped.

Not Only Intrinsic Evil; Also Ineffective

For me torture belongs in the category of intrinsic evil – always wrong – in the same category as rape and slavery. Human beings simply do not do such things to other human beings. As an Army Combat Intelligence officer, I also knew that torture does not “work.” So, four months after I gave back my commendation medallion, I felt affirmed and gratified that the head of Army Intelligence, Lt. Gen. John Kimmons, conceding past “transgressions and mistakes,” insisted:

“No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tells us that.”

Gen. Kimmons’s integrity and guts also made me proud again of my parent service, the U.S. Army. And get this: Kimmons chose to say this at a Pentagon press conference he himself arranged for Sept. 6, 2006, the same day on which he knew President Bush would publicly advertise the efficacy of an “alternate set of procedures” for interrogation. These were given the euphemism “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.” They include, under the exact same title in German (verschaerfte Vernehmung), interrogation “techniques” listed in the Gestapo Handbuch.

The NY Times story reporting that Haspel watched the waterboarding, typically of such stories, was buried on page 17 in the Saturday edition. The good news, I suppose, is that the draft got past the NYT censors and (I’m guessing here) that those censors may have shunned the usual procedure of seeking a prior nihil obstat from Headquarters in Langley.

This originally appeared at

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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