We Still Don’t Know What Gina Haspel Really Knew About the CIA’s Torture Program

Despite fifteen years of scandal and investigations, it’s still not clear that Trump’s CIA Director learned the right lessons.
November 18, 2019, 3:54pm
We Still Don’t Know What Gina Haspel Really Knew About The CIA’s Torture Program
Image: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Report, a VICE-produced film, was released Friday

Trump CIA Director Gina Haspel insists the CIA learned valuable lessons from the agency’s massive torture scandal, but it’s never been entirely clear that’s actually true.

A 2014 Senate investigation and accompanying report found that between 2002 and 2008, the CIA ran a covert detention and torture program largely untethered from meaningful oversight. During that period 119 detainees were subjected to a wide range of torture from sleep deprivation and extended cold exposure to waterboarding and simulated burial. The report found that 26 of those detainees were held "wrongfully,” with some accused of crimes never committed. One died in captivity. The CIA was also found to have repeatedly lied about the nature of the program, and continued with these “enhanced interrogation techniques” despite knowing that torture does not produce meaningful intelligence.


The damning investigation is the focus of the looming new movie “The Report,” documenting the uphill battle Senate investigators like Daniel J. Jones faced as they attempted to expose the covert project—and the CIA’s many falsehoods on the subject—to the bright light of day.

Despite the report and resulting scandal, a major lingering question remains to this day: how much did Gina Haspel, a 34-year CIA veteran promoted to head the agency by President Trump in early 2018, know about the program? And if she helped enable and cover it up, should she be in charge of leading the CIA toward a more accountable, ethical future?

During her confirmation testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last year, Haspel declared that the era of torture at the CIA had ended. She also insisted she didn’t even know about the CIA program in 2002h.

“I was not even read into the interrogation program until it had been up and running for a year,” Haspell told the Committee. But Haspel’s claims raised more than a few eyebrows. For one, the CIA began its torture program in the summer of 2002. By late 2002, Haspel was overseeing waterboarding at a black site detention center in Thailand, one of a number of countries exposed in a 2005 Washington Post report as territories being used for torture by the US to dodge judicial oversight. Later reporting would reveal that Haspel also played a role in the CIA’s destruction of 92 tapes related to the CIA’s torture program. As such, the idea that the 34-year CIA vet wasn’t fully versed in—if not directly involved in—the program has long strained credulity. During her testimony, Haspel often attempted to have it both ways, insisting that the CIA would never again embrace such a program, but refusing to clearly refudiate the obvious immorality of the era.

“Having served in that tumultuous time,” Haspel said, “I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”


The original torture program was technically ended in 2009. But whether the CIA created or will create a different type of tortune program has never been entirely clear. On the campaign trail in 2016, then candidate Trump signaled his intent to not only bring back the CIA torture program, but go further than the CIA had ever gone before.

“I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” candidate Trump promised during a Republican primary debate in New Hampshire. Patrick Eddington, a former CIA analyst and ex-House senior staffer, told Motherboard he doubted that Congress, Haspel, or CIA leadership had actually learned any meaningful lessons from the scandal. He pointed to the recent House passage of a plan to dramatically expand the scope of the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act at the CIA’s request. While the expansion was framed by the CIA as necessary to protect the identities of covert agents, free press advocates and government transparency activists say the proposal dramatically increased any potential punishment for whistleblowers and journalists, making it harder than ever to expose future unethical CIA programs. Republicans and Democrats alike, Eddington noted in a recent editorial, were intentionally or inadvertently helping to lay the legal groundwork “for a resumption of the kind of ‘black site’ madness that trashed America’s reputation abroad, produced zero actionable intelligence, and served as a recruiting tool for Salafist terrorist groups like ISIS.” Eddington told Motherboard it was certainly possible for the CIA to simply outsource torture to foreign allies.

“My gut instinct says that even if CIA itself has not directly restarted a program under Haspel in which new CIA ‘black sites’ are being used, I can easily see CIA persuading friendly intelligence services in the Middle East [and] Southwest Asia to render, detain and ‘interrogate’ known or alleged Salafist terrorists at the United States Government’s behest,” he said.

Haspel’s links to one of the darkest scandals in American history wasn’t enough to deter Congress from voting to approve her 54-45 as the next CIA director. But not everybody was enthusiastic about Haspel’s appointment.

“Ms. Haspel's role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing,” former Senator John McCain said at the time. “Her refusal to acknowledge torture's immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.” A Senate majority didn’t listen, and despite Haspel’s somewhat ambiguous pledges to the contrary, there’s not much preventing the United States from repeating the mistakes of the past.