WASHINGTON — During Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearing to become director of the CIA in 2018, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked her if she had overseen the interrogations of a Saudi prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, which included the use of a waterboard.
Haspel declined to answer, saying it was part of her classified career.
While there has been reporting about her oversight of a CIA black site in Thailand where al-Nashiri was waterboarded, and where Haspel wrote or authorized memos about his torture, the precise details of her work as the chief of base, the CIA officer who oversaw the prison, have been shrouded in official secrecy.
But testimony at a hearing last month in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, included a revelation about the former CIA director’s long and secretive career. James E. Mitchell, a psychologist who helped develop the agency’s interrogation program, testified that the chief of base at the time, whom he referred to as Z9A in accordance with court rules, watched while he and a teammate subjected al-Nashiri to “enhanced interrogation” that included waterboarding at the black site.
Z9A is the code name used in court for Haspel.
The CIA has never acknowledged Haspel’s work at the black site, and the use of the code name represented the court’s acceptance of an agency policy of not acknowledging state secrets — even those that have already been spilled. Former officials long ago revealed that she ran the black site in Thailand from October 2002 until December 2002, during the time al-Nashiri was being tortured, which Mitchell described in his testimony.
Guantánamo Bay is one of the few places where America is still wrestling with the legacy of torture in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Torture has loomed over the pretrial phase of the death penalty cases for years and is likely to continue to do so as hearings resume over the summer.
Defense teams have been asking military judges to exclude certain evidence from the war crimes trials of accused al-Qaida operatives as tainted by not just torture but also cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. In May, that meant revisiting what happened nearly 20 years ago at the secret prison in Thailand.
Mitchell described how in late 2002, he and another CIA contract psychologist, John Bruce Jessen, waterboarded al-Nashiri, who is accused of orchestrating the bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole in 2000. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in the attack.
During three separate sessions, Mitchell held a cloth over the man’s face and adjusted it to direct the water as Jessen poured.
Mitchell testified that al-Nashiri was so small that they thought he might slide out of his Velcro restraints during portions of the waterboarding. To let al-Nashiri breathe between pours, interrogators pivoted him 90 degrees, from lying on his back to a standing position, still strapped to a gurney.
The interrogation team shifted to other “coercive techniques,” including forcing the prisoner to spend time in a small confinement box. Mitchell said he had a “general memory of what was done” — the detainee, who was nude and sometimes hooded, was probably slapped and had the back of his head slammed into a burlap-covered wall — but testified that he did not have a “blow-by-blow recollection of any of that stuff.”
It was previously known that by the time al-Nashiri was waterboarded in late 2002, Haspel had taken over as the chief of base at the secret prison in Thailand. It has also been reported that she drafted cables relating what happened to al-Nashiri and what was learned during his interrogations and debriefings.
But Mitchell’s testimony went further. He testified that the chief of base observed the sessions, although she did not participate in them.
The law firm that employs Haspel, King & Spalding LLP, declined to comment and referred questions to the CIA, which also declined to comment.
The judge, Col. Lanny J. Acosta Jr., agreed to allow Mitchell to testify because the CIA had destroyed videotapes that defense lawyers argue showed the psychologists torturing and interrogating al-Nashiri and another prisoner at the black site in Thailand. Defense lawyers said that deprived them of potential evidence, including something they might have wanted to show a military jury deciding whether to impose a death penalty.
The disclosure that the CIA had destroyed the tapes — most of them showing Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee taken into custody and known to be tortured by the CIA after the Sept. 11 attacks — prompted the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate the black site program.
Haspel has acknowledged her role in the destruction of those tapes as a chief of staff to the operations chief, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. At her confirmation hearing, she said, “I would also make clear that I did not appear on the tapes.”
Observers at the site in Thailand watched waterboarding and other interrogations via a closed-circuit video feed to a separate room. At one point, the CIA sent some staff members to the black site to watch the waterboarding of Zubaydah. But, Mitchell testified, Haspel was not among them.
The Senate Intelligence Committee study of the CIA program, only a part of which is public, said that interrogators wanted to stop using “enhanced interrogation techniques” on al-Nashiri because he was answering direct questions, but they were overruled by headquarters.
Al-Nashiri would also be tortured later, after Mitchell had taken him to a different CIA black site. Another interrogator revved a drill next to the naked detainee’s hooded head, apparently to try to get him to divulge al-Qaida plots. At another black site in 2004, the CIA infused a dietary supplement into his rectum for refusing to eat. His Navy lawyer has called the procedure rape.
At her confirmation hearing, Haspel pledged not to set up any similar interrogation programs.