Gina Haspel's Legacy: Waterboarding, Up-Close-and-Personal
May 12, 2018
Jessica Schulberg and Igor Bobic / The Huffington Post & Fatima Boudchar / The New York Times & Jessica Schulberg / The Huffington Post
Recalling his experience with waterboarding, a former Army interrogator testified: "You've got water in your lungs, your brain is on fire, your nasal cavity is on fire, your throat is completely swollen up." Appearing at her confirmation hearing in Washington, former CIA torture administrator Gina Haspel pledged not to revive the spy agency's interrogation operation -- but she wouldn't condemn the CIA's past use of torture. This was no comfort to her victims.
Trump's Pick For CIA Director
Won't Say Torture Program Was Morally Wrong
Jessica Schulberg and Igor Bobic / The Huffington Post
Demonstrator Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is lowered onto the board during a simulation of waterboarding outside the Justice Department in Washington November 5, 2007. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.
WASHINGTON (May 9, 2018) -- Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump's pick to lead the CIA, told lawmakers on Wednesday that she would not restart the agency's defunct torture program if confirmed to head the CIA -- but she refused to weigh in on the morality of the program.
Asked several times whether she thought the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the CIA on terrorism suspects in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks were moral, Haspel dodged the question. She claimed the CIA's interrogation program was legal at the time, and said she now supports limiting interrogation techniques to the ones outlined in the US Army Field Manuals.
"I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to," Haspel said, pointing to anti-torture legislation passed by Congress years after the CIA shut down its interrogation program. (Torture was already illegal under the Geneva Conventions when the CIA began interrogating detainees using techniques like waterboarding.) The CIA should focus on intelligence collection and analysis and leave interrogations to the Pentagon and the FBI, Haspel said.
Haspel, who oversaw a black site where at least two detainees were waterboarded (one of them before Haspel arrived at the prison), faces a contentious confirmation process.
Most Democrats are expected to oppose her confirmation because of her involvement in the interrogation program and her subsequent role in destroying videotapes that documented the interrogations. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has also said he will vote against her.
Haspel, the current acting CIA director, was expected to assure lawmakers on Wednesday that she would not restart the CIA's interrogation program -- even if ordered to do so by Trump, who has expressed enthusiasm for waterboarding terrorism suspects. But Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee appeared frustrated that she would not outright condemn the CIA's past conduct.
"I want to see, I want to feel, I want to trust that you have the moral compass that you said you have," Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) told her. "You're giving very legalistic answers to very fundamentally moral questions."
Haspel, however, did not express remorse about the CIA's use of torture. If anything, she appeared frustrated with the continued focus on the matter.
"I'm not going to sit here with benefit of hindsight and judge the very good people who made hard decisions, who were running the agency, in very extraordinary circumstances at the time," she told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) later told HuffPost it troubled her that Haspel did not answer "four different times" whether the CIA's interrogation techniques were immoral. "I think she knows the answer and she didn't give it," Harris said.
At one point, Haspel seemed offended by a question about whether she'd called for the interrogation program to be continued as it was winding down.
"Let me say this about myself. After 9/11, I didn't look to go sit on the Swiss desk," she said. "I stepped up. I was not on the sidelines. I was on the front lines in the Cold War and I was on the front lines in the fight against al Qaeda."
"I'm very proud of the fact that we captured the perpetrator of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I think we did extraordinary work," she continued. "To me, the tragedy is that the controversy surrounding the interrogation program... has cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country."
Asked if she believed that enhanced interrogation methods are effective, Haspel was equivocal.
"I don't believe that torture works," Haspel said. But the CIA obtained "valuable information" through its interrogations, she claimed. It is unknowable whether enhanced interrogation led to that information, she said, echoing a longstanding CIA defense of the program.
Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee, meanwhile, said they were satisfied by Haspel's responses about the CIA interrogation program, saying they'd received assurances from her in private that it was not moral.
"I don't think I got that from her at all," Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said when asked about Haspel's dodging of the question. "I think she shares my view and everyone's view up here that it is immoral."
Lawmakers also pushed Haspel on her role in destroying 92 videotapes that showed the CIA interrogating Abu Zubaydah, the agency's first detainee. At the direction of her boss at the time, Jose Rodriguez, Haspel drafted a cable calling for the destruction of the tapes. Haspel said Wednesday that she supported Rodriguez's decision because the tapes could have endangered the CIA officials who appeared in them if they'd leaked.
When Heinrich asked why the CIA did not preserve a digital copy of the tapes with the faces of the CIA officials blacked out, Haspel said she didn't know. "I'm just not a technical person," she said.
Ahead of Wednesday's confirmation hearing, the CIA launched an unusually aggressive lobbying campaign on behalf of Haspel, pushing stories about her popularity within the agency and pointing out that she would be the first female CIA director.
Democratic lawmakers say the CIA selectively declassified information about the parts of her career that are flattering and withheld potentially damaging information. Haspel confirmed on Wednesday that she was involved in decisions about which parts of her record to declassify -- but said she followed standard guidance.
While the CIA has highlighted the parts of her career that were unrelated to the interrogation program, the president has suggested that he chose her, in part, because of her role at the black sites.
The day before her confirmation hearing, Trump tweeted in support of Haspel, saying she "has been, and always will be, TOUGH ON TERROR!"
Haspel received a boost after the hearing on Wednesday when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a vulnerable red-state Democrat up for re-election this year, announced he would support her nomination to lead the CIA.
I Have a Few Questions for Gina Haspel
Fatima Boudchar / The New York Times
In 2004, Ms. Boudchar was held at a
secret detention site in Thailand,
where she was tortured.
(May 9, 2018) – I was abducted from exile in Southeast Asia and secretly jailed in one of Libya's worst dungeons. But the worst torture of my life wasn't done to me by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's thugs. It was done in Thailand at the hands of the CIA
It was March 2004. During this nightmare -- my detention and "rendition" to Libya -- I was pregnant. Shortly afterward, I gave birth. After what the CIA did to me, my baby weighed four pounds.
Now I hear that Gina Haspel, who as a CIA officer ran a black site in Thailand in 2002 that sounds like the one where I was tortured, has been chosen to lead the whole agency. On Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee will question her to decide whether she is fit to be director.
I know what I'd ask her if I got the chance. Did you know about my abduction and abuse? Were you involved with it? What will you say if President Trump asks you to do something like that again?
I'll never forget the sight of my kidnappers, dressed all in black and wearing ski masks, waiting for me in a white cell in the Bangkok detention site. My husband and I had fled Colonel Qaddafi's regime, moving from country to country to stay away from his killers.
We were on our way to Europe when we were seized in Malaysia and sent to Bangkok, where the Thais handed us to our kidnappers -- people I now know, from documents found in Libya, were with the CIA. A man grabbed my head and shoved me into a truck. They blindfolded and trussed me.
I don't understand why I was taken. I assume that the CIA went after my husband because he led an Islamist group that openly opposed the Qaddafi dictatorship. But what did that have to do with me? I come from a small town in Morocco. I was not a political dissident. I'd never been to Libya until the CIA flew me there, and I never meant the United States any harm. I hardly thought about the United States -- until I was chained to the wall in the CIA black site.
I have no idea how long I was in the Thai secret prison because no one would let me sleep. The cell was white and stark, with nothing in it but a camera and hooks on the wall. The masked abductors were waiting. I was terrified. They chained me to the hooks. Because I was midway through my pregnancy, I could barely move or sit.
Some of what they did to me in that prison was so awful I can't talk about it. They hit me in the abdomen just where the baby was. To move me, they bound me to a stretcher from head to toe, like a mummy. I was sure I would shortly be killed.
For the rendition flight to Libya, I was taped to a stretcher again. The tape caught the corner of my eye. It stayed that way, my eye taped open, tears streaming down my face, for more than 14 hours.
After I spent several weeks in a Libyan prison, Colonel Qaddafi's spies dragged a crib into my cell. I was gravely ill. If I lived through this, I thought, I would be forced to give birth, alone, in this filthy cell.
Shortly before I delivered, they let me go. The birth was hard. My son and I lived in fear in Libya for years. My husband was in prison until 2010 and brutally tortured. We now live in Istanbul with our family.
I don't know what Ms. Haspel's part in what happened to me was or what she thinks about it. All I know is what I read: that she ran a prison in Thailand that sounds a lot like mine; that she went back to the CIA to work on counterterrorism; and that later, she was involved in destroying evidence of torture.
The director of national intelligence has said that Ms. Haspel "plans to be totally transparent" about what she did. I hope she will be questioned about my case and whether she condones it. If she played a part, she should apologize. If she didn't, she should swear under oath that the CIA under her command will never again carry out abductions like mine.
I also read that the CIA says America's foreign allies respect Ms. Haspel. Maybe so. But if America wants to persuade the Muslim world it means us no harm, if it wants to regain lost trust, the CIA can't ignore history in the hope that it will go away. People remember injustice for a long time. The only answer is to explain what happened.
Even now, after everything I went through, I don't think badly of Americans. In fact, I think Americans deserve honesty from their intelligence officers. I don't believe most ordinary people would have supported what the CIA did to me if they'd known.
I won't get to ask Ms. Haspel these questions, but I hope a senator will. And if she wasn't involved, and feels in her heart that torturing me was wrong, she should say so.
Fatima Boudchar was held in a secret detention site in Thailand and rendered to Libya in 2004.
Here's What Waterboarding Is Really Like,
According To People Who Suffered Through It
Jessica Schulberg / The Huffington Post
WASHINGTON (May 9, 2018) -- On Wednesday, Gina Haspel, a veteran CIA officer who reportedly oversaw a secret prison in Thailand where an alleged terrorist was waterboarded and later helped destroy videotapes documenting interrogation sessions, will make the case to a Senate committee that she should be confirmed to be the director of the spy agency.
It will be the first time that Haspel, who has spent years undercover, will speak publicly about her career, and some lawmakers are urging the CIA to declassify documents that explain her role in the torture program.
Haspel, the current acting director of the CIA, has never publicly atoned for her involvement in the now-defunct interrogation operation and the subsequent cover-up. If confirmed, she will serve under a president who campaigned on bringing back "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."
When Haspel appears before the Senate committee for her confirmation hearing, lawmakers will not just be evaluating her record. They will be deciding whether overseeing torture is disqualifying. Because most of the people who were tortured by CIA officials, at times under Haspel's watch, cannot tell their stories, HuffPost asked several people who have been waterboarded as part of mock interrogations or military training to describe the experience. (The military quietly banned the use of waterboarding in training in 2007 because it was too brutal, HuffPost reported in March.)
The people interviewed by HuffPost were waterboarded once, and they knew it was a controlled procedure. The CIA waterboarded one of its prisoners, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 183 times, according to a Senate report on the agency's torture program.
George Wolske, Former Navy Aircrewman
Wolske was waterboarded during Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training in March 1969 at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego when he was 25 years old. Now 72, Wolske says he still thinks about the experience.
I tell you, it was years ago when I went through it, but it was, perhaps the most searing, burning learning experience I've ever been through. The whole process is introduced and taught as an element of torture. And that it is. . . . The brief introduction to waterboarding [in SERE training] is so intense, so mentally violent, to the person on the receiving end, it is something you will never forget. You are actually brought to the point of thinking you're going to drown.
It only takes a few minutes. It is that intense and that real. They put you down on a board, put you on your back, strap you down, you can't move. They begin pouring water on your face. It's going up your nose, you can't breathe. In that flash of a moment, you recognize that the only thing that really matters in life is oxygen. You can do without a whole lot of stuff -- but if you can't breathe, you are going to die.
I always thought that George Bush and Dick Cheney should go on the waterboard and find out what that's like. Likewise for Gina Haspel.
[Being waterboarded] is always in the back of my mind, it has never gone away. Honestly, for about three weeks afterward -- I'm a very calm person normally -- but after that experience, for three weeks, any little sound, somebody poking me or brushing up against me, I would twitch, I would jump. I was on edge.
Chris Jaco, Former Military Pilot
Jaco was waterboarded during SERE training at the Air Force Academy in 1970.
When it happened, we didn't really know -- heck, I was 19 years old -- I didn't really know what waterboarding was. It was to give you a feeling and understanding to know what it was like, what you might be able to expect if you were to be captured. . . .
It felt like you were choking to death on water and couldn't stop it from being that way. I do remember -- I'm a tall person, but not an extremely big person or a particularly strong person -- but I was throwing people off of me because it was so overwhelming.
When you're choking on water, you're not really thinking, "Wow, this is just training, I gotta see what it feels like." You were a little afraid at the moment. It was like, I can't breathe, water's going up my nose and my throat was basically filled with water.
They would ask questions . . . you were to try to not answer them if you felt you could. I got to the point where I was just throwing people off of me and I ran out of the tent at the time. So I was finally subdued and put in a hot box. It's a very, very small box with a door in it, you're not usually in a very comfortable position. Usually, it's in a very hot place. . . .
I would say military people need to have some types of experience to understand what could come. Now, when it comes to the waterboard, I believe there's been enough movies and television shows that have shown fake waterboarding, that you kind of get an idea about it.
I don't think you would actually have to experience that. . . . You can extrapolate from the things you've already experienced in SERE training of what it might be like without actually have to be choked almost to death by water.
Jeromy Shane, Former Army Interrogation instructor
Shane was waterboarded in 2003 during SERE training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
It was the worst thing I've ever felt. Because when you're being waterboarded, you're actually inhaling water. . . . There's no way to tell your body that this is going to end. Your body thinks you're drowning and stops acting appropriately. . . . It's physically painful. I don't know if you've ever gotten water up your nose while you're swimming. It's that over and over again until who's doing it makes it stop. You've got water in your lungs, your brain is on fire, your nasal cavity is on fire, your throat is completely swollen up.
Malcolm Nance, Retired Interrogator
Nance was waterboarded in 2006 during SERE school at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego. An outspoken critic of the use of torture, Nance testified in 2007 about the experience of being waterboarded before a congressional panel and the US Helsinki Commission. The Pentagon banned the use of waterboarding in SERE training shortly after he testified. Here are excerpts from his testimonies:
Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word. . . . Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration -- usually the person goes into hysterics on the board.
For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten[ed] with its use again and again.
In my case, the technique was so fast and professional that I didn't know what was happening until the water entered my nose and throat. It then pushes down into the trachea and starts to process a respiratory degradation. It is an overwhelming experience that induces horror, triggers a frantic survival instinct. As the event unfolded, I was fully conscious of what was happening: I was being tortured.
Chris Sampson, Journalist and Researcher
Sampson volunteered to be waterboarded in 2015 as part of a BBC documentary. While pouring the water into his nose and mouth, the "interrogator" asked him if he was born as a bunny rabbit. Sampson said yes. He was waterboarded for 18 seconds.
The water starts filling up my nasal cavity, turning me into an inverted water vessel. Going through my nasal cavity, it started to hit my throat. That's when you see me physically convulsing, trying to fight off the board. … Once it started hitting a sort of critical point, my brain says, "Go negotiate this somewhere else" -- which is when you see me say, "Yes . . . yes, I was born a bunny rabbit."
That's clearly an insane response. If the question had been, "Do you run around trying to bomb things? Are you a member of al Qaeda? Do you wear a tutu in the morning?" -- anything you're asked, you're going to comply with because your natural survival skills are going to take over. . .
I spit up a big chunk of water, I had it all in my sinuses, my whole nasal cavity filled out, my throat filled up, it was just beginning to hit my esophagus going upward. I had zero cognitive relationship to what they were asking as it was occurring.
Charlie Thompson, Former Naval Aviator
Thompson wrote for Mic in 2012 about being waterboarded at a SERE training facility near Warner Springs, California.
A wet bath towel was placed over my face covering my mouth, nose and eyes and the water flowed continually. The first sensation is that of suffocation followed shortly thereafter by being unable to expel water that had saturated the towel and gotten ingested or inhaled. We were eventually told that this sensation was that of drowning. And, this is probably correct.
In any event, my ears began to ring and lights flashed in behind my unseeing eyes and my struggles abated. However, just before I lost consciousness, the . . . officer ordered "stop" and the towel was removed.
He then repeated the question I'd avoided and coughed, gagged, spluttered out "USS Guppie." Continue, he ordered, and the process was repeated, but the next time when asked what ship I'd flown from I answered that it was the Constellation.
This was apparently a satisfactory answer (though it was a lie since I clearly hadn't flown off any ship). He then ordered that I be taken off the board. When the restraints were removed, I rolled off the board and onto my hands and knees.
I could not have stood up if my life depended on it. And I remained there vomiting water, and gasping for breath when I was asked "You bomb peace loving people in city . . . you kill women and children?" I shook my head in the affirmative.
At that point I'd have confessed to being the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper if it meant I could avoid another session on -- I shiver when I say it -- the infamous waterboard.
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