Sen. John McCain is linking President Donald Trump’s nominee for CIA director to brutal interrogations by the agency that he says “stained our national honor and threatened our historical reputation.”
McCain made the association in a two-page letter to Gina Haspel asking 12 questions about her role in the CIA’s interrogations of detainees who were held overseas in the early 2000s and in the destruction of videotapes showing those interrogations. Haspel was appointed the agency’s deputy director in February 2017; Trump said he intended to nominate her to the CIA’s top job last week.
McCain’s questions are mostly general and open-ended, except for a query about a pregnant Libyan woman who was detained with her husband and “was bound, gagged, and photographed naked as several American intelligence officers watched. Do you believe actions like these were justified, and do you believe they produced actionable intelligence?”
The incident involved Fatima Boudchar and her husband, a well-known Libyan dissident, Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, who were detained in Bangkok in 2004 in a joint operation between the CIA and the British intelligence agency MI6, and rendered to Libya, according to Reprieve, a British human rights group. The couple was detained in Libya for six years. The case gave rise to a criminal investigation in Great Britain, and the couple is engaged in an ongoing legal effort to have a British intelligence officer charged with kidnapping.
It was not clear whether Haspel was involved in the case. McCain's office did not respond immediately to a request for clarification. The CIA's black site in Thailand was closed in December 2002.
McCain has not taken a position publicly on Haspel’s nomination, but his letter ties the 33-year CIA veteran to what he considers grotesque prisoner abuse. With the Senate split 51-49 between Republicans and those who caucus with the Democrats, a McCain vote against Haspel could doom her nomination. Republican Rand Paul has said he will vote against Haspel.
“Over the course of your career with the intelligence community, you have served in positions of responsibility that have intersected with the CIA’s program of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ ” McCain wrote. “These techniques included the practice of waterboarding, forced nudity and humiliation, facial and abdominal slapping, dietary manipulation, stress positions, cramped confinement, striking, and more than 48 hours of sleep deprivation.”
McCain wrote that the techniques “not only failed to deliver actionable intelligence, but actually provided false and misleading information. Most importantly, the use of torture compromised our values, stained our national honor, and threatened our historical reputation.”
Some intelligence officials believe that the enhanced interrogation provided valuable intelligence.
McCain holds unique stature in the Senate as a former prisoner of war who was held captive in Vietnam for five and a half years after his fighter jet was shot down over Hanoi. The Arizona Republican is chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an ex officio member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will hold hearings on Haspel’s nomination.
As Congress’s leading voice against torture, McCain nearly prevented a former Justice Department lawyer from joining the Trump administration in November. McCain gave an impassioned speech opposing Steven Bradbury, who in the late 2000s wrote legal memos justifying the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.
“I will not support any nominee who justified the use of torture by Americans,” McCain said on the Senate floor. He also mentioned the detention of Boudchar and her husband in his speech. The Senate approved Bradbury on a 50–47 vote to become the Transportation Department’s general counsel.
McCain released his letter to Haspel on Friday, one day after the CIA provided a few details about her background, which had been almost entirely unknown because she spent so many years in the agency’s clandestine service. Among the details disclosed: Haspel, 61, is from Kentucky, unmarried, and the oldest of five children whose Air Force father moved the family to military bases around the world.
The new information, however, did not provide details of her CIA postings, which are known to have included a stint in Thailand at the first clandestine overseas detention center that the CIA opened after the 9/11 attacks to interrogate suspected terrorists. Her work there is largely unknown and classified, as is the bulk of her career.
McCain is asking whether Haspel ever imposed or oversaw enhanced interrogation, what her personal views were “at the time” of the techniques, and whether she thinks enhanced interrogation was effective. McCain also wants to know her role in destroying 92 tapes in 2005 that showed detainee interrogations in Thailand. Haspel’s then-boss, Jose Rodriguez Jr., has taken responsibility for destroying the tapes, but acknowledged in his 2012 book some assistance from Haspel, his chief of staff at the time.