At the moment, Washington’s confirmation focus has mainly fallen on Mike Pompeo, currently CIA director and soon-to-be (maybe?) Secretary of State. But what about the woman nominated by Donald Trump to succeed Pompeo? Gina Haspel ran into a Senate buzzsaw over her involvement in the destruction of videotapes of “enhanced interrogations” of terrorists, with even some Republicans balking at her appointment. Late yesterday, the CIA took the unusual step of declassifying a 2011 report from former acting director Michael Morrell that cleared Haspel of any wrongdoing in the destruction, laying the blame entirely on Haspel’s boss at the time, Jose Rodriguez Jr:
The Central Intelligence Agency has declassified and sent to Congress an eight-page disciplinary review memorandum that cleared President Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, Gina Haspel, of any wrongdoing in the destruction of videotapes made of interrogations of al-Qaeda detainees at secret “black site” prisons in 2002. It is the latest step in the agency’s ongoing efforts to cast light on some of the darkest parts of own past and on that of its potential future director.
The memorandum, obtained by CBS News, was written in 2011 by former CIA acting director and CBS News contributor Michael Morell at the request of General David Petraeus, who led the agency at the time. It places responsibility for the destruction of 92 tapes on Jose Rodriguez, Jr., then the head of the agency’s directorate of operations, while noting Haspel drafted the cable authorizing the measure.
“I have found no fault with the performance of Ms. Haspel,” Morell’s report says. “I have concluded that she acted appropriately in her role as Mr. Rodriguez’s Chief of Staff.”
“[Haspel] drafted the cable on the direct orders of Mr. Rodriguez; she did not release that cable. It was not her decision to destroy the tapes; it was Mr. Rodriguez’s,” it says.
Morell’s memo is worth reading all the way through. His report has little to say about Haspel, other than to note that she had nothing to do with the destruction other than to draft a cable to destroy the tapes on Rodriguez’ orders. Haspel did not send the cable and in fact advised Rodriguez to get permission from the director first, and then attempted to pull back the cable after it was sent when Haspel discovered that Rodriguez hadn’t.
Most of the memo deals with Rodriguez and the failures of CIA leadership. Morell issued a reprimand for Rodriguez’ file that remained for two years, but Morell also concluded that Rodriguez acted in what he saw was the best interests of the agency. Rodriguez had concluded that because written documentation accurately and fullt described what took place in the interrogations (which Morell confirms in the memo), the existence of the videotapes had no other value, and a leak of the tapes would put the lives of agents depicted in them in danger. Morell agreed with that conclusion but ultimately sanctioned Rodriguez for usurping authority and ignoring some signals from Congress about the need to preserve evidence.
Morell had harsher words for CIA leadership:
Beyond the Acting General Counsel discussing the issue with White House Counsel, there is no record of any effort on the part of the Agency leadership to engage White House policymakers. The Director should have taken this issue to the White House and requested that it be addressed as a policy issue. Because no effort was undertaken by CIA leadership to tackle the issue at the policy level, Mr. Rodriguez was left believing, rightly or wrongly, that he had no other choice but to act on his own authority.
That should solve Haspel’s problems on Capitol Hill, right? Not really, no:
“It’s completely unacceptable for the CIA to declassify only material that’s favorable to Gina Haspel, while at the same time stonewalling our efforts to declassify all documents related her involvement in the torture program,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement, responding to the release of the redacted memorandum. “The CIA has not been forthcoming . . . senators and the public need to know more about her record.”
Widespread concern about Haspel’s role in the CIA’s interrogation program has caused senators from both parties to question her record and her fitness to serve as the agency’s director. With Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) already formally committed to opposing her nomination and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) — who has grilled Haspel for answers about her record — away from Washington receiving treatment for brain cancer, Haspel must secure the support of at least one Senate Democrat to clinch the nomination. So far, none have stepped forward. …
One former official said the timing reveals the extent to which the CIA — notorious for withholding records from the public — can operate when it serves the agency’s political interests.
“The timing of its release devalues this document,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. “Since it’s coming out now it . . . looks like its being released in a self-interested effort to help one of their own ascend to the directorship.”
That’s not a bad point, although one has to ask what other time this would have come out. It didn’t become a public issue — at least not relating to Haspel — until she got nominated for her first-ever political appointment. Morell was a well-respected CIA leader, and his imprimatur on the issue should carry some weight. However, the enhanced-interrogation/torture issue remains poisonous to this day, and it’s very unlikely that anyone connected to those programs would ever find themselves entirely clear of it.
Pompeo looks like he might squeeze through to confirmation as Secretary of State, in part because John McCain’s endorsing him even while Rand Paul opposes him (at least at this point). Both McCain and Paul oppose Haspel even absent the videotape-destruction issue, and it seems highly doubtful that any Democrat will give Haspel a free pass. Not even John Brennan’s surprise on MSNBC last month in his positive assessment of Haspel will likely change minds:
Trump might need to start considering a Plan B at the CIA.