Deputy Director Appointment Raises Concerns CIA's Dark Chapter Isn't Over
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Imagine for a moment the life of an undercover spy. Decades undercover and then it's done - their identity is revealed. That milestone just arrived for Gina Haspel. She has spent the last three decades working undercover for the CIA. Haspel's cover was lifted so she could take the No. 2 job at the agency. As you're about to hear, Haspel is deeply respected among her peers. But as you'll also hear, her appointment is raising questions about whether the spy agency has fully closed a dark chapter in its history. Here's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Gina Haspel has served all over the world, including multiple tours as chief of station. Bob Eatinger, a CIA attorney for 24 years, remembers meeting her when he arrived at the agency's counterterrorism center in 2004.
ROBERT EATINGER: She would come into my office - we were in the same vault - and want my views. Either she got a cable, she got a memorandum, she got an internal email that didn't sound right to her, so she would come talk to me and say - how does this sound?
KELLY: Eatinger says officers in the clandestine service, like Haspel, by definition tend to be risk-takers, comfortable with operating at the edge of what's legal. But he says Haspel is no lawbreaker.
EATINGER: When she asked me a legal question, I gave her the legal answer, then she always followed it. She was always trying to do the right thing.
KELLY: There was plenty for Haspel to seek legal counsel on. In those years after 9/11, she was directly involved in the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Programs. Haspel ran the black site prison in Thailand where al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times. Those sessions were videotaped. The tapes were destroyed in 2005. Who wrote the cable ordering their destruction? Gina Haspel.
JANE HARMAN: As a trained lawyer, I know you don't - it's not OK to destroy the evidence. And this was evidence.
KELLY: That's Jane Harman. She was the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee when a CIA lawyer came to see her in a secure room high in the dome of the Capitol. That lawyer briefed her on the waterboarding and the tapes.
HARMAN: And after that briefing, when I could sort of stop gasping and close my mouth, I wrote a classified letter to him.
KELLY: That 2003 letter, which has since been declassified, called on the CIA to preserve the tapes. CIA officers, past and present, maintain it was Haspel's boss who made the decision to destroy them.
JOHN BENNETT: This was not done on Gina Haspel's authority, and I know that because I was there.
KELLY: John Bennett, former chief of the CIA's Clandestine Service - he has never given an on-the-record interview before. He says he's doing so now, for what he hopes is the first and last time, to speak up for his former colleague. Bennett is particularly incensed at a letter written by two Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee. The day Haspel's new role was announced, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico wrote to the president arguing, quote, "her background makes her unsuitable for the position." John Bennett.
BENNETT: That's really very unfair. I don't know anybody who joined CIA to run an interrogation program. But in the aftermath of 9/11, Gina Haspel and other colleagues stepped up to do what is, frankly, a dirty job because they were repeatedly assured that it was not only legal but necessary for the safety of the country. And they did it and Gina did it because they felt it was their duty.
KELLY: The deputy director job at CIA is not subject to Senate confirmation. And Haspel, through a spokesperson, declined our interview request. So her personal views on the CIA's and her actions after 9/11 remain unclear. But she's been appointed by a president who has repeatedly said torture works, raising questions as to whether the CIA might be asked to reopen now-shuttered programs, questions we put to John Bennett.
Does it send the wrong signal to appoint as deputy director someone who not just brushed up against these programs but who led them?
BENNETT: I think it sends a message that if you carry out your lawful orders, that you're not going to be punished and that your career is not going to be ruined because you did your job and you carried out your duty.
KELLY: Do you think, personally, that this chapter in the CIA's history is definitively and forever closed?
BENNETT: I certainly hope that it's definitively closed. I hope the agency and the policymakers and that the Congress have learned lessons from this.
KELLY: John Bennett, speaking there in his first interview since leaving the CIA in 2013 - he says among the reasons for the CIA to stay out of the interrogation and detention business is to allow it to focus on espionage, a mission, he says, Gina Haspel is uniquely qualified to help lead.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we say that Gina Haspel ran a black site prison in Thailand where al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded. She did run that site for a time after the Sept. 11 attacks, but as ProPublica has now acknowledged in a retraction of its reporting, she was not there when Zubaydah was waterboarded.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.