Skip to main content

‘Torture is torture’: Alarm bells at Trump’s new CIA nominee

Rights groups sounds alarm on CIA director nominee who was involved in agency's post-9/11 'enhanced interrogation techniques'
Haspel reportedly oversaw CIA secret prison where inmates were tortured (Reuters)

CORRECTION: US media outlets have issued corrections over reports cited in this story, which state that Gina Haspel was directly involved in the torture of al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah. Anonymous CIA officials, quoted by the New York Times and ProPublica, have also said that Haspel arrived to the secret prison in Thailand after Zubaydah's interrogation had concluded.

US President Donald Trump's promotion of Gina Haspel to CIA director marks the latest appointment that advocacy groups say validates their "alarming" concerns about bias in the White House.

Haspel was chosen by Trump to replace Mike Pompeo, who was nominated to be secretary of state, after Trump sacked Rex Tillerson on Tuesday.

The CIA director-designate is facing accusations of being involved in the agency's covert torture programme in 2002.

The United States used "enhanced interrogation techniques," which rights groups say amount to torture, against al-Qaeda suspects after the 9/11 attacks.

Anyone who's been involved [in torture] should not be in a leadership position in this country, especially the CIA,

- Hassan Jaber, ACCESS

"Torture is torture. This issue has been settled, and anyone who's been involved should not be in a leadership position or leading anything in this country, especially the CIA," Hassan Jaber, the executive director of ACCESS, a Dearborn-based Arab American organisation, told MEE.

US law explicitly prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment". International law, including the Geneva Conventions, also bans torture.

Haspel is reported to have overseen a CIA "black site" in Thailand, where inmates were tortured.

Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Nashiri, Saudi al-Qaeda suspects, were harshly interrogated at the secret prison in what Amnesty International has called "crimes under international law".

A 2014 Senate report documented the case of Zubaydah to highlight the cruelty of post-9/11 CIA interrogation techniques and to demonstrate how the agency operated in a constitutionally grey area, after seeking legal assurances from Bush administration officials outside the court system.

President Barack Obama's Department of Justice did not prosecute CIA officials who potentially violated US law by authorising these techniques.

'Cried, begged, pleaded'

Zubaydah was captured in 2002 in Pakistan and transferred to CIA custody, where he was tortured at a secret location.

The US intelligence agency had asked for Zubaydah to be cremated if he died in detention and sought guarantees that he would spend the rest of his life in prison.

"From August 4, 2002, through August 23, 2002, the CIA subjected Abu Zubaydah to its enhanced interrogation techniques on a near 24-hour-per-day basis," the Senate report reads.

The chief of those methods was waterboarding - a mock execution that simulates drowning and leaves the detainee vomiting and enduring muscle spasm while gasping for breath.

Zubaydah was waterboarded two to four times a day during that period, according to the document, "with multiple iterations of the watering cycle during each application".

CIA operatives also placed the suspect for hours in a coffin-sized box, slapped him, shackled him in stress positions and deprived him of sleep for days.

"Abu Zubaydah frequently 'cried', 'begged', 'pleaded', and 'whimpered', but continued to deny that he had any additional information on current threats to, or operatives in the United States," the report says. But the torture went on.

Trump vowed to keep Guantanamo open and 'load it up with bad dudes' (AFP)

The 2014 document, which blocks the names of CIA operatives, does not detail the extent of Haspel's involvement or even confirm her presence at the site. But Zubaydah's lawyer said in an article published by Time Magazine that it is "impossible to imagine that Haspel was unaware of what was taking place".

The CIA director-designate is also accused of deleting video footage from the secret prison in Thailand.

Zubaydah was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2006. He remains in the detention facility, which is considered outside the reach of the US legal system.

After Obama failed to deliver on his 2008 campaign promise of closing Guantanamo, Trump vowed to keep the prison open and "load it up with bad dudes".

He has also endorsed brutal interrogation methods, proclaiming during his campaign that "torture works" and that he would approve waterboarding and "much worse" if he was elected.

Haspel's nomination was also criticised by Senate Republican John McCain, who was tortured as a war prisoner in Vietnam.

Amnesty said reports of Haspel's involvement in the CIA's torture programme raise "extremely serious concerns".

"This announcement comes on the heels of President Trump’s recent vocal support for torture, and means all indicators are flashing red," the rights group said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) described Haspel as a "torturer".

Dawud Walid, CAIR's executive director in Michigan, said Haspel's appointment - should she be confirmed by the Senate - only benefits recruiters of militant groups to "stir up more anti-Americanism". 

Human Rights Watch also slammed Haspel's nomination, saying that she should be investigated for abuse instead of being promoted.

'Anti-Muslim bigot' Pompeo

Haspel's soon-to-be predecessor Pompeo, who was appointed by Trump last year to lead the CIA, has been called a "bigot" for his association with ACT for America, the largest anti-Muslim organisation in the country, according to a watchdog that monitors hate groups.

"ACT for America is listed as an anti-Muslim hate group because it pushes wild anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, denigrates American Muslims and deliberately conflates mainstream and radical Islam," the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPCL) said.

Anytime we have a person who is supposed to head the diplomatic relations of our nation who is overtly anti-Muslim, that cannot bode well for our country's foreign policy.

-Dawud Walid, CAIR

Pompeo has spoken at ACT for America rallies several times, CAIR said in a statement on Tuesday. In 2016, he even received the group's National Security Eagle Award.

After the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, Pompeo - who was a Congressman at the time - erroneously accused Muslim-American leaders of being "complicit" in militant attacks.

Walid called Pompeo a "conspiracy theorist and a known anti-Muslim bigot".

"Anytime we have a person who is supposed to head the diplomatic relations of our nation who is overtly anti-Muslim, that cannot bode well for our country's foreign policy," the CAIR-Michigan director told MEE.

In 2016, Pompeo co-sponsored a bill urging the State Department to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.

As secretary of state, Pompeo has the power to blacklist the Brotherhood - a disturbing prospect for US Muslim groups.

"What the Muslim community in America needs to be clear on is that the language ... that he uses simply isn't about an organisation that was founded in Egypt," Walid said.

"This is a dog whistle to talk about the Muslim community and to deprive American Muslims of their civil liberties."

Long list

Pompeo and Haspel join a list of Trump appointees that Muslim and civil rights groups have found problematic.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn has called Islamism a "vicious cancer" and said that "fear of Muslims is rational".

Ex-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has been called a "well-known white supremacist leader" by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Trump's former adviser Sebastian Gorka, who has a history of making inflammatory anti-Muslim statements, was accused of ties to a Nazi group in his native Hungary.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was denied an appointment as a federal judge by the Senate in 1986 over allegations of racism.

To Walid, the "Pompeos", "Haspels" and "Bannons" of the administration mirror Trump's own xenophobia and lack of regard for the American Constitution.

Jaber, of ACCESS, said such appointments validate "alarming" concerns regarding prejudice in the Trump White House.

"This administration has shown boldly that they stand on completely the opposite side of what this country is supposed to be about - diversity, democracy and welcoming communities," he said.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.