Michael A. Cohen

Don’t put a torturer in charge of the CIA

Gina Haspel.
Gina Haspel. AFP/Getty Images

In August 2002, less than a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in a CIA secret prison in Thailand. Seven months later, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was tortured in the same manner 183 times.

Other suspected terrorists rounded up during the US global war on terrorism were subjected to mock executions and threats to rape and murder family members. They were placed in stress positions, which included being kept in coffin-like boxes for days on end. They were deprived of sleep (some for as many 180 straight hours), physically assaulted, and forced to take ice-cold baths. One prisoner died from hypothermia during an interrogation. Detainees experienced severe psychological and behavioral problems, including hallucinations, paranoia, and suicidal actions.


In the words of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, detainees were subjected to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” treatment and “the evidence of this is overwhelming and incontrovertible.”

In the 15 years since this happened not one person has even been held responsible for these heinous acts — and this week a key architect of the CIA’s torture program, Gina Haspel, was nominated to become the director of the agency. If she gets the job it will be, in effect, an acknowledgment by the federal government and Congress that those who broke US and international law by torturing prisoners did nothing wrong. If the rule of law means anything in America, that can’t be allowed to happen.

Earlier this week, the news site ProPublica re-upped an article that claimed Haspel had personally overseen the waterboarding of Zubaydah and had personally taunted him after he had been tortured. It turns out that was wrong. Haspel had taken over the facility where Zubaydah was held after he’d been waterboarded. But this doesn’t, in any way, exonerate Haspel.


After she took over the facility, another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was subjected to waterboarding three times. Moreover, Haspel was one of the CIA officials who successfully lobbied for the agency to destroy tapes that showed Zubaydah being tortured.

Indeed, while Haspel may not have been directly involved in what happened to Zubaydah, she took command of a facility in which her previous “chief of base” watched “as Zubaydah vomited, passed out and urinated on himself while shackled and “during one waterboarding session . . . lost consciousness and bubbles began gurgling from his mouth.”

If Haspel was bothered by this treatment, if she was troubled by the fact that cables from the prison back to CIA headquarters in Langley indicated that Zubaydah had not “not provided any new threat information or elaborated on any old threat information,” she apparently kept that to herself.

Apologists for America’s over-reaction to 9/11 like to call what was done to Zubaydah and other Al Qaeda prisoners “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This Orwellian euphemism is a way for policymakers — and also the American people — to somehow convince themselves that a country that regularly espouses basic democratic values and trumpets the important of human rights.

Haspel and others at the CIA knew what was being done was wrong and they did nothing to stop it. Indeed, they worked to perpetuate it.


In the years since, the behavior of CIA officials, which was directly sanctioned by the Bush White House and the Justice Department, has been swept under the rug. President Obama made the politically expedient decision not to pursue criminal prosecution of those responsible. While Congress passed laws banning torture, it’s worth keeping in mind that they were illegal when carried out after 9/11. Fear of criminal liability didn’t stop it from occurring.

There is, at this point, little hope of any officials being held accountable for this black mark in American history, but at the very least one would hope that a woman who not just approved, but participated in a torture program, would be denied the opportunity to run the same agency responsible for them. It’s bad enough that those who tortured are still able to work as government employees. But promoting Haspel would be a tacit endorsement of what she did.

So far John McCain has spoken out against Haspel and demanded scrutiny of her role in torturing prisoners. Senator Rand Paul has said that he won’t support her nomination. If Democrats hold the line then the defection of just two Republicans would kill Haspel’s nomination. They should be pushed to do so — and not for partisan reasons. It’s a cliché to say that some issues are above politics. Ensuring that a torturer does not become head of the CIA is one of those issues.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.