CIA Director Gina Haspel made a rare public appearance on April 18 when she spoke at Auburn University. Haspel reflected on her 34-year career with the agency, but failed to mention the years she spent involved in its extraordinary rendition program. She was quickly interrupted by a member of the audience: “Do you remember the thrill of the CIA black sites you tortured people in and the evidence you destroyed? Tell these young children, tell them who you tortured. You know their names: They’re still in Guantánamo Bay.”
Haspel paused until the man was removed and then continued as though nothing had happened. Such has been the approach to her involvement in CIA torture since she became the agency’s deputy director in 2017. Following Haspel’s nomination as director and in the run-up to her confirmation hearing in May 2018, questions were raised about the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program and what she knew about the program; nonetheless, the mainstream media has since been actively engaged in whitewashing Haspel’s record. The situation is, as always, one of business as usual.
In 2005, Haspel helped to destroy 92 videotapes of evidence of CIA torture of two detainees: Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, both currently held at Guantánamo, where al-Nashiri awaits trial in a capital case on the basis of evidence obtained by torture. Still, that did not turn the trail cold.
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If the mainstream media were more diligent, they could discover a lot about Haspel’s career by taking a closer look at the cases of her victims: A footnote in the redacted version of the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee Torture Report led to the successful Freedom of Information Act disclosure in October 2018 of declassified cables in which Haspel “described graphic acts of deliberate physical torture including the waterboarding of a suspected Al-Qa’ida terrorist under her supervision when she was chief of base at a CIA black site in Thailand in 2002”: His name is Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
In January, much of the media failed to pick up on the redacted transcript of a November 2018 closed hearing in the 9/11 case at Guantánamo, in which a lawyer for defendant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told the judge that Haspel had run a black site at Guantánamo Bay. Author and blogger Jeffrey Kaye revealed that the same transcript implicates Haspel as being present at a third CIA black site, a torture facility in Poland.
The European Court of Human Rights found Poland complicit in 2014 in running a CIA torture prison. Elsewhere, Kaye posits that there is a good probability there were in fact two detention torture programs run by the CIA. Such news does not lack newsworthiness or not merit further investigation but simply does not fit the popular “them vs. us” narrative that presents the prisoners as the “bad dudes.”
It is not just Haspel’s torture record the CIA and U.S. authorities are keen to hide. The International Criminal Court in The Hague was poised to open an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan, part of which would include offenses by foreign forces, covering the extraordinary rendition program. However, threats of U.S. sanctions against the Court, followed by the revocation of the prosecutor’s U.S. visa no doubt offered political impetus to the decision by the judges to reject the investigation. This closed another avenue of potential investigation and disclosure of what went on in the CIA program, denying justice to victims and survivors.
The extraordinary rendition program could not have taken place without international cooperation; thus the pressure to maintain the secrecy of the program, and avoid investigation and prosecution, is global. In the United Kingdom, the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee produced two reports in June 2018 following limited investigations into the U.K.’s involvement in CIA torture, focusing on “Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition”; one report focused on the U.K.’s collusion in the rendition program between 2001 and 2010.Almost two decades of evasive practices and secrecy have not deterred efforts to prosecute and get to the truth of this practice.
This report documented numerous instances of intelligence sharing, interrogations and prisoner abuse in contravention of the U.K.’s international and domestic legal obligations. Prior to the publication of the reports and after the public and unprecedented apology for the U.K.’s involvement in the extraordinary rendition to torture of Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj in 2004, a group of politicians, backed by human rights organizations, called for a judge-led inquiry into the U.K.’s role in extraordinary rendition and CIA torture. The previous such effort collapsed in 2012, raising more questions than it answered.
When the reports were published, the government committed to look into the issue of a judge-led inquiry and said it would report back in 60 days. Its response to the reports many months later did not mention any such inquiry or make further commitments. A May 2019 periodic report by the U.N. Committee against Torture on the U.K. also urged the government to take action on this point, yet the British government’s position remains evasive. It, too, is eager to avoid accountability.
Prisoner torture and extraordinary rendition have long been discounted as a relic of the George W. Bush era, but without investigation there is no way of knowing how far the program went and how and in what way it may continue today. Almost two decades of evasive practices and secrecy have not deterred efforts to prosecute and get to the truth of this practice.
While the U.K. has not committed to a judge-led inquiry, the report has led to a police investigation into the role of U.K. intelligence officers in the torture of current Guantánamo prisoner Abu Zubaydah: The report calls his an example of “direct awareness of extreme mistreatment” by the U.K. authorities; mistreatment that by U.K. law translates as torture.
Furthermore, authorities in Scotland have concluded an almost six-year investigation into the use of several Scottish airports for torture flight stopovers. The report has been handed over to the Crown Office and could lead to prosecutions. The investigation was hampered by repeat requests by the Scottish authorities to the U.S. to hand over to investigators a full copy of the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee Torture Report.
The U.S.’s failure to cooperate has led authorities to suggest “the case would remain open until any appropriate evidence had been obtained from the US.” The British government was asked to make the request again during President Trump’s June visit to the U.K. but it refused to say whether it did.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Court of Human Rights has accepted a second case against Lithuania brought by Guantánamo prisoner Mustafa Al-Hawsawi. In 2018, the Court ordered Lithuania to pay €130,000 in damages to Zubaydah after it lost its first case and appeal of the judgment. The country still denies involvement in the rendition program and its internal investigation has been inconclusive.
In a world where the use of torture is forever expanding, two decades of secrets and lies about the extraordinary rendition program may have kept accountability at bay, but have not extinguished calls for accountability and transparency.
While the CIA, its partner agencies and governments worldwide go to extraordinary lengths to distance themselves and their agents from the truth, it should not be forgotten that the victims of their crimes, such as al-Nashiri and Al-Hawsawi, continue to suffer physically and mentally as a result of what they have been subjected to, and face trial on the basis of evidence obtained through torture at Guantánamo.
Aisha Maniar is a London-based human rights activist who works with the London Guantánamo Campaign and other organizations, mainly on issues related to prisoner and minority rights and torture.More by this author…