In November 2005, the CIA’s chief of undercover operations, Jose Rodriguez, turned to his closest aide for help in a crisis. Congress was threatening an investigation into the agency’s secret prisons overseas, and The Washington Post had just published new details of the so-called black sites on its front page. Rodriguez feared that the furor could pry loose videotapes that showed CIA officers brutally interrogating two terror suspects.
Rodriguez’s chief of staff, Gina Haspel, had directed the waterboarding of one suspect herself. Both Rodriguez and Haspel had been lobbying for years for permission to destroy the tapes, only to have the CIA’s requests rejected again and again by senior Bush administration officials.
Now, however, Rodriguez was determined to go ahead anyway. The tapes were locked in a CIA safe halfway across the world, but Rodriguez was not alone in thinking they were a ticking bomb that could threaten some of the interrogators and devastate the agency’s reputation.
“She — like everyone else around me — wanted the tapes destroyed,” Rodriguez said of Haspel in an interview. “It was something where we expected our agency to protect its people and do the right thing.”
As Haspel goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday as President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, her role in the tapes affair remains a central focus of controversy in a career that also included her supervision of a terror suspect’s interrogation using methods now widely seen as torture.
Although Rodriguez and Haspel were the primary subjects of a federal investigation into the destruction of the videotapes, prosecutors did not charge them with any crime. A subsequent disciplinary review by the CIA’s then-deputy director, Michael Morell, also found “no fault” with Haspel in the matter, saying she “acted appropriately.”
But a close examination of Haspel’s involvement in the episode, drawn from interviews and declassified documents, raises new questions about her actions and about the account of the episode she provided to federal investigators.
In a statement on Tuesday, the CIA acknowledged that Haspel wrote the cable that Rodriguez had sent ordering the destruction of the tapes. She did so, the agency said, in the mistaken belief that Rodriguez was actually planning to use the draft cable to “raise the issue” of destroying the tapes with Porter Goss, the CIA director. She only learned that Rodriguez had acted unilaterally after the fact, when she asked him whether Goss had approved the action and was told he had not.
In an interview with ProPublica several weeks ago, Rodriguez told the story differently. He said he was propelled into action after coming to the conclusion that neither Goss nor other senior administration officials would ever authorize the tapes’ destruction. He said he told Haspel that he was fed up with what he considered their political cowardice.
Rodriguez said he told Haspel directly that he was going to take matters into his own hands, and that she responded by saying she was worried about the consequences that he might face for such a brash act.
“She was concerned that I was taking this risk on my own — that I was putting myself in this situation,” Rodriguez recalled. “She didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it.’ She may have thought I was going to talk to more people about it before hitting ‘send,’ but I had made up my mind that I was going to follow through.”
To date, no document has surfaced that might resolve the contradiction. Rodriguez was already retired when Morell began his review, which ended with a letter of reprimand for his unilateral action. The review imposed no sanctions on Haspel, accepting what it described as her “claim” that she believed her boss would not release the cable ordering the tapes’ destruction without the approval of Goss.
The many former CIA officials who have championed Haspel’s candidacy describe her as a talented and experienced professional whose loyalty to the agency — and especially to the undercover officers who worked with her in its clandestine service — is paramount.
That loyalty to the institution, some of those former officials said, would make her a careful guardian of the agency under a president who has often suggested that he wants to use the covert powers of the national security apparatus aggressively.
But the protective instincts that guided both Haspel and others in the tapes episode have been sharply questioned by some Senate Democrats, who have sought a fuller account of the saga, including the full report of the special prosecutor who investigated the case.
Compared to Haspel’s still classified activities as an officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, her part in the destruction of the videotapes is almost an open book. But it is a book with substantial redactions.
What has become clearer from interviews and partially declassified agency documents is that Haspel became involved in the issue almost from the start of the long campaign by Rodriguez and others to have the tapes destroyed.
The origins of the taping remain somewhat mysterious. But, as a team of CIA officers prepared to question their first high-value prisoner at a secret prison in Thailand in the summer of 2002, officials of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center — it isn’t clear who — thought it would be wise to create a video record of the prisoner’s treatment.
The detainee, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, known by his nom de guerre, Abu Zubaydah, had been shot in the groin during his capture in Pakistan a few months earlier. CIA officials thought the tapes would be a useful backup to their written record of the interrogations. The video recordings might also insure his captors against any allegations of mistreatment if he died in their custody.
But officials at the CTC, as the center is known, soon had second thoughts.
A senior CIA lawyer, John Rizzo, said that Rodriguez first came to him about destroying the tapes in mid-October of 2002. Zubaydah was still being questioned by CIA officers in Thailand. The “aggressive” phase of his interrogation was over, but among the roughly 100 hours of videotape that had been compiled, about 12 hours showed uncensored scenes of violent treatment.
That treatment included waterboarding, a method of simulated drowning in which, CIA records show, Zubaydah gagged, vomited and became hysterical while the interrogators poured water into his nostrils and throat as he lay strapped down on his back. The agency’s methods also included slapping him in the face and abdomen, slamming him into a plywood wall, depriving him of sleep and locking him into small “confinement boxes” for hours at a time.
The videotapes also showed the faces of some members of the interrogation team, Rodriguez told Rizzo.
“Jose was convinced that someday, somewhere, somehow, the tapes would become public and the identities of the interrogators inevitably ‘outed,’” Rizzo wrote in his 2014 memoir, “Company Man.” “‘“60 Minutes” will do slow-mo, stop-action pictures of their faces,’ Jose emotionally put it to me, ‘and they and their families will become targets for some Al Qaeda crazy wherever they are.’”
A canny lawyer known for his bespoke suits and colorful ties, Rizzo was sympathetic to Rodriguez’s concerns. But Rizzo had also seen his share of agency scandals up close, and he told Rodriguez firmly “not to do anything with those tapes” until he could discuss the issue and clear any action with more senior officials.
“I thought that destroying the tapes was fraught with enormous risk for the agency,” Rizzo wrote. “Someone does something like that when he has something to hide.”
Contacted by ProPublica, Rizzo declined to discuss the episode other than to say that he stood by what he had written about it in his book.
On Oct. 25, just as Haspel was arriving in Thailand to take over the black site as its new “chief of base,” an email from CIA headquarters informed officers there that they should observe a new procedure for videotaping: They were to continue recording to assist in checking their notes, but use the same tape each time so that they erased the previous day’s images.
The cable was emphatic about the reasons for the new policy. Officials had concluded that the CIA was not legally required to preserve the tapes. They represented “a serious security risk for [redacted] officers recorded on them,” and “a danger to all Americans should the tapes be compromised.” The cable promised that someone (their identity is redacted) would be sent to Thailand “at the earliest opportunity” to “assist in destroying the tapes completely.”
Haspel took over as “chief of base” at the Thai prison in late October, after the waterboarding of Zubaydah had ended. A new high-level prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, arrived on Nov. 15, and was almost immediately subjected to some of the same brutal treatment. How much videotaping was done during Haspel’s tenure at the black site is not clear, but only a few of the surviving tapes would show Nashiri. None of those, officials said, include any video of Haspel.
Nashiri’s interrogation in Thailand lasted a little more than two weeks. Then, the operation was thrown into turmoil when a New York Times journalist began asking the agency about reports that it was holding Qaida prisoners in Thailand. Haspel was ordered to shut down the secret prison immediately.
The two prisoners, Zubaydah and Nashiri, were sent to a new secret CIA prison in Poland on Dec. 4. But even before their departure, a flurry of cables between Thailand and CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, focused on what to do about the tapes.
On Nov. 27, a CIA officer in Thailand — possibly Haspel, or perhaps the agency’s station chief in Bangkok — sent a formal cable to headquarters. According to a summary of the message disclosed years later in response to a lawsuit, it sought “approval for the destruction” of the tapes.
Several cables on the subject came back from headquarters. They did not say yes.
The following month, at Rizzo’s urging, a new chief lawyer at the CIA, Scott Muller, presented the question of what to do with the 92 tapes to the agency’s then-director, George Tenet. The agency also sent a career attorney, John McPherson, to Thailand to review the stockpile of tapes and make sure that all the activities recorded on the tapes were also accurately described in the written records.
Tenet agreed with the lawyers that it would be wise to destroy the tapes, officials said. But he did not want to do so without approval from both Bush’s National Security Council and at least a few leaders in Congress who had been informed of the black site program.
Aides to Tenet wanted a formal plan, and they instructed CTC officials to write up a memo that laid out how they would seek the necessary authorizations.
Of the four congressional intelligence committee members who were told about the tapes in January 2003, only Jane Harman, a California Democrat, objected to the idea of destroying them. But by then, other hurdles had emerged as well.
The agency’s inspector general, John Helgerson, had begun a secret investigation into the black site program, following the death in November 2002 of an Afghan detainee who was being held at a black site near Kabul. The Helgerson inquiry quickly became more serious after it emerged that a relatively junior CIA officer who had been dispatched to Poland that December had brutally abused Nashiri there, threatening him with death and menacing with a gun and a power drill.
Upon learning of the videotapes, Helgerson insisted on having his own investigators look at them — even if they had to fly to Thailand to do so.
CIA lawyers were already worried that the tapes could eventually end up in the hands of outsiders. A new blue ribbon commission had been created to investigate the origins of the 9/11 attacks, and it seemed possible they might ask for interrogation records.
(Although the 9/11 commission fought a long-running and ultimately unsuccessful battle to interview Zubaydah, Nashiri and other CIA prisoners, agency officials turned over classified accounts of their interrogations, but never told members of the panel that the videotapes existed.)
By the late spring of 2004, the tapes were becoming harder to hide. After a scandal erupted over the publication of lurid photos of prisoners being abused by Army reservists inside Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the Justice Department withdrew its opinion authorizing the CIA’s interrogation methods.
At a White House meeting not long after, the senior lawyer on the National Security Council staff, John Bellinger, asked Muller, his CIA counterpart, almost casually if the agency had any of its own photographs or videotapes of prisoners. He acknowledged that it did.
Muller told the White House lawyers that the CIA had been hoping to destroy the videotapes at some point. The senior lawyers in the room — who included the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales — rejected that idea immediately. David Addington, a strong supporter of the interrogation program who wielded outsized influence as the counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney, was adamantly opposed.
Although the inspector general had finished his inquiry into the detention program, lawyers for the French militant Zacarias Moussaoui, who was being tried on federal charges of conspiring in the 9/11 attacks, were seeking access to tapes of CIA interrogations that might help their client avoid the death penalty. They were also asking for all records relating to Abu Zubaydah.
In 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit to press its requests for detainee records under the Freedom of Information Act. The CIA initially withheld nearly every document the ACLU sought, saying they were exempt on national security grounds.
Eventually, though, ACLU lawyers managed to collect a trove of CIA documents on the detainees, relying on a legal provision that allows public access to declassified versions of records that figure in investigations of possible wrongdoing. In its inquiry into the interrogation program, the CIA’s inspector general had assembled thousands of pages of documents. Crucially, investigators had also watched the tapes.
Rodriguez was not known as a micromanager. According to several colleagues, he took strategic advantage of Haspel’s exceptional attention to detail, relying on her to help manage highly sensitive operations as well as policy and personnel issues.
As her authority and influence within the agency grew, Haspel also joined Rodriguez in advocating forcefully and frequently for the destruction of the videotapes, several officials said. Rizzo wrote that they were “relentless” in lobbying him about the tapes during Rodriguez’s first months in his job as head of the Operations Directorate.
At their urging, the new CIA director, Goss, a former Republican congressman, had also tried to procure the answer they wanted, taking the question in mid-2005 to his putative boss, John Negroponte, who had taken office as the country’s first director of national intelligence. (The two officials had been fraternity brothers at Yale 45 years before.)
Negroponte was a senior career diplomat, not an intelligence expert. But he had worked closely with the CIA as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras during the early years of the agency’s covert support for Contra rebels in the early 1980s. His knowledge of national security scandals went back to his time as a junior aide to Henry Kissinger during secret peace talks to end the Vietnam War. He told Goss in no uncertain terms that he strongly opposed any attempt to destroy the tapes, officials said.
Rodriguez and Haspel kept pushing. At their urging, Rizzo went back to the White House again. This time, the president had a new chief lawyer, Harriet Miers. But Miers had the same view as Gonzales. Addington, the vice president’s lawyer, remained firmly opposed as well, officials said.
Rizzo wrote in his book that he reported the bad news to Rodriguez and Haspel.
“They were crestfallen, because they were now on notice that the DNI, two successive White House counsels, and the vice president’s top lawyer had weighed in strongly against destroying the tapes,” Rizzo wrote. “To top it off, I confided to them that Porter Goss seemed distinctly unenthusiastic about the idea, too.”
Rizzo wrote that he told Rodriguez to “cool it for a while.” And by the fall of 2005, he said, the tapes issue had been dormant for several months. But in late October, the CIA was hit by a pair of new and serious threats.
As the Senate debated what would become known as the Detainee Treatment Act, Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chaired the Armed Services Committee, also began pushing for a non-partisan commission that would examine the treatment of terror detainees — including by the CIA. As the proposal gained support, Rizzo warned his colleagues that such an inquiry would “obviously surface the tapes’ existence.”
“I think I need to be the skunk at the party again and see if the Director is willing to let us try one more time to get the right people downtown on board with the notion of our destroying the tapes,” Rizzo wrote in an email.
Two lawyers wrote back, saying they supported the idea of pressing the issue with Goss, the CIA director. One of the lawyers, who was assigned to the CTC, asserted that the tapes “should have been destroyed in the normal course of business 2 years ago.”
Around the same time, officials said, The Washington Post informed the agency that it was preparing an extensive report on the black sites. Rodriguez was among those enlisted to try to dissuade the paper from publishing some details, but the story appeared on Nov. 2, and it sent shock waves through CIA headquarters.
“It was something only a little bit less than a full nuclear explosion,” one former senior official recalled.
A few miles from CIA headquarters, the federal judge overseeing the Moussaoui trial, Leonie Brinkema, was also apparently struck by the story.
Acting as his own lawyer, Moussaoui had sought to elicit testimony from Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other captured militants in order to try to prove that he was not one of them. The government had refused, agreeing only to provide written summaries of what they had said under questioning.
In April 2005, Moussaoui pleaded guilty, triggering the sentencing phase of the trial. Brinkema demanded that national security agencies scour their files for video or audiotapes of detainee interrogations. Because of redactions in the court record, it is not clear which detainees were included in her order. But she was skeptical of prosecutors’ previous assertions that no such tapes existed.
“I want clear representations under the penalty of perjury from the appropriate officials — and this has to include the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Defense, the NSA, and frankly any government agency involved in this work — that there have not been any video or audio recordings made of these witnesses by any United States or other governmental agencies during this process,” she said.
On Thursday, Nov. 3, the day after The Washington Post story, Brinkema again ordered the government to search for video or audio of captured militants.
As the pressures mounted, Rodriguez had an epiphany.
“I finally came to the realization that nobody was going to make this decision for us,” he recalled in an interview. “Not the director. Not John Rizzo. Not the White House. Who are we kidding? This thing would just go on.”
Back at his seventh-floor office at CIA headquarters, Rodriguez conveyed his realization to Haspel. “I met with Gina and I told Gina, ‘I’m going to make this decision myself. Who are we kidding? No one is going to make the decision. People are just kicking the can down the road.”
The two officials worked out a plan to resolve the problem once and for all, he said. At Rodriguez’s request, Haspel convened a meeting with a few officials, including two senior lawyers assigned to the Directorate of Operations, Steven Hermes and Robert Eatinger.
Rodriguez and others have emphasized that Haspel sought the lawyers’ on-the-record answers to two questions: Would it be legal for the agency to destroy the tapes? And did Rodriguez, as the head of the NCS, have the authority to order it?
Hermes and Eatinger moved quickly to answer Rodriguez’s two questions. They examined regulations on the destruction of documents and consulted their colleague, John McPherson — the same senior CIA lawyer who had gone to Thailand to review the tapes three years earlier. McPherson answered that there was no legal impediment to destroying the tapes.
According to the accounts of some of the officials involved, Haspel proposed that the agency use the scheduled transfer of its Bangkok station chief — who still had the tapes locked in his office safe — to force a new (and hopefully different) answer to the question of whether the tapes could be destroyed.
It was decided that the station chief would send a cable back to headquarters making a formal request to destroy the tapes. According to Rodriguez, the lawyers went so far as to suggest wording for the cable.
Different officials have offered somewhat different accounts of how the plan was supposed to unfold from there. Rizzo, who was then the CIA’s chief lawyer, wrote that he had been told the cable would be used to initiate a new round of appeals to administration officials and Congress — which he thought were doomed to result in the same denials.
According to the CIA’s chief spokesman, Dean Boyd, Haspel then drafted a second cable that she believed would be used by Rodriguez to initiate a conversation with Goss about the urgent need to destroy the tapes. That cable was in Rodriguez’s name, and it said he approved the request from Thailand to destroy the tapes.
Haspel “drafted the cable to destroy the tapes” at Rodriguez’s direction, Boyd said in the agency’s written statement on Tuesday evening, “but she did so with the understanding that he would use the draft cable to raise this issue with DCIA Porter Goss to find a final resolution of this matter.”
Why Rodriguez would see the need to approach Goss with the draft cable in hand — rather than, say, the cable he received from Thailand asking permission to destroy the tapes — is unclear. One former CIA official said the idea was to underscore to Goss the urgency of the situation and Rodriguez’s willingness to accept responsibility for the action.
But in Rodriguez’s long and detailed account of the episode in his own memoir — published in 2012, before the details of Haspel’s version of events became public — he never mentioned any sort of plan to take the issue up with Goss. Nor did he say anything about such an intention in his interview with ProPublica.
Rather, he stressed in the interview that he had decided to act on his own because he was convinced that neither Goss nor other officials in the administration would ever summon the political will to do so.
Sometime after Haspel drafted the cable in which her boss directed the tapes’ destruction, Rodriguez recalled that he stared at it for a while on his computer. Haspel had left the office, he said.
“I looked at it, thought about it for a while and eventually I hit release,” he said. “I released it myself to make clear to everybody that I was the responsible person who authorized it.”
At some point later, Haspel returned to her desk and realized that Rodriguez had sent the cable off to Thailand. Boyd, the CIA spokesman, said, “she asked whether he had raised this matter with [Director] Goss. He told Haspel that he had not talked to the [CIA director] and had sent out the cable based on his understanding of his authority as head of the Clandestine Service.”
Boyd gave no indication of how much time elapsed between when Rodriguez sent the cable and when Haspel saw it. Nor did he say whether she had any opportunity to persuade him to countermand the order, or to warn any other officials at CIA headquarters of what Rodriguez had done.
Rizzo wrote that he learned what had happened the following day, Nov. 9, when one of his lawyers forwarded him a copy of a subsequent cable from Bangkok in which the station chief confirmed to Rodriguez that he had finished feeding the tapes into a large shredding machine.
“WHAT?!?!” Rizzo wrote back.
The cable that Rodriguez had sent to Thailand — the cable that Haspel had drafted authorizing the destruction of the tapes — had not been copied to any CIA lawyers or other officials, as was standard procedure for such a message, officials said.
Rizzo “was just beside himself,” a former colleague said.
Goss, the CIA director, was considerably less upset, several former officials said.
Afterwards, Rodriguez said at a meeting that he was ready to take any political heat for what he had done. Goss responded that no, he would be the one to take the heat.
But there was no heat, because there was no wider acknowledgement of what had occurred. According to Rizzo, Goss told him he would discreetly inform congressional leaders that the tapes had been destroyed. But he never did. Members of Congress only found out what had happened when The New York Times published an article two years later, revealing for the first time that the tapes had existed — and had been destroyed.
After Rodriguez, Haspel became perhaps the primary subject of the tapes investigation, two former CIA officials said. Called back from London, where she was serving as the CIA’s station chief, she was grilled for hours by federal investigators, an experience that the former officials said shook her deeply.
But in November 2010, after more than two years of investigation, the federal prosecutor who led the investigation into the destruction of the tapes, John Durham, decided not to bring any criminal charges. The CIA’s long delay in acknowledging the tapes’ destruction meant that the five-year statute of limitations had run. Durham concluded that it would be difficult to prove criminal intent, officials said, because Haspel and Rodriguez had been advised by the CIA lawyers that they could legally destroy the tapes.
Durham concluded the CIA lawyers had gotten it wrong. No such legal authority existed. In his book, Morell wrote the prosecutor had found that “agency lawyers had erred in their legal judgment.”
On Durham’s recommendation, the CIA’s then-director, David Petraeus, assigned Morell to convene an accountability board of senior agency officials to review the actions of Rodriguez and the CIA lawyers. Morell decided to conduct the review by himself.
He made little effort to hide his sympathy for Rodriguez and Haspel. To inform Rodriguez of his review, he invited Rodriguez out for drinks. He concluded that Rodriguez had violated the instructions of his superiors and he issued a letter of reprimand but decided to waive other sanctions. A spokesman for Morell, Nick Shapiro, a former deputy chief of staff of the agency, said that because Rodriguez was already retired, the only penalty Morell could have imposed would have been to take away his pension — a punishment usually reserved for cases of espionage.
“Ms Haspel did not destroy the tapes,” Mr. Morell said in a statement explaining why his 2011 inquiry found “no fault” with her performance. “She did not oversee the destruction of the tapes. And she did not order the destruction of the tapes. She drafted a cable under the instruction of her boss.”