On Feb. 22, 2017, ProPublica published a story that inaccurately described Gina Haspelâ€™s role in the treatment of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al-Qaida leader who was imprisoned by the CIA at a secret â€œblack siteâ€ in Thailand in 2002.
The story said that Haspel, a career CIA officer who President Trump has nominated to be the next director of central intelligence, oversaw the clandestine base where Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding and other coercive interrogation methods that are widely seen as torture. The story also said she mocked the prisonerâ€™s suffering in a private conversation. Neither of these assertions is correct and we retract them. It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended.
Our account of Haspelâ€™s actions was drawn in part from declassified agency cables and CIA-reviewed books which referred to the official overseeing Zubaydahâ€™s interrogation at a secret prison in Thailand as â€œchief of base.â€ The books and cables redacted the name of the official, as is routinely done in declassified documents referring to covert operations.
The Trump administration named Haspel to the CIAâ€™s No. 2 job in early February 2017. Soon after, three former government officials told ProPublica that Haspel was chief of base in Thailand at the time of Zubaydahâ€™s waterboarding.
We also found an online posting by John Kirakou, a former CIA counter-terrorism officer, who wrote that â€œIt was Haspel who oversaw the staffâ€ at the Thai prison, including two psychologists who â€œdesigned the torture techniques and who actually carried out torture on the prisoners.â€
The nomination of Haspel this week to head the CIA stirred new controversy about her role in the detention and interrogation of terror suspects, as well as the destruction of videotapes of the interrogation of Zubaydah and another suspect. Some critics cited the 2017 ProPublica story as evidence that she was not fit to run the agency.
Those statements prompted former colleagues of Haspel to defend her publicly. At least two said that while she did serve as chief of base in Thailand, she did not arrive until later in 2002, after the waterboarding of Zubaydah had ended.
The New York Times, which also reported last year that Haspel oversaw the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, published a second story this week making the same point. It quoted an unnamed former senior CIA official who said Haspel did not become base chief until late October of 2002. According to the Times, she was in charge when al-Nashiri was waterboarded three times.
James Mitchell, the psychologist and CIA contractor who helped to direct the waterboarding of both suspects, said in a broadcast interview on March 14 that Haspel was not the â€œchief of baseâ€ whom he described in his book as making fun of Zubaydahâ€™s suffering.
â€œThat chief of base was not Gina,â€ Mitchell told Fox Business News. â€œSheâ€™s not the COB I was talking about.â€
Mitchellâ€™s book, â€œEnhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America,â€ referred to the chief of base in Thailand as both â€œheâ€ and â€œshe.â€
We erroneously assumed that this was an effort by Mitchell or the agency to conceal the gender of the single official involved; it is now clear that Mitchell was referring to two different people.
ProPublica contacted Mitchell in 2017 to ask him about this passage in his book. Facing a civil lawsuit brought by former CIA detainees, he declined to comment.
At about the same time, we approached the CIAâ€™s press office with an extensive list of questions about the cables and Haspelâ€™s role in running the Thai prison, particularly her dealings with Zubaydah.
An agency spokesman declined to answer any of those questions but released a statement that was quoted in the article, asserting that â€œnearly every piece of reporting that you are seeking comment on is incorrect in whole or in part.â€
The CIA did not comment further on the story after its publication and we were not aware of any further questions about its accuracy until this week.
The February 2017 ProPublica story did accurately report that Haspel later rose to a senior position at CIA headquarters, where she pushed her bosses to destroy the tapes of Zubaydahâ€™s waterboarding. Her direct boss, the head of the agencyâ€™s Counterterrorism Center, ultimately signed the order to feed the 92 tapes into a shredder. Her actions in that instance, and in the waterboarding of al-Nashiri, are likely to be the focus of questions at her confirmation hearings.
Dean Boyd, director of the CIAâ€™s office of public affairs, praised Haspelâ€™s 30 years of public service and said Thursday in a statement that her qualifications and capabilities would be evident in the hearing process.
â€œIt is important to note that she has spent nearly her entire CIA career undercover,â€ Boyd said.Â â€œMuch of what is in the public domain about her is inaccurate. We are pleased that ProPublica is willing to acknowledge its mistakes and correct the record regarding its claims about Ms. Haspel.â€
A few reflections on what went wrong in our reporting and editing process.
The awkward communications between officials barred from disclosing classified information and reporters trying to reveal secrets in which there is legitimate public interest can sometimes end in miscommunication. In this instance, we failed to understand the message the CIAâ€™s press office was trying to convey in its statement.
None of this in any way excuses our mistakes. We at ProPublica hold government officials responsible for their missteps, and we must be equally accountable. This error was particularly unfortunate because it muddied an important national debate about Haspel and the CIAâ€™s recent history. To her, and to our readers, we can only apologize, correct the record and make certain that we do better in the future.
â€”Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief
Republished with permission from ProPublica via iCopyright license.
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