The Central Intelligence Agency declassified a 2011 memo by then-Deputy Director Michael Morell on his decision not to discipline Gina Haspel -- President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the organization -- for her role in destroying tapes of detainee interrogations that critics called torture.
The CIA’s move on Friday comes as Haspel, currently the No. 2 official at the spy agency, faces criticism from some lawmakers and human rights groups before her May 9 confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said he would do “everything to stop” the nomination, writing in Politico that Haspel had abetted torture.
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and member of the Intelligence panel, said “the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from her past” and he vowed to oppose the nomination.
The CIA appears intent on disputing that view of the 61-year-old career officer, who would be the first female head of the U.S.’s premier spy agency.
“I have found no fault with the performance of Ms. Haspel,” Morell wrote in the partly redacted memo to then-Director David Petraeus on Dec. 20, 2011, after he was directed to review the allegations. “It was not her decision to destroy the tapes.”
Morell, who was following up on an investigation by a special prosecutor, did find fault with Haspel’s former boss at the time, Director of the National Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez. He said a memo drafted by Haspel calling for the destruction of interrogation tapes -- an act carried out in 2005 -- was ordered by Rodriguez and that she believed Rodriguez would seek then-CIA Director Porter Goss’s permission to carry out the memo.
“Although there is no ‘good soldier’ defense in the case of an act that violates the law or agency regulations, the special prosecutor evidently found no prosecutable offense, nor did I find a violation of agency regulations,” Morell wrote.
Morell said he issued a “letter of reprimand” to Rodriguez but declined to sanction him, according to the memo. He said he based that decision partly on Rodriguez’s defense that he was “concerned that publication of the tapes would damage the domestic and international standing of the CIA.”
He said that Rodriguez had “already paid a significant price for the decision,” citing the former officer’s legal expenses, impact on his post-CIA career and Morell’s conclusion in the memo that “the leadership of the agency failed Mr. Rodriguez.”
As deputy director since February 2017, Haspel helped manage intelligence collection, analysis, covert action, counterintelligence and relationships with overseas counterparts. When Trump decided to order a missile attack on a Syrian airfield in response to chemical weapons attacks last year, Haspel was among the officials in the White House situation room with Vice President Mike Pence.
Haspel, 61, joined the CIA in 1985, according to the agency’s website. But for much of her career, she was a working spy. She was chief of station in at least one of her overseas postings and held other positions including deputy director of the National Clandestine Service.
That experience may make her a popular choice for employees at the agency’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters. Her current boss, Director Mike Pompeo, is Trump’s nominee for secretary of state and will likely face a Senate confirmation vote next week.
On Thursday, more than 50 groups, including Human Rights Watch, sent a letter to lawmakers urging senators to oppose Haspel’s nomination. The groups called her “unfit” to lead the agency, saying the CIA should declassify information about her participation in “enhanced interrogation” programs.
Despite the vocal opposition, many senators said Haspel has done a good job. Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who serves on the Intelligence Committee, called her a “true professional” who has “worked closely” with Pompeo and Trump’s national security team over the last year.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement that “it’s no secret I’ve had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program,” but added, “to the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director.”
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