CIA: The Unmasking of Agent Z9A

Gina Haspel’s link to raunchy enthusiasm for torture emerges in Guantánamo case

by Jeff Stein

The trial of the terrorist who organized the murderous attack on the USS Cole, a Navy destroyer refueling in the port of Aden in Yemen way back in October 2000, should have been—to coin a phrase—a slam dunk. Alas, it’s in its second decade—and yet a new side of Gina Haspel has emerged in it.

Interrogators had plenty of evidence to work with when CIA operatives finally tracked down Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in Dubai in 2002.  Ace FBI counterterrorism agent Ali Soufan had been on the trail of Al-Nashiri’s mayhem for years.  Instead of taking him to trial in federal court in New York, however—where many a terrorist suspect had been successfully prosecuted—the operatives threw him into the maw of the CIA’s black site interrogation centers. Sitting atop one of those pinnacles of pain in Thailand, where al-Nashiri was repeatedly thrown against a wall, waterboarded, forced naked into a coffin-like box and threatened with a gun and electric drill, was Gina Haspel, the ambitious base chief and future CIA director. 

And boy, did she enjoy it, judging by her pulse-pounding cables back to headquarters from Thailand in 2002.  In prose seemingly inspired by bodice-ripping romance novels, the onetime U.S. Army base librarian described how the psychologist James Mitchell (whose hiring by the CIA remains a bizarre subchapter of the torture years),  “strode, catlike, into the well-lit confines of the cell at 0902 hrs…deftly removed the subject's black hood with a swipe, paused, and in a deep, measured voice said that subject—having 'calmed down' after his (staged) run-in with his hulking, heavily muscled guards the previous day—should reveal what subject had done to vex his guards to the point of rage.”

When that memo was previously released to al-Nashiri’s defense team, its lurid language had been stripped away.  The over-classification “could fairly be characterized as self-serving and calculated to avoid embarrassment,” said Col. Lanny J. Acosta Jr., the military judge overseeing al-Nashiri’s now-decades long case at Guantánamo.

We know all this because of (1) the National Security Archive, a private research organization that has doggedly employed the Freedom of Information Act to shed sunlight on the proceedings, and (2) the New York Times’ Carol Rosenberg, who has tenaciously covered the murky goings-on at Guantánamo for years.

As Rosenberg and her colleague Julian Barnes wrote in a June 3 story that has struggled for attention amid the welter of other worlds-shattering news, “the precise details of [Haspel’s] work as the chief of base, the CIA officer who oversaw the prison, have been shrouded in official secrecy.” During her 2018 confirmation hearing to be CIA director, she declined to answer a question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the intelligence committee, on whether she had overseen the interrogations of al-Nashiri, saying specific assignments in her career were classified. Likewise, the CIA has never acknowledged her work at the Thai black site.  

But Rosenberg got a peek under a flap of the secrecy tent last month. The psychologist Mitchell, testifying in the al-Nashiri case, she reported, “testified that the chief of base at the time, whom he referred to as Z9A in accordance with court rules, watched while he and a teammate subjected Mr. Nashiri to ‘enhanced interrogation’ that included waterboarding at the black site.”

“Z9A,” she added, “is the code name used in court for Ms. Haspel.”

Purple Prose

And here is what Haspel witnessed Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, another psychologist contracted by the CIA, do to Al-Nashiri, according to the memos she wrote or approved of, as excerpted by the National Security Archives. Few Americans have availed themselves of these details, judging by the widespread acceptance of torture as a necessary evil—or even something to be applauded.

"Interrogation escalated rapidly from subject being aggressively debriefed by interrogators while standing at the walling wall, to multiple applications of the walling technique, and ultimately, multiple applications of the watering technique,"  the memo said. (The “walling wall” was cement thinly sheathed in burlap.) Interrogators banged his head again the wall as well.

At one point, the session memo goes on, Nashiri "was left strapped to the waterboard to contemplate his fate" for 20 minutes; afterwards, Mitchell and Jessen told him "no matter what [the] subject thought might happen to him, interrogators were not going to let subject come to grave harm; indeed, they were going to ensure that he would be able to answer the questions they would pose to him again and again." 

So wrote Haspel or one of her underlings. And it went on in purple prose: "Interrogators covered subject's head with the hood and left him on the water board, moaning, shaking and asking God to help him repeatedly...." 

Mitchell and Jessen applied another "water treatment" at 1340 hours, the memo goes on, saying "they wanted to know of operations against the U.S. Subject was not being honest with them, and they were willing to continue to give subject the same treatment, day in and day out, for months if need be, until subject decided to cooperate." But "Subject again said that there were no operations, they weren't talking operations, and begged interrogators to tell him more so that he would be able to remember what they wanted." 

More “water treatment” continued, the memo says, lasting from 11:07 am to 12:52 pm on the twelfth day. Then “Nashiri was locked, naked, in the small box.” 

Rinse, Repeat

Another black site detainee in Thailand, Abu Zubaydah, was waterboarded 83 times after he’d provided provided useful information to FBI agents who didn’t lay a hand on him. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times. According to declassified  but still heavily redacted memos, clueless managers in comfy headquarters offices pressed for more torture over the objections of many an interrogator who told them it was ineffective, wasteful and, well, disgusting.     

Maybe it eluded Mitchell and Jepson, but Haspel and her superiors, all the way up to CIA Director George Tenet, had to know that waterboarding “has been recognized as a war crime since World War II, when the U.S. prosecuted Japanese soldiers for, among other charges, torturing American POWs with waterboarding,” as the National Security Archive put it. Surely that was one of the reasons Haspel urged the videotapes be destroyed.

“Guantánamo Bay is one of the few places where America is still wrestling with the legacy of torture in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,” Rosenberg wrote. “Torture has loomed over the pretrial phase of the death penalty cases for years and is likely to continue to do so as hearings resume over the summer.”

Americans have largely tuned it all out. 

I wonder how much Haspel is “wrestling with the legacy of torture.”

Probably not too much, if at all. All the torture perps have moved on, along with the WMD and Iraq-disaster perps. Not a one has spent a minute in the penalty box.

Haspel moved smoothly from the torture camps to become deputy to the obsequious Mike Pompeo at CIA, won the job in her own right in 2018 with a lot of Kabuki fuss and spent the next two years bending just enough to Donald Trump’s whims to emerge unscathed amid the post-election insanity on Jan. 19, 2021. Last summer she landed a job as an “adviser” with King & Spalding, anachronistically known as a “white shoe” law firms from its roots in railroads and banking in 1890s Atlanta. 

In 2020, the firm represented Trump in one of his stop-the-steal maneuvers. It also "advises Donald Trump's real estate empire," according to a 2017 New York Times report. More relevant to Haspel’s value, with her arrival King & Spalding “has taken an increased interest in foreign state affairs, particularly those of Saudi Arabia, as well as the new niche market of Chinese groups being badgered in the US by the SEC,” the authoritative Paris-based Intelligence Online reported in February.

From fake coffins and waterboarding to law firm rainmaking. Quite a career.

And so it goes. Other events beckon for our attention. But in Guantánamo, the prisoner abuse and the rape of American law that Haspel championed are still chugging along.

Courtesy: Spy Talks