A psychologist testifies that Gina Haspel saw waterboarding at a C.I.A. Black Site.
The testimony came out during pre-trial hearings in the Cole bombing case at Guantánamo Bay, where the war court is dealing with the effects of torture after 9/11.
During Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearing to become C.I.A. director in 2018, Senator Dianne Feinstein asked her if she had supervised the interrogations of a Saudi prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, which included the use of a waterboard.
Ms. Haspel didn’t answer because she said it was part of her secret job.
There have been reports that she oversaw a C.I.A. black site in Thailand where Mr. Nashiri was waterboarded and where Ms. Haspel wrote or approved memos about his torture. However, the exact details of her work as the chief of base, the C.I.A. officer in charge of the prison, have been kept secret.
But at a hearing last month in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a secret about the long and secretive career of the former C.I.A. director came out. James E. Mitchell, a psychologist who helped create the agency’s interrogation program, said in court that the chief of base at the time, whom he called “Z9A” because of court rules, watched as he and a teammate gave Mr. Nashiri “enhanced interrogation” at the black site, which included waterboarding.
Z9A is the code name for Ms. Haspel that is used in court.
The C.I.A. has never acknowledged Ms. Haspel’s work at the black site, and the use of the code name showed that the court agreed with an agency policy of not acknowledging state secrets, even if they have already been leaked. Former officials have known for a long time that she ran the “black site” in Thailand from October 2002 to December 2002, when Dr. Mitchell said that Mr. Nashiri was being tortured.
Guantánamo Bay is one of the few places in the United States where torture is still a problem after the September 11, 2001, attacks. For years, torture has been a big part of the pre-trial phase of death penalty cases, and it’s likely to stay that way when hearings start up again in the summer.
Defense teams have asked military judges to keep certain evidence out of the war crimes trials of people accused of working for al-Qaeda because it was tainted by torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. In May, that meant going back to see what happened at the secret prison in Thailand almost 20 years ago.
Dr. Mitchell talked about how he and John Bruce Jessen, another C.I.A. contract psychologist, waterboarded Mr. Nashiri in late 2002. Mr. Nashiri is accused of planning the bombing of the Navy destroyer Cole in 2000. In the attack, seventeen American sailors died.
During three different sessions, Dr. Mitchell held a cloth over the man’s face and moved it to direct the water that Dr. Jessen poured.
Dr. Mitchell said that Mr. Nashiri was so small that they thought he might slip out of his Velcro restraints during some of the waterboarding. Interrogators turned Mr. Nashiri 90 degrees, from lying on his back to standing up, so he could breathe between pours. He was still strapped to a gurney.
The interrogation team switched to other “coercive techniques,” like putting the prisoner in a small box for a while. Dr. Mitchell said that he had a “general memory” of what happened. He said that the naked and sometimes hooded detainee was probably hit and had the back of his head slammed into a burlap-covered wall. However, he said that he did not remember “blow by blow” what happened.
Before, it was known that Ms. Haspel had taken over as chief of base at the secret prison in Thailand by the time Mr. Nashiri was waterboarded in late 2002. It has also been said that she wrote cables about what happened to Mr. Nashiri and what was learned during his interrogations and debriefings.
But Dr. Mitchell’s words said more. He said that the base chief watched the meetings but did not take part in them.
The law firm where Ms. Haspel works, King & Spalding L.L.P., didn’t want to say anything and sent questions to the CIA, which also didn’t want to say anything.
The person’s name was never used by Dr. Mitchell. Instead, because she was working in a secret role at the time, he had to call the chief of base “Z9A,” or “Zulu Nine Alpha,” as one lawyer put it.
The codes are part of the routine of the hearings at Guantánamo Bay, where the court has a mute button to prevent the accidental release of classified information and prosecutors work with the CIA to keep official secrets out of the public record.
Working with members of the intelligence community, prosecutors in death penalty cases gave alphanumeric codes to most CIA employees who worked at “black sites.” Numbers are used to talk about the countries where the CIA had prisons. For Dr. Mitchell’s hearing, prosecutors gave him a secret list of names and alphanumerics. This list was like a key, and lawyers called it a “crosswalk” in court.
For example, Dr. Mitchell called the agency’s top interrogator, who died soon after overseeing some of Mr. Nashiri’s most harsh interrogations, “NX2” in 2002.
Even though Ms. Haspel’s job as chief of base at the black site in Thailand is well known, it is still a state secret.
Col. Lanny J. Acosta Jr. agreed to let Dr. Mitchell testify because the C.I.A. had destroyed videotapes that defense lawyers say showed the psychologists torturing and interrogating Mr. Nashiri and another prisoner at the black site in Thailand. Lawyers for the defense said that took away evidence they could have used, like something they might have wanted to show a military jury that was deciding whether or not to give the death penalty.
The Senate Intelligence Committee decided to look into the black site program after it was found out that the C.I.A. had destroyed the tapes. Most of the tapes showed Abu Zubaydah, who was the first person the C.I.A. took into custody after the Sept. 11 attacks and was known to have been tortured by the C.I.A.
As the chief of staff to the operations chief, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., Ms. Haspel has admitted that she helped destroy those tapes. “I also want to make it clear that I am not on the tapes,” she said at her confirmation hearing.
Observers at the site in Thailand could watch waterboarding and other interrogations in a separate room through a closed-circuit video feed. At one point, the CIA sent some employees to the black site to watch Abu Zubaydah get waterboarded. Dr. Mitchell said that Ms. Haspel was not one of them, though.
The Senate Intelligence Committee study of the C.I.A. program, of which only part is public, said that interrogators wanted to stop using “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Mr. Nashiri because he was answering direct questions, but they were told not to by headquarters.
Later, when Dr. Mitchell took Mr. Nashiri to a different C.I.A. black site, he would also be tortured. Another interrogator ran a drill next to the hooded head of the naked detainee, presumably to get him to talk about Qaeda plans. In 2004, the C.I.A. put a dietary supplement into his rectum because he wouldn’t eat at another black site. The procedure has been called “rape” by his Navy lawyer.
At her confirmation hearing, Ms. Haspel promised that she would not set up any interrogation programs like the ones she had seen.