ProPublica has issued a major correction to an investigation by reporter Raymond Bonner from February 2017, which said that CIA Director-designate Gina Haspel oversaw the torture of prisoner Abu Zubaydah in a CIA black site in Thailand.
The correction issued on Thursday night by ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg says that Haspel was not, in fact, in charge of the Thailand base at the time of Zubaydah’s waterboarding, nor did she mock Zubaydah’s suffering. Engelberg’s note chalked it up to “awkward communications” between reporters and officials around classified information:
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 CIA’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 CIA’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.
“It is important to note that she has spent nearly her entire CIA career undercover,” Dean Boyd, the director of the CIA’s office of public affairs, said in a statement to ProPublica. “Much 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.”
While the correction takes responsibility for a monumental mistake, Engelberg’s note does stress that Bonner was accurate in reporting that Haspel played a major role in covering up Zubaydah’s torture. Engelberg also reiterates that Haspel was in charge of the detention center in Thailand when another prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded:
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 Zubaydah’s waterboarding. Her direct boss, the head of the agency’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.
Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian whose real name is Zayn al Abidin Muhammad, was captured in a raid of a Faisalabad, Pakistan, house on March 28, 2002, suffering severe bullet wounds. The interrogation techniques used on him included stress positions, sleep deprivation, insects placed in a confinement box, and waterboarding, among others.
Most notably perhaps, he was waterboarded 83 times.
“He spent a total of 266 hours (11 days, 2 hours) in the large (coffin size) confinement box and 29 hours in a small confinement box, which had a width of 21 inches, a depth of 2.5 feet, and a height of 2.5 feet,” according to the Senate torture report. “The CIA interrogators told Abu Zubaydah that the only way he would leave the facility was in the coffin-shaped confinement box.”
To this day, Zubaydah has never been charged by U.S. authorities.
President Donald Trump nominated Haspel to lead the CIA earlier this week after firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and nominating current CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his replacement. Haspel’s nomination, which needs 50 Senate votes to pass in a chamber where Republicans currently hold a one-vote majority, is already in jeopardy: yesterday, libertarian-leaning Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky announced his opposition to both nominations, and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona called the United State’s practice of torturing detainees after 9/11 “one of the darkest chapters in American history.”
“Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process,” McCain said. “I know the Senate will do its job in examining Ms. Haspel’s record as well as her beliefs about torture and her approach to current law.”