In late March of 2002, Gina Haspel had very little time to prepare for the torture to come. Haspel ran the "Cat's Eye," a secret CIA jail located near Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand. It was very warm, 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit), with the kind of humidity that makes your clothes stick to you, but inside the black site, also known as "Detention Site Green," the air conditioning had been cranked up to make it extremely cold. The cells had Spartan furnishings: a plank bed, four halogen lights, four meters by four meters (13 feet by 13 feet) of confinement with no windows.
America's Central Intelligence Agency planned to use this site to test, for the first time, the new "enhanced interrogation" techniques President George W. Bush had approved six months earlier. Al-Qaida fighters' will was to be broken through waterboarding, sleep deprivation or humiliation through forced nudity until they could be turned into valuable sources in the "war on terror," which had been declared by the U.S. after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. Haspel, a 45-year-old intelligence agent, was to carry out the first torture sessions in Thailand.
Fifteen years later, in 2017, President Donald Trump would appoint Haspel as the CIA's deputy director.
Torture, Solitary Confinement and More Torture: Abu Zubaydah Said Nothing – Was It Because He Knew Nothing?
This week, human rights lawyers at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin submitted a filing about former agent Haspel to supplement a December 2014 criminal complaint over the CIA's extraordinary renditions and torture program it lodged with the Federal Public Prosecutor in Karlsruhe. The new information could create additional pressure for the Karlsruhe-based office to act. Thus far, the Federal Public Prosecutor has rejected calls to file any charges against Americans responsible for the torture – be it then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld for incidents inside Abu Ghraib, former CIA head George Tenet or the intelligence agents at the National Security Agency (NSA) who eavesdropped on the German chancellor's mobile phone. When it comes to relations with the United States, Germany seems to have a habit of looking the other way. That also extends to the Federal Public Prosecutor.
But the qualities of this case suggest it could be different. For the first time, a criminal complaint has been filed against a torturer who is still with the CIA. In another first, the person in question is directly tied to the current U.S. administration.
Haspel will now be a public face of the intelligence agency and, as such, her job will entail frequent travel. "This is our opportunity," says Wolfgang Kaleck, ECCHR's general secretary. "Given the burden of proof offered by the intelligence and named witnesses of the U.S. torture program, the Federal Public Prosecutor must either open an investigation or issue a warrant for her arrest if she travels to Germany."
Until only a few weeks ago, the appointee for the CIA's No. 2 job hadn't even been announced. Haspel had been responsible for clandestine operations at the CIA for decades. She served as CIA station chief in London and later in New York, then becoming deputy director of the National Clandestine Service for Foreign Intelligence and Covert Action and ultimately head of all the agency's clandestine operations around the world. Now people know her name, but not much else – Haspel is such a shadowy figure that you can't even find public photos of her.
One of her torture victims was Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, better known as "Abu Zubaydah." His hell began on a Thursday in March 2002, when heavily armed men stormed a house in Faisalabad, a textile-industry center in northern Pakistan. During the raid, American and Pakistani intelligence agents shot the suspected high-ranking terrorist, who was 31 at the time, in the testicles, the thigh and the stomach. The case was one of the focuses of the U.S. Senate's 2014 report on CIA torture practices. The Central Intelligence Agency had reportedly paid a $10 million bounty for information leading to his whereabouts.
At least two people are known to have died as a result of the abuses
From time to time, ECCHR has tried to use the methods of criminal law to shed light on the human rights violations caused by the CIA's clandestine kidnapping and torture system. Three years ago, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence confirmed that the CIA had carried out systematic torture. "The publication of Gina C. Haspel's name and previous roles has given rise to a very strong basis for suspicion," states ECCHR's criminal complaint - that is exclusive to the german weekly DIE ZEIT.
From 2001 to 2009, the CIA forcibly kidnapped more than 130 men – mostly in the Middle East, in Africa and Asia, but also in Macedonia, Italy and Sweden. They were taken in secret planes to so-called black sites, clandestine jails, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Thailand, where they were detained for interrogation and torture in violation of international law and hidden from view from the international community. At least two people are known to have died as a result of the abuses.
"There was blood everywhere," CIA agent John Kiriakou would later state. "It was all over the bed. It pooled under the bed." Kiriakou had been involved in the arrest of Abu Zubaydah, who came into the CIA's sights because he had operated a training center for Islamist underground fighters in Afghanistan and, as an alleged al-Qaida military chief, had purportedly established an Islamist terrorist network in the Middle East.
The CIA believed Abu Zubaydah had been "al-Qaida's lieutenant," and that he had close ties with Osama bin Laden and, as such, must have been in possession of direct knowledge about future attacks on the U.S. The CIA then kidnapped him, flew him to Thailand and took the extra step of bringing in a specially trained interrogation team to break his resistance.
Haspel created the appropriate environment for it: a white room with constant lighting in which loud rock music was to be played all day. Abu Zubayadah was to be kept from sleeping. His guards wore black uniforms and balaclavas and communicated with each other using hand signals – part of a sensory-deprivation strategy that aimed to isolate him socially. He had to sit naked in the cold cell and his handcuffs were fastened to his leg shackles.
But none of these methods produced any results for the CIA: Abu Zubayadah maintained his silence. He was then placed in solitary confinement for 47 days.
Only one person could have put a stop to this treatment of the prominent prisoner: Gina Haspel. But she didn't. A cable sent back to headquarters by a CIA agent after 10 weeks of torture shows she had been well-aware of Abu Zubayadah's poor state of health. "In the event [Abu Zubaydah] dies, we need to be prepared," it stated. The full version of the memo quoted in the U.S. Senate's torture report reveals, at least between the lines, that the people humiliating him had bad consciences. They all seemed to be aware of the fact that they had already gone far beyond the legal limits. The cable ends with the words: "We need to get reasonable assurances that [Abu Zubaydah] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life." He is still being detained in Guantánamo today.
His ordeal continued after his weeks in solitary confinement. Because the alleged al-Qaida insider hadn't yet come clean about backers and attack plans, President Bush granted permission for the CIA to use even more extreme measures. The prisoner would now be the guinea pig for 10 new "enhanced interrogation methods."
That meant additional torture methods. These included "walling," which entailed slamming a person against the wall, locking a person in cramped boxes, facial slaps, the use of diapers and the use of insects and sleep deprivation. But they also introduced waterboarding, in which drowning is simulated by tying the victim to a board, elevating their feet and constantly pouring water onto cellophane wrap covering the face.
At Haspel's torture prison in Thailand, Abu Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding 83 times in the span of one month. Haspel herself was present when her prisoner vomited, passed out and urinated on himself from stress and fear. She then mocked Zubaydah and accused him of feigning the breakdown. The torture continued.
Even that failed to deliver any new insights. Is it possible that Abu Zubaydah didn't have anything to reveal? The U.S. Senate's Select Intelligence Committee would later determine that, even after the use of the "enhanced interrogation methods," the quality and quantity of intelligence produced by Abu Zubaydah remained "largely unchanged" and that they had not produced the "meaningful results" that the CIA still claims today.
Donald Trump nominated her to the No. 2 position at the CIA
Months later, Abu Zubaydah and another prisoner from Cat's Eye were taken to a secret jail in a forest in the Masuria region of Poland, and later to Guantánamo. Abu Zubaydah lost his left eye in detention. This, however, doesn't seem to have done anything to hurt Gina Haspel's career: She was appointed as chief of staff to the head of the directorate of operations at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center in Langley – and took care in this new role to ensure that incriminating evidence of the torture disappeared. She ordered the destruction of all 92 videotapes showing the torture of prisoners at Cat's Eye.
Years later, the U.S. government was forced to admit that it had wrongly tortured Abu Zubaydah. In 2009, the Justice Department dropped most of the charges against the alleged high-ranking terrorist. In a 109-page filing that the U.S. government had to submit to the United States District Court in Washington, D.C., it admitted that Abu Zubaydah did not have "any personal involvement in planning or executing … the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001" and that he had never been a member of al-Qaida. An investigation was conducted into Haspel for the illegal destruction of video evidence, but she was never the subject of any legal proceedings.
When Barack Obama was elected president, he ended the extraordinary renditions and torture program, which had also become highly controversial in the U.S. Still, even to this day, not a single CIA employee who had been involved has been convicted of his or her crimes.
The Code of Crimes Against International Law has been on the books in Germany since 2002. It stipulates that public prosecutors in Germany can pursue violations of international law, regardless where or when they have been committed, in what is known as universal jurisdiction. It means that the German legal system can be active anywhere when it comes to offenses like genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – even if those crimes have been committed outside the country and against people who are not German citizens.
CIA Head Pompeo Says Waterboarding Not Torture – It's a Patriotic Act
This legal avenue based on the universal jurisdiction law is generally used by nongovernmental organizations. Ten years ago, Wolfgang Kaleck, who is now the general secretary of ECCHR, submitted the first criminal complaint about torture at U.S. sites to the German Federal Public Prosecutor, against Donald Rumsfeld. It alleged that the "enhanced interrogation methods" used by the CIA and the military, since they are torture, also amounted to a war crime.
Three years ago, the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office announced it was reviewing the issue. With its new supplementary criminal complaint, ECCHR wants to see the German authorities open an investigation and, among other things, interview the three witnesses of the U.S. torture program currently living in Germany, including two Iraqi citizens and Murat Kurnaz of Bremen. The latter, a prominent Guantánamo victim from Germany, has never been questioned by law enforcement agencies here about his full knowledge of the U.S. torture program.
The human rights lawyers would also like to see their criminal complaint force Germany's top prosecutor to address the complex issue and its legal implications. If Gina Haspel or other suspects were to travel to Germany in the future, the Federal Public Prosecutor could issue an arrest warrant.
CIA officials have been convicted in absentia twice. A few years ago, an Italian court imposed prison sentences on 23 U.S. agents for their involvement in the kidnapping of a suspected terrorist in Milan. And in 2007, the district court in Munich issued arrest warrants for 10 members of a renditions team. The agents are alleged to have kidnapped German citizen Khaled el-Masri and to have taken him to Afghanistan, where he was held in a secret prison. These intelligence officials are now on wanted lists in over 180 countries around the world. International travel is no longer a possibility for them.
That's precisely the deterrent effect ECCHR is hoping to achieve with its complaint against Haspel. Even if there is little hope that legal proceedings would ever be initiated in Germany, an international arrest warrant would at least send a message to all other CIA officials: If they participate in crimes that violate international law, they will no longer be able to travel to Europe.
In the U.S., however, Gina Haspels experience and moral flexibility might have helped her climb professionally. "She is very popular. She is an excellent officer and a very good administrator," one former senior CIA official told the Washington Post back in 2013. And one Washington insider told ZEIT that her ascent is attributed to her good reputation as a senior official.
In early February, Donald Trump nominated her to the No. 2 position at the CIA. During the election campaign, Trump said he believed torture to be effective. Mike Pompeo, his new CIA chief, also recently claimed the waterboarding isn't torture. Speaking of the people who used the method during the war against terror, he said, "These men and women are not torturers, they are patriots."
Translated by Daryl Lindsey