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Opinion The Daily Beast refuses to budge on its Gina Haspel story

The Washington Post’s Shane Harris lists questions that Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee for CIA director, may have to answer at her confirmation hearing. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

When Gina Haspel appears on Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee in her confirmation hearing for CIA director, she’ll likely field a question or two about her time overseeing a “black site” prison in Thailand in 2002. The folks at the Daily Beast will be paying very close attention.

That’s because the Daily Beast has defied the CIA on a critical point regarding Haspel’s record at the agency. The controversy relates to what role Haspel may have played in the interrogation of al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in 2002 and subsequently waterboarded 83 times at the Thailand black site. “The Daily Beast’s reporting, and its continued understanding, is that Haspel was in a position of responsibility over the black site during the Abu Zubaydah interrogation, though she was not physically present,” wrote the Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman on March 16.

Contrast that contention with the towering and attention-grabbing correction that ProPublica published on March 15: “Correction: Trump’s Pick to Head CIA Did Not Oversee Waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah,” read the headline on the piece. “It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended,” noted ProPublica.

On March 13, Adam Goldman of the New York Times laid out a timetable of the Thailand events:

  • Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the CIA began scouring the globe for those responsible for the carnage;
  • With cooperation from the Pakistanis, agency operatives nabbed Zubaydah and transferred him to the clandestine Thai site. He was tortured.
  • Haspel arrived at the site in “late October 2002, after the harsh interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah, a former senior C.I.A. official said.” She was present for the waterboarding of al Qaeda suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. And in her May 9 confirmation hearing, she pledged that under her leadership, the CIA would not return to “such a detention and interrogation program.” Asked about the al-Nashiri case, Haspel said she could address the matter in a classified setting.*

However: In an April 18 piece, the Daily Beast’s Ackerman used the public record — a book titled “Company Man” by John Rizzo — and simple reporting to make this claim about Haspel’s history: “But in his 2014 book, John Rizzo, a longtime senior CIA lawyer, indicated that Haspel was responsible for the incommunicado detention and torture not of two men, but of dozens, potentially. Former intelligence officials interviewed by The Daily Beast have portrayed Haspel’s experience similarly.” The story cites Rizzo’s references to Haspel’s role in the destruction of videotapes of interrogations; she wrote a cable calling for the destruction.

Before he cited Rizzo’s book, Ackerman emailed the author with a standard request. “Do you reaffirm that Haspel ‘ran the interrogation program’?” asked Ackerman, in part. “Since your book’s publication in 2014, has CIA ever asked you to correct that passage? I’ve gotten some indication they now believe it’s incorrect.”

Rizzo responded, “All I can say is that I stand by everything I wrote in my book about the tapes episode, and no one from the Agency has asked me to correct anything I wrote.”

That was on April 18. Two days later, Rizzo emailed Ackerman with this thought: “After reading your story, and upon further reflection, I want to make clear that I never intended to suggest in my book that Gina Haspell was in charge of CIA’s interrogation program. She was not. I have nothing further to say on this subject other than to stress that I fully support her nomination to be CIA Director.”

In a subsequent email to Daily Beast Executive Editor Noah Shachtman, Rizzo declared, in part, “after reading Spencer’s piece, and with 20/20 hindsight about that single sentence I wrote in a 330 page manuscript 5 years ago, ‎I concluded that I should have worded it a bit differently so as to not give the reader the impression that Gina was in charge of the interrogation program. As I told you yesterday, she did not.” The Washington Examiner dinged the Daily Beast for participating in a “parade of falsehoods” regarding Haspel.

What happened here? When the Erik Wemple Blog asked Rizzo for an interview, he responded, “I assume you’re referencing the exhange I had with the Daily Beast the past few days. As I told the Beast boys, that’s my last word on the subject, at least for the time being.” Ryan Trapani, a spokesman for the CIA, issued a statement about the book flap. “The Deputy Director’s nomination brought renewed media attention to this specific passage of the book,” noted Trapani. “When we were queried about it by the Daily Beast, a CIA Spokesperson provided a direct, on-the-record statement to Spencer Ackerman that said: ‘Much of the public narrative about Deputy Director Haspel’s career is inaccurate, including this specific claim.’ ” The Daily Beast duly published that bit of pushback.

The CIA is lifting its public profile with its overt campaign to secure Haspel’s confirmation. As Goldman and Matthew Rosenberg reported in the New York Times, agency officials are releasing selective biographical details about Haspel as well as highlighting favorable stories in the media. “If it appears C.I.A. is being more robust than normal in supporting this nomination, that’s because we are,” Trapani told the  Times. In one key step, the CIA released a 2011 memo by then-CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell stating that Haspel was acting on the orders of her boss, Jose Rodriguez, when she wrote the cable on the destruction of the tapes.

Part of the job entails challenging claims about Haspel that have hung around in archives. In the case of ProPublica, for example, it corrected a claim from Feb. 22, 2017, after President Trump had named Haspel CIA deputy director. ProPublica told the Erik Wemple Blog that it received no challenge to the story until it began reporting a follow-up in March 2018. The New York Times also corrected a February 2017 report over the same issue.

Asked about why such claims are suddenly under fire, Trapani provided a detailed response:

Over the years there have been millions of words generated about CIA’s actions in the post-9/11 era. It was impossible to fact-check all of them, and due to classification restrictions, many of them could not be fact-checked. With Deputy Director Haspel’s nomination, reporters and others are now scouring past accounts, which in turn has put those accounts under closer scrutiny. Many of those stories do not survive the closer examination. Many of the sources used for the initial reporting are now seen as less reliable. In addition, now that the Deputy Director’s affiliation with CIA is declassified we are better positioned to push back on incorrect stories.
As a result of nomination and `other factors, some outlets are re-examining their past reporting in light of new facts that have come out. Some like ProPublica have been forthright and open about the corrections they are making and made those corrections on their own initiative. Other outlets are quietly making corrections with or without public notification that the original version has changed. Other reporters have declined to correct their past reporting unless CIA affirmatively stated every single detail that was wrong, something that CIA still may not be able to do for classification reasons.
We generally do our best to alert a reporter to factual inaccuracies, if we can do so in an unclassified manner. We cannot force them to correct anything; ultimately it is the journalistic integrity of individual reporters and editors that will determine whether a correction is necessary.

Pressed on the situation with the Daily Beast, Trapani pointed us to the last paragraph above.

Shachtman characterizes as Rizzo’s turnabout as “head-snapping.” He says, “You wouldn’t expect a former senior government official to say one day, ‘I stand by what I wrote,’ and then two days later say, ‘Ah, never mind, I don’t stand by what I wrote.’ ” Only after the site noted Rizzo’s recollections did the author have a “sudden revelation” about the material, continues Shachtman, and “I’m not going to change our story.”

He will, however, propose a solution: Release more stuff on Haspel. “Just put her service record out in the open,” says Shachtman. “The CIA, if it wanted to, could clear this all up tomorrow, but instead, they’re dripping out these little nuggets one by one.”

Read more from Erik Wemple:

CNN fights to keep internal editorial guidelines under wraps. Why?

Sarah Huckabee Sanders: ‘We give the very best information possible at the time.’ That’s the problem.

In the midst of propaganda, Sean Hannity finds news

*Updated to include Haspel’s comments at her confirmation hearing and the waterboarding of al-Nashiri.