The Central Intelligence Agency took the unusual step Friday of declassifying and releasing a memo clearing Gina Haspel of any wrongdoing in drafting an order to destroy videotaped evidence of brutal interrogation techniques, a move that comes as part of a greater campaign to rehabilitate her image and shore up congressional support for her bid to become the agency’s director.
The memo, which former CIA deputy director Michael Morell wrote in 2011, is the result of a disciplinary review in which he “found no fault with the performance of Ms. Haspel” — primarily because she drafted the cable “on the direct orders” of her superior and did not release it herself.
“It was not her decision to destroy the tapes,” Morell wrote in the declassified document, which the CIA released Friday in response to requests from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But senators clamoring for the CIA to declassify documents related to Haspel’s record on techniques often referred to as torture and the order to destroy evidence were angered by what they saw as a “selective” response to their demands.
“It’s completely unacceptable for the CIA to declassify only material that’s favorable to Gina Haspel, while at the same time stonewalling our efforts to declassify all documents related her involvement in the torture program,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement, responding to the release of the redacted memorandum. “The CIA has not been forthcoming . . . senators and the public need to know more about her record.”
Widespread concern about Haspel’s role in the CIA’s interrogation program has caused senators from both parties to question her record and her fitness to serve as the agency’s director. With Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) already formally committed to opposing her nomination and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) — who has grilled Haspel for answers about her record — away from Washington receiving treatment for brain cancer, Haspel must secure the support of at least one Senate Democrat to clinch the nomination. So far, none have stepped forward.
Haspel faces a confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 9 — and her performance during that grilling may be critical to determining whether she can be confirmed. The release of the memo is part of a broader public relations campaign that has begun in advance of that hearing — and that has made some CIA veterans uncomfortable.
One former official said the timing reveals the extent to which the CIA — notorious for withholding records from the public — can operate when it serves the agency’s political interests.
“The timing of its release devalues this document,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. “Since it’s coming out now it . . . looks like its being released in a self-interested effort to help one of their own ascend to the directorship.”
The memo states that Haspel “acted appropriately” in following instructions to draft the memo, Morell found, noting that even if “there is no ‘good soldier’ defense” at the CIA, the Justice Department had investigated the cable and decided not to file charges.
That defense is unlikely to fully satisfy senators questioning not only Haspel’s record, but whether she personally supported the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and the destruction of the videotapes. Several accounts have stated she did.
“Unfortunately, the Morell report is highly incomplete, raising far more questions about Ms. Haspel than it answers,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement, adding: “My concerns about Ms. Haspel are far broader than this episode or anything else that has appeared in the press.”
The Morell memo does not weigh in on questions about Haspel’s involvement in the use of brutal interrogation methods at a black-site facility she supervised in Thailand. The memo does suggest, however, that there was general CIA support for the destruction of the tapes at the time Haspel drafted the 2005 memo, as officials were still heavily influenced by the experience of fallout from the 2004 scandal involving the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Morell’s review found that Haspel’s superior at the CIA who ordered her to draft the cable, then-director of the National Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez, was worried the tapes would leak or be released, endangering the agents depicted on them and potentially damaging the CIA’s reputation and “significantly degrading our operations capabilities.”
Rodriguez was issued a letter of reprimand for his actions, because, as Morell wrote, he issued the cable ordering the destruction of the tapes without the direct approval of his superior, then-Director Porter Goss. He received no further punishment, because Morell determined Rodriguez did what he perceived to be in the interest of CIA agents and believed his actions were legal.
Greg Miller contributed to this report.