Internal review cleared Trump’s CIA pick in videotape destruction

US President Donald Trump speaks at a press conference in Palm Beach, Florida, US. (Reuters pic)

WASHINGTON: A internal CIA review in 2011 cleared US President Donald Trump’s choice to head the agency, Gina Haspel, of wrongdoing in the destruction of videotapes depicting the harsh interrogation of an al Qaeda suspect, according to a memorandum that the CIA declassified and released on Friday.

The spy agency released the memo in response to demands by US lawmakers for more details on Haspel’s career and as part of its effort to bolster her nomination. Haspel’s bid to be the first woman CIA director faces scrutiny on Capitol Hill due to her involvement in a discontinued interrogation program that many regarded as using torture.

“I have found no fault with the performance of Ms Haspel,” Michael Morell, then the CIA’s deputy director, wrote in the December 2011 memo.

“I have concluded that she acted appropriately in her role” as chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, the head of CIA spy operations, Morell wrote.

At issue was a decision Rodriguez has said he made in November 2005 to destroy videotapes showing the waterboarding of CIA detainee Abu Zubaydeh who US officials believed at the time – incorrectly – was a top-level al Qaeda operative.

Waterboarding is a form of simulated drowning. Zubaydeh’s role in al Qaeda was later found to have been overstated.

CIA officials have long said that Haspel drafted a cable from Rodriguez ordering agency officers in the field to destroy the tapes, and that she believed Rodriguez was going to clear it first with the agency’s director at the time, Porter Goss.

At the time the cable was sent, Haspel worked in CIA headquarters outside Washington, D.C. Published accounts have said she was chief in 2002 of a base in Thailand where detainees were interrogated but arrived there after Zubaydah’s waterboarding.

The memo appears to support the CIA version of events.

Haspel “drafted the cable on the direct orders of Mr Rodriguez; she did not release that cable. It was not her decision to destroy the tapes; it was Mr Rodriguez’s,” Morell wrote.

Rodriguez has said he ordered the tapes destroyed out of fear that, if leaked, they could put CIA officers at risk.

Haspel, who is now the agency’s No. 2 official, is due to appear at a May 9 hearing on her confirmation before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Haspel has the backing of the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Richard Burr, but several Democrats have expressed concern about the nomination.

“It’s completely unacceptable for the CIA to declassify only material that’s favourable to Gina Haspel, while at the same time stonewalling our efforts to declassify all documents related to her involvement in the torture program,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said in a statement.

“Senators and the public need to know more about her record.”

Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Senator Mark Warner, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said the release of the memo was “a good step, but it was only one step. Senator Warner will continue to press the CIA to declassify additional documents and material regarding Ms Haspel’s background.”