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A controversial intelligence officer who ran a secret US prison in Thailand would be the first female CIA chief

Business Insider | Mar 13, 2018, 08.23PM IST

Gina Haspel

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Gina Haspel.

  • President Donald Trump has appointed Gina Haspel as the new head of the CIA.
  • Haspel is set to become the first woman to ever lead the spy agency, where she is currently serving second-in-command under Director Mike Pompeo.
  • But Haspel, who has spent decades in US intelligence, has a controversial past.

Gina Haspel, a longtime intelligence officer who ran a secret US prison in Thailand, is poised to become the first woman to lead the CIA.

The move came on Tuesday when President Donald Trump announced he would replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with current CIA director Mike Pompeo, paving the way for Haspel, who was second-in-command at the agency, to take over.

"Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State," Trump said in a tweet. "He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!"

Trump named Haspel deputy director of the CIA in February 2017.

Haspel has spent more than three decades in US intelligence, most of it spent undercover at overseas posts.

But the 61-year-old is perhaps best known for her controversial role as the head of a secret CIA "black site" prison in Thailand, where clandestine American intelligence officers regularly tortured people suspected of being affiliated with al-Qaeda. An extensive report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence detailed what happened at the prison and who was involved.

The black site in Thailand was part of a global effort by the Bush administration to combat terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But the prison's use of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques", has been widely condemned by human rights groups and critics call it torture.

President Barack Obama dismantled the controversial interrogation program in 2009.

Years earlier, Haspel had served as one of the program's most prominent leaders.

Mike Pompeo waits to be sworn in as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Thomson Reuters

Former CIA Director Mike Pompeo praised Haspel's experience.

In 2002, Haspel oversaw systemic torture against suspected al-Qaeda members, including Abd al-Rahim al-Sashiri and Abu Zubaydah. Amid an ongoing Congressional investigation into the use of torture in CIA black sites overseas, including the one led by Haspel in Thailand, CIA officials destroyed evidence of videotapes of the questionable interrogations.

Jose Rodriguez, who was then head of the CIA's Clandestine Service, reportedly authorized the destruction of more than 90 tapes in 2005. But seven years later, in a memoir defending the use of torture, Rodriguez wrote that Haspel had drafted a cable ordering the tapes' destruction. Haspel was serving as Rodriguez's chief of staff at the time.

The tapes documented various torture techniques used by CIA officers against detainees, including Zubaydah, who was waterboarded dozens of times and subjected to intense physical and emotional abuse.

He was later determined to be unaffiliated with al-Qaeda, although he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2003, where he remains detained today.

After Haspel's appointment to deputy director of the CIA last year, Sens. Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich criticized the move, saying that "her background makes her unsuitable for the position."

Fellow career intelligence officers applauded her appointment to deputy director. Former director of national intelligence James Clapper said he was "very pleased" former CIA acting director Michael Morell "applaud[ed] the appointment", and Pompeo praised Haspel as "an exemplary intelligence officer and a devoted patriot."

One woman, Meroe Park, technically served as acting CIA director for three days before Pompeo took over in 2017, but Haspel would be the first director if the Senate confirms her appointment.

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