Washington D.C., August 10, 2018 – Current CIA director Gina Haspel described graphic acts of deliberate physical torture including the waterboarding of a suspected Al-Qa’ida terrorist under her supervision when she was chief of base at a CIA black site in Thailand in 2002, according to declassified CIA cables – most of which she wrote or authorized – obtained by the National Security Archive through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and posted on the Web today.
The Haspel cables detail conditions the public has only seen in the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs from Iraq of detainees hooded and shackled, forced nudity, wall slamming, and box confinement, as well as “enhanced techniques” never photographed such as the simulated drowning of suspects on the waterboard. Waterboarding is a war crime under both U.S. and international law, dating back to U.S. prosecution of Japanese soldiers for torturing U.S. POWs during World War II.
Although the CIA redacted Haspel’s name and those of the CIA contract psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen who administered the waterboard, other declassified documents (including the 2004 CIA Inspector General report) and public statements confirm their leadership of the torture of alleged terrorist Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri at the black site between November 15 and December 4, 2002.
“Release of Gina Haspel’s torture cables shows the power of the Freedom of Information Act to bring accountability even to the highest levels of the CIA,” said Archive director Tom Blanton, who first identified the Haspel cables from a footnote (336 on p. 67) in the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report declassified in 2014.
The Archive filed its FOIA request for the Haspel cables on April 16, 2018, after she was nominated by President Trump to be CIA director. Despite the clear public interest in the documents, the CIA denied the Archive’s request for expedited processing, and the Archive went to court on April 27. The U.S. Senate confirmed Haspel as CIA director on May 17 (by a vote of 54-45) on the basis of a record amassed almost exclusively in closed hearings, with no declassification or public release of information even remotely approaching that of previous CIA nominees.
David Sobel, FOIA expert and former Archive counsel, drafted and filed the initial Archive complaint in federal court; and the Archive’s pro bono counsel Peter Karanjia and Lisa Zycherman of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine took on the task of negotiating with the U.S. Attorney’s office over release of the documents.
In addition to the work of Sobel, Karanjia and Zycherman, Blanton credited two other lawsuits with paving the way for release of the Haspel cables. The civil lawsuit Salim v. Mitchell brought by the ACLU against the CIA contract psychologists who were the architects of the torture program forced the CIA to search and review as many as 24,000 documents from the massive database used by the Senate Intelligence Committee staff in the writing of their report. The FOIA lawsuit by freelance journalist Daniel DeFraia then compelled release of key documents, including five Haspel cables included in this posting, even after the August 2017 settlement in the Salim v. Mitchell case.
The released Haspel cables feature extensive redactions by the CIA, including their dates (although those can be ascertained from the declassified CIA Inspector General’s report, among other sources) and most of the information results from the torture (although those have been summarized by the Senate Intelligence Committee report and two of the Haspel cables even admit failure to produce actionable intelligence).
The biggest mystery in the released cables is whether Gina Haspel wrote Cable 11359, from December 1, 2002, which uses remarkably vivid language to describe the torture sessions: The interrogators “strode, catlike, into the well-lit confines of the cell at 0902 hrs [redacted], deftly removed the subject’s black hood with a swipe, paused, and in a deep, measured voice said that subject – having ‘calmed down’ after his (staged) run-in with his hulking, heavily muscled guards the previous day – should reveal what subject had done to vex his guards to the point of rage.”
Read the Documents
CIA, ALEC Station, "Subject: Eyes Only - Application of Enhanced Measures to 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri," circa November 11, 2002. Declassified 12/27/2017, CO6717868, as a result of civil litigation Salim v. Mitchell and FOIA litigation, DeFraia v. CIA.
This document authorized Gina Haspel, as chief of base at a CIA black site in Thailand, to torture the suspected terrorist al-Nashiri, who was in the process of rendition to that site. Although Haspel's name (or cover name) along with the cable date and time, cable number, and more are all redacted by CIA, other published sources fill in many of the gaps. "Senior government officials" quoted by ProPublica and The New York Times established that Haspel arrived at the black site as chief of base in "late October 2002." Open source flight records published by The Rendition Project show rendition flights for Nashiri from Dubai (where he had been arrested in October) to Afghanistan (the site known as COBALT, or the "Salt Pit") on November 10-11, 2002, and then on to Thailand (the site known as GREEN) in the November 13-16 time period. The declassified CIA Inspector General report on torture established that al-Nashiri arrived at the Thailand black site on November 15, 2002, and "immediately upon his arrival" began being tortured. The declassified deposition given by Jose Rodriguez (who was Haspel's boss at the time as head of CIA's Counterterrorism Center) in the Salim v. Mitchell case brought by the ACLU described CIA contract psychologist James Mitchell as the "HVTI psychologist" whose name is redacted here, who accompanied Nashiri on his rendition flight and performed the first assessment of him, as described in this document.  Key to the torture order was the "HQS [headquarters] assessment that... Nashiri... has access to perishable threat information that he will not willingly share...." Ultimately, after two months of torture, first in Thailand and then in Poland (the site known as BLUE), CIA interrogators concluded this was not the case. This document provides support to the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report conclusion that the useful intelligence from the CIA detainees came before any torture took place, from regular interrogation: Here the cable admits "we have so far uncovered Nashiri's plots to sink ships in the straits of Hormuz" - which Nashiri had admitted while in Dubai. This order helps explain how Mitchell kept selling his torture services to a credulous CIA - despite the Dubai evidence, Mitchell self-servingly tells headquarters that Nashiri is a "sophisticated resister" who would require Mitchell's torture techniques to give up useful information, and further was "no more at risk for severe or prolonged mental harm" from torture than "any other captive."
CIA Cable 11246, "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted, probably 15] November 2002 Debriefing of 'Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri," circa November 15, 2002. Declassified 7/31/2018, C06665557, as a result of FOIA litigation, National Security Archive v. CIA.
This cable is the first one of 12 listed in footnotes 336 and 337 on page 67 of the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report, declassified in 2014, as documenting Nashiri's detention and interrogation. The declassified CIA Inspector General report on torture set the likely date for this document as November 15, 2002, since that was Day One of Nashiri's detention at the Thailand black site commanded by Gina Haspel, and "aggressive" interrogation had started "immediately" on his arrival. As chief of base, Haspel was responsible for all communications with headquarters, including this cable back to CIA's ALEC Station describing the interrogation of Nashiri. CIA contract psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen led the torture session starting at 0415 hours by placing Nashiri against "the walling board," and telling him "they wanted to know who, what, when where and how ongoing operations would take place, and would stop at nothing to get it." When Nashiri began to describe the earlier Hormuz plots instead of current threat information he did not have, Mitchell and Jessen threw him to the floor and the "security team" ripped off his clothes, shaved his head "while subject moaned and wailed," and locked him in the confinement box at 0445 hours. According to former CIA lawyer John Rizzo, a prisoner could stand in this "large" box roughly the size of a coffin, while the "small" box reserved for shorter stays was only big enough to "curl up" in. The cable below established that Nashiri stayed in the confinement box for over 12 hours, until 1703.
CIA Cable 11258, "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of Second [redacted, probably 15] November 2002 Interrogation Session with 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri," circa November 15, 2002. Declassified 6/26/2018, C06665558, as the result of FOIA litigation, National Security Archive v. CIA.
Although the date and time on this cable are redacted, internal evidence such as the cable number and timing of interrogation sessions points to the Day One date of November 15. The cable reported the "base officers" "planning session" presided over by Gina Haspel, and the focus on "imminent Al-Qa'ida plots against U.S." Details included removing Nashiri from the "large box" at 1703 hours (he had been locked in at 0445, more than 12 hours earlier), adjusting his shackles, and removing his hood. Interrogators "walled" Nashiri (slamming him against the "walling" panel) when he started describing what they called "failed operations and old information," and then confined him in the "small" box for 30 minutes. When allowed to talk, Nashiri provided extensive detail of plans and names involved in the Hormuz and Dubai operations he had previously admitted to in his Dubai interrogations. Haspel's report to headquarters commented that Nashiri's admissions "were disjointed and appeared to conflict in certain places, but contained some information that may be actionable."
CIA Cable 11263, "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted] November 2002 Interrogations of 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri," circa November 16-17, 2002. Declassified 7/31/2018, C06665559, as the result of FOIA litigation, National Security Archive v. CIA.
Although the CIA censored the date of this cable, the cable number and internal evidence point to the second day (November 16) of Nashiri's torture at the black site commanded by Gina Haspel. As base commander, Haspel was responsible for this cable reporting on three separate interrogation sessions, featuring hooded confinement in the "large" box, multiple applications of "the walling technique," one use of the "small" box, and the first reference in these cables to "the water table" as a threat - the waterboarding that would later be applied to Nashiri three times. CIA censored the final six pages of this cable in full.
CIA Cable 11270, "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted] November 2002 Interrogation Session with 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri," circa November 17-18, 2002. Declassified 6/26/2018, C06665560, as the result of FOIA litigation, National Security Archive v. CIA.
This cable likely covered the third or fourth day (November 17-18) of Nashiri's interrogation at the Thailand black site commanded by Gina Haspel. CIA redacted most of the description of the two sessions on that day, one that started at 1013 local time, and the other - "following lunch and several strategy meetings between base personnel" - at 1555 local time. Before and after, Nashiri was hooded and confined to the "large" box; while during the sessions, he was "backed against the walling panel."
CIA Cable 11284, "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted] November 2002 First Interrogation Session with 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri [redacted]," circa November 19, 2002. Declassified 6/26/2018, C06665561, as the result of FOIA litigation, National Security Archive v. CIA.
Even though CIA redacted the date of this cable and other identifying information in the first and second paragraphs, the similarities between this cable and one released in February 2018 as a result of the ACLU's Salim v. Mitchell civil lawsuit, followed by the DeFraia v. CIA FOIA lawsuit, suggest that this cable covers the first torture session on Day Five of Nashiri's detention, that is, November 19, 2002. The deletion in the first paragraph, about the request to headquarters to "provide us with a copy [redacted] to facilitate future debriefings," was apparently released in February: "provide us with a copy of pocket litter found on subject, to facilitate future debriefings." The Day Five first session lasted over an hour, starting at 0950, when "subject was removed from the large box and was led, hooded, to the walling wall." The session included the "attention grab" technique and the "walling technique for emphasis," and an extended discussion of Nashiri's failed attempts to acquire small boats for attacks in the Strait of Hormuz - one of his recruits apparently diverted his wooden ship to the sheep trade between Somalia and Yemen. "Subject was locked in the large box at 1054 hours."
CIA Cable [redacted], "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted] November 2002 Second Interrogation Session with 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri," circa November 19, 2002. Declassified 2/28/2018, C06718443, as a result of civil litigation Salim v. Mitchell and FOIA litigation DeFraia v. CIA.
Although CIA redacted the cable number from this document, similarities with Cable 11284 above and 11294 below and the substance of the discussion place this cable in the same sequence, and associate the cables that do have numbers with the "Day Five" attribution that was released here. Also released here but redacted from 11284 is the request for the subject's pocket litter. But the numbered cables include much more detail on the interrogation process; while here, after "subject was removed from the large box and moved to the walling wall," and asked about the timeline after the late March 2002 cancellation of the Hormuz operation, almost all of the text is redacted.
CIA Cable 11293, "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted] November 2002 Interrogation Session with 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri - Part III," circa November 19, 2002. Declassified 7/31/2018, C06665563, as a result of FOIA litigation, National Security Archive v. CIA.
There is some contradiction between this cable and the next in number sequence. This one reported the "final afternoon session" started at 1345 while 11294 says the "third session lasted from 1545 hours to 1700 hours." The cables may be talking about two different "third" sessions, or perhaps an afternoon session that started with an unusual outside questioner and then moved back to the regular interrogators. Here, the person asking questions was not Mitchell or Jessen, the HVTI psychologists who were the usual interrogators, but someone outside the core torture group, perhaps sent from headquarters to pose questions about the "ref requirements." Notably, the questioner was repeatedly "asked to leave the room" while the interrogators apply the "attention grab" and walling "on several occasions."
CIA Cable 11294, "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted] November 2002 Third Interrogation Session with 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri," circa November 19, 2002. Declassified 6/26/2018, C06665562, as a result of FOIA litigation, National Security Archive v. CIA.
The cable number sequence connects this cable to 11293 and 11284 above, and the Day Five torture sessions with Nashiri. Questions apparently focused on Nashiri's associates in Yemen, and the interrogators employed on multiple occasions the "attention grab" and the "walling technique." Most of the text is redacted. At the end, "subject was also warned to drink more of his water, and was then locked in his box at 1700 hours."
CIA Cable [redacted], "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted, likely 21] November 2002 Interrogation Session with 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri," circa November 21, 2002, 1415Z. Declassified 2/28/2018, C06718444, as a result of civil litigation Salim v. Mitchell and FOIA litigation DeFraia v. CIA.
While CIA redacted the cable number and date (while leaving in the Zulu time when the cable was sent), CIA released the reference in the first line of paragraph two to "Day Seven" of Nashiri's detention, which would make this date November 21. This cable included an unusual "Base Comment" probably written by Haspel, the base chief, on the difficulties of translation, both of questions and answers, during interrogation. Haspel wrote, "For much of the first hour, most of subject's responses came piecemeal, and in response to direct questions. Subject appeared confused at times, and [redacted] later observed that many of subject's Arabic sentences had been disjointed and may have reflected subject's misunderstanding of questions. After a subsequent mid-interrogation meeting identified this problem, subject's responses appeared more coherent." Details in this cable included references to "the chain connecting his leg shackles to his handcuffs," Nashiri's forced nudity replaced by a "towel to wear," the forcible shaving of his head and beard "while subject cried and grimaced theatrically," after which he "was led back into his large box."
CIA Cable [redacted], "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted, likely 22] November 2002 Interrogation Session with 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri," circa November 22, 2002, 0902Z. Declassified 2/28/2018, C06718445, as a result of civil litigation Salim v. Mitchell and FOIA litigation DeFraia v. CIA.
While CIA redacted the cable number and date (while leaving in the Zulu time when the cable was sent), CIA released the reference in the first line of paragraph two to "Day Eight" of Nashiri's detention, which would make this date November 22 (a CIA typo renders the year 2001, actually 2002). Most of the substance in this report was redacted, but two sections detailed Mitchell and Jessen's torture techniques. At the beginning, one [redacted name] interrogator "snarled" at Nashiri, "You are our prisoner, we are your keepers, and it doesn't get much lower than that," while using "the walling technique" and saying "in fact I'd like to do it just based on general principles." Later, interrogators explained to Nashiri that "until it became clear that subject's information was false, he would be given solid food and allowed to sleep on the floor of his cell with a mat and a towel to cover himself" - meaning the usual routine had been liquid food, nudity, and the confinement box. "Security team also removed the small box from his cell, leaving it on the other side of the bars."
CIA Cable 11322, "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted] November 2002 First Interrogation Session with 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri," circa November 26, 2002. Declassified 7/31/2018, C06665564, as a result of FOIA litigation, National Security Archive v. CIA.
CIA redacted the date of this cable, but the declassified CIA Inspector General report described the waterboarding of Nashiri as beginning on the 12th day of his detention, which would make the date November 26, 2002. This cable from the Thailand black site commanded by Gina Haspel back to CIA ALEC Station reported, "Interrogation escalated rapidly from subject being aggressively debriefed by interrogators while standing at the walling wall, to multiple applications of the walling technique, and ultimately, multiple applications of the watering technique." At one point, Nashiri "was left strapped to the waterboard to contemplate his fate" for 20 minutes; afterwards, Mitchell and Jessen told him "no matter what subject thought might happen to him, interrogators were not going to let subject come to grave harm; indeed, they were going to ensure that he would be able to answer the questions they would pose to him again and again." "The water treatment was applied at 1214 hours," after which "Interrogators covered subject's head with the hood and left him on the water board, moaning, shaking and asking God to help him repeatedly...." Mitchell and Jessen applied another "water treatment" at 1340 hours (likely a typo for 1240) saying "they wanted to know of operations against the U.S. Subject was not being honest with them, and they were willing to continue to give subject the same treatment, day in and day out, for months if need be, until subject decided to cooperate." But "Subject again said that there were no operations, they weren't talking operations, and begged interrogators to tell him more so that he would be able to remember what they wanted." The cable included some confusing reports on timing: paragraph 12 gave 1340 as the time for the second waterboarding, while paragraph 13 listed 1252 as the time when Nashiri was locked, naked, in the small box, and the second paragraph reported the whole torture session as lasting from 1107 to 1252, so 1240 was likely the actual time of the waterboarding.
CIA Cable 11344, "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted] November 2002 Second Interrogation Session with 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri," circa November 26, 2002. Declassified 6/26/2018, C06665568, as a result of FOIA litigation, National Security Archive v. CIA.
Again CIA redacted the date of this cable, but the text describes the precise timing of two torture sessions that were also mentioned in Cable 11322 above, which is likely the "Ref A" cable that is deleted here. The declassified CIA Inspector General report established that the waterboarding of Nashiri began on Day 12 of his detention, which would make this date November 26, 2002. This second torture session lasted from 1655 to 1850, and included one "water board treatment" after "interrogators told subject he was not being helpful, that he was taking their words and spitting them back, and that subject was leaving them with no choice in the matter. Interrogators advised that they could not believe subject when all he was telling them were lies; interrogators were going to get the truth out of subject eventually. Over subject's protests, the water technique was applied. Interrogators told subject they were going to do this again, and again, and again until subject decided to be truthful; subject mumbled something unintelligible."
CIA Cable 11352, "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted] November 2002 Interrogation Sessions with 'Abd Al-Rahim Husayn Muhammad 'Abdu Nashir," circa November 27-29, 2002. Declassified 6/26/2018, C06665565, as a result of FOIA litigation, National Security Archive v. CIA.
This cable from the Thailand black site to CIA ALEC Station reported on two interrogation sessions with Nashiri, and included several new elements different from the previous cables in this series. First was Nashiri's name, previously rendered as 'Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, and now as 'Abd Al-Rahim Husayn Muhammad 'Abdu Nashir. Second was the mention that Nashiri would soon be "moved to another facility (described as a much worse place)" - the Thailand site would be closed on December 4, 2002 because of tensions with the Thai government and CIA's discovery that a major U.S. newspaper was on to the location, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report. Third was the "base note" included in paragraph 3 about Nashiri's small gesture towards privacy, that the "small box had been moved by subject overnight to the far corner of the cell, to block the view of subject's waste bucket from direct view through the cell bars" - to which "interrogators informed subject that this was not his space at all - it was their space, and he was not to do anything with it without their permission." Fourth was the actual admission of failure by the interrogators Mitchell and Jessen: "Interrogators then told subject that his non-compliance with their requests for accurate, meaningful information was really all their fault, for not conditioning subject properly. Likening the conditioning process to tenderizing a fine steak, interrogators told subject that perhaps he similarly just needed conditioning and 'tenderizing' to be ready for what interrogators were asking of him." This was after extended sessions of physical violence, wall slamming, box confinement, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, shackling, stress positions, and waterboarding. The marked differences between the prior cables and the cables after this date from the Thailand black site suggest the possibility that someone other than Gina Haspel may have authored or authorized them. Haspel may have finished her temporary duty assignment as chief of base (the end of November would have been 30 days since she arrived), and been succeeded by a new base chief. The U.S. Senate process that confirmed Haspel as CIA director in 2018 failed to establish any actual dates for her responsibilities at the Thailand black site and other CIA posts, leaving her as the first undercover CIA director in U.S. history.
CIA Cable [redacted], "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted, likely 30] November 2002 Interrogation Sessions with 'Abd Al-Rahim Husayn Muhammad 'Abdu Nashir," circa December 1, 2002, 1021Z. Declassified 2/28/2018, C06718451, as a result of civil litigation Salim v. Mitchell and FOIA litigation DeFraia v. CIA
Although CIA censored the date and cable number (while leaving the Zulu time the cable was sent), the first line of paragraph 2 is designated "Day 16" of Nashiri's torture, which makes the date of the interrogation sessions November 30, 2002. Again, this cable reported Nashiri was told of "the new, much worse place" to which "he would be going within days." The cable also reported continued failure by Mitchell and Jessen: "During the interrogation, subject exhibited signs of resistance and provided little new or verifiable information." In response, the interrogators cooked up what the cable called "a theatrically flawless 'rescue' scenario designed to accomplish four things, all aimed at decreasing subject's ability to predict or control events as a resistor" including "anxiety for his safety," "conditioning of learned helplessness," and "fear of the unknown." "Security team members burst into the subject's cell, shouting and howling" while one of the interrogators "who could not be seen by hooded subject" "walled him five times" and then pretended to interrupt the mock killing and rescue him. Afterwards, Nashiri could be seen "crying and blowing his nose, and after perhaps 10 minutes composed himself, and could be seen sitting quietly in the corner of his cell on some tissue paper which he had carefully folded into a pad." The contract psychologists of course "judged that the rescue theatrics had gone exactly as planned and had served their intended purpose."
CIA Cable 11359, "Subject: Eyes Only - Details of [redacted, likely 1] December 2002 Interrogation Sessions with 'Abd Al-Rahim Husayn Muhammad 'Abdu Nashir," circa December 1, 2002. Declassified 7/31/2018, C06665566, as the result of FOIA litigation, National Security Archive v. CIA.
It’s unknown if Gina Haspel was still the chief of base of detention site GREEN in Thailand on December 1, 2002. But whoever was in charge and authored or authorized this cable back to CIA ALEC Station, the report marked a descent into language right out of spy novels or the "Shades of Gray" series to describe potentially criminal behavior by CIA employees. "HVTI [redacted, either Mitchell or Jessen] and linguist [redacted] strode, catlike, into the well-lit confines of the cell at 0902 hrs [redacted], deftly removed the subject's black hood with a swipe, paused, and in a deep, measured voice said that subject - having 'calmed down' after his (staged) run-in with his hulking, heavily muscled guards the previous day [see Document 15 above] - should reveal what subject had done to vex his guards to the point of rage."
 See Glenn Kessler, “Cheney’s claim that the U.S. did not prosecute Japanese soldiers for waterboarding,” Fact-Checker column, Washington Post, December 16, 2014. Kessler gave former vice president Cheney three Pinocchio’s for the falsehood. Kessler cites an authoritative law review article, by Judge Evan Wallach, “Drop by Drop: Forgetting the History of Water Torture in U.S. Courts,” Columbia Journal of Transnational Law (2007).
DeFraia co-authored with Tim Golden and Stephen Engelberg of ProPublica the most comprehensive account of Haspel's career, published on May 7, 2018 at ProPublica, quoting at length from the Nashiri-related cables obtained by DeFraia's lawsuit. The cables obtained by the Archive lawsuit confirm the ProPublica account and add significant new details including the three specific waterboarding sessions.
 See ProPublica, “Correction: Trump’s Pick to Head CIA Did Not Oversee Waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah,” March 15, 2018.
 See Jose Rodriguez deposition, Salim v. Mitchell, March 7, 2017, p. 140.