The Central Intelligence Agency has declassified an internal memo that absolves Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee for CIA director, of responsibility for destroying videotapes showing the waterboarding of terrorism suspects in 2005, an issue that’s been a key sticking point for senators weighing her confirmation.
The memo, first reported by The Associated Press and CBS News, is the conclusion of a “disciplinary review” conducted in 2011 by former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell that scrutinized the activities of the former clandestine chief Jose Rodriguez and Haspel, who served as his chief of staff. It followed a Justice Department review of the incident, in which a special prosecutor tapped to investigate the matter did not bring charges against anyone involved.
After interviews with top legal figures at the agency, Rodriguez, Haspel and others, along with a review of documents and phone calls placed at the time, Morell decided Haspel had done nothing wrong.
“Ms. Haspel did not destroy the tapes, she did not oversee the destruction of the tapes, and she did not order the destruction of the tapes. She drafted a cable, under instruction from her boss, Mr. Rodriguez, that he sent, under his name and authority, ordering that the tapes be destroyed. Mr. Rodriguez ordered the destruction of the tapes, not Ms. Haspel,” Morell said in a statement to CNN.
Additionally, Morell tells CNN, his memo was forwarded to the White House and Congress at the time, neither of which had any follow-up questions.
However, Haspel’s role in the 2005 destruction of the CIA interrogation tapes has been an issue for several key senators weighing her confirmation.
Democrats are demanding that the CIA declassify Haspel’s record surrounding the destruction of the tapes, as well as her supervision of a “black site” in Thailand in 2002 where detainees were waterboarded.
The agency argues this memorandum should satisfy some of those demands.
“At the request of members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and consistent with its commitment to be as transparent as possible, CIA has declassified, with limited redactions, the 2011 disciplinary review memorandum relating to CIA’s destruction of tapes,” CIA spokesperson Dean Boyd wrote in a statement.
But Democrats were not pleased with the release.
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Ron Wyden of Oregon have sent several letters to the CIA demanding a public accounting of Haspel’s record ahead of her May 9 confirmation hearing at the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“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 (to) her involvement in the torture program,” Feinstein said Friday in a statement.
Wyden said in a statement that his concerns about Haspel “are far broader than this episode or anything else that has appeared in the press,” and argued that the report from Morell was “highly incomplete, raising far more questions about Ms. Haspel than it answers.”
“The Morell report confirms some extremely troubling facts about Deputy Director Haspel and the destruction of interrogation videotapes,” Wyden said. “She didn’t just draft the cable that authorized the destruction of the tapes, she played a key role in events surrounding the drafting of the cable.”
A spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the declassified report a “good step,” but still only one step to sufficiently disclosing Haspel’s record.
“Sen. Warner will continue to press the CIA to declassify additional documents and material regarding Ms. Haspel’s background,” Warner spokeswoman Rachel Cohen said.
But Republicans who back the nomination are likely to point to the memo in an effort to rebut criticisms of her.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, cited Morell earlier this week when asked by CNN about the tape destruction.
“I would only point you back to Mike Morell’s letter when she became deputy,” Burr said. “This was all studied by a special prosecutor. The special prosecutor said there’s no fault here.”
Burr was likely referring to an op-ed Morell wrote last year praising Haspel after she was named deputy CIA director
“The media is also likely to refer to a moment in her career when she drafted a cable instructing a field station to destroy videotapes of CIA interrogations of senior al Qaeda operatives,” Morell wrote. “She did so at the request of her direct supervisor and believing that it was lawful to do so. I personally led an accountability exercise that cleared Haspel of any wrongdoing in the case.”
Rodriguez himself has “consistently taken full responsibility for the destruction of interrogation tapes from the very beginning,” he wrote in a blog post in April. However, given new scrutiny from Capitol Hill, he claims he was “under the impression that the chain of command did not think it was illegal to destroy the tapes but that no one wanted to make the decision at the time.”
He wrote that he did not necessarily agree with the letter of reprimand he received in 2011, which said he knew his actions were inappropriate based on advice from CIA officials and White House lawyers. (That letter did not carry any formal penalties.)
Morell notes in the memo that he reviewed draft chapters of a book by former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo at the time, a book that paints Haspel as a more central figure in the destruction of the tapes. “Jose and his chief of staff kept coming to me,” Rizzo wrote in his book, suggesting that Haspel was a key lobbyist for the action, even if she was ultimately not responsible for the decision.
Morell, regardless, found “no fault,” writing that Haspel incorrectly believed at the time that Rodriguez would seek approval from CIA Director Porter Goss before giving her the command.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.