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Gina Haspel and How Torture Deceived Us Into Iraq

As Colin Powell's chief of staff, I saw how intel gleaned from 'enhanced interrogation' was used to make the case for the 2003 invasion.

If the public had the full report on torture that Republican Senator Richard Burr has ordered into oblivion, they would know how to respond to President Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel to be director of the CIA. The report reveals in excruciating detail, first, that torture was used by the United States, and, second, that such criminal acts did not produce good intelligence. In fact, when acted upon, that information created immeasurable tragedy.

I know because the primary case corroborating this truth was one I was central in developing.

Amidst some frustration in early February 2003, with only three days remaining before his presentation at the United Nations, Colin Powell took me aside at CIA headquarters, pointed me into an empty room, closed the door, and told me to sit down. He was trying to contain his frustration and anger but barely succeeding. I had been with him off and on for more than a decade and had never seen him so angry.

What he said to me was this: “All this business about terrorists and Saddam is bullshit. It sounds like Deuteronomy. Mohamad begat Abu-Masa, who begat al-Aman, who begat Abu-Nidal, who begat al-Zubydah, and on and on. There is nothing solid to it. It’s B.S. ”  

Since I was the principal person responsible for putting together his UN presentation, I believe he thought I would object. I didn’t.

“I agree,” I responded. “Let’s toss it.”

Somewhat taken aback but clearly mollified, he said, “Good. Do it.”

I went straight to Lynne Davidson, Powell’s principal speechwriter and the person who was actually crafting the presentation narrative, and told her to take it all out.

Lynne was hard-pressed but said “Good” and got to work. I think she agreed with me. After all, the text did stink to high heaven.

But we were at the CIA after all.

Within an hour of reassembling in the DCI’s conference room to resume rehearsal that evening, then-CIA director George Tenet left the room for a moment or two. When he returned it was to drop a bombshell on the table.

He sat down, looked at the secretary of state, and said: “Interrogation of a high-level al-Qaeda operative has just revealed that there were significant connections between al-Qaeda and the Mukhabarat [Iraq’s secret service], to include their training of al-Qaeda members in the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

Powell turned to me and said simply: “Put it back in.” I knew precisely what he meant and I did just that. I instructed Miss Davidson not to extract the “terrorists connections” from the Powell presentation, and, in addition, to put in the part about Iraqis training al-Qaeda in the use of chemical and biological weapons. This would become the most powerful part of Powell’s presentation, i.e., that Saddam had a connection to al-Qaeda and thus to the tragic events of 9/11.

At the time there was no mention of torture.

Only later did we learn that the sole source of that bombshell revelation was Ibn al-Shakh al-Libi, and that he had revealed the information under interrogation at the hands of the Egyptians, perhaps one of the most “gifted” states in the practice of torture.

What we did not learn—and what both George Tenet and his deputy John McLaughlin failed to tell us—was that al-Libi had recanted what he had “revealed” shortly after being tortured, and admitted that he would have said anything to stop the torture. Moreover, neither Tenet nor McLaughlin told us that the Defense Intelligence Agency had declared the al-Libi revelations unreliable because of the conditions under which they had been extracted, i.e. torture.

Arguably the most powerful element of Powell’s presentation at the UN was false.

There are many reasons to oppose Gina Haspel’s nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. She was in charge of a secret prison where torture occurred—in charge of, not just worked there; she destroyed records of that torture; she followed orders that were clearly illegal; she is a 31-year product of the agency she will head, nearly always a bad idea with the CIA.

But for me, the main reason is that she believed torture works. It is a stupid belief and one that got people killed.

Lawrence Wilkerson is Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He was chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell from 2002-05.