Did CIA Director Gina Haspel run a black site at Guantánamo?

pulitzer center logo

This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — An attorney for the accused architect of the Sept. 11 attacks told a judge in a secret session last year that CIA Director Gina Haspel ran a secret agency outpost at Guantánamo, an apparent reference to a post-9/11 black site, according to a recently declassified transcript.

The claim by Rita Radostitz, a lawyer for Khalid Sheik Mohammed, appears in one paragraph of a partially redacted transcript of a secret hearing held at Guantánamo on Nov. 16. Defense lawyers were arguing, in a motion that ultimately failed, that Haspel’s role at the prison precludes the possibility of a fair trial for the men accused of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks who were also held for years in covert CIA prisons.

Neither the public nor the accused was allowed to attend the hearing but, following an intelligence review, the Pentagon released portions of its transcript on a war court website.

Haspel reportedly ran a CIA black site in Thailand where two terror suspects were waterboarded, probably before her arrival there. The unverified statement that she had a similar assignment at the terror-detention center at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, would reveal a never-before disclosed chapter of the spy chief’s clandestine career.

The CIA declined to comment on the claim.

But in the transcript of a discussion about CIA torture and restrictions on the lawyers for the alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Radostitz notes that prosecutors claim they are “not trying to cover up the torture ... But the one thing that they’re not willing to talk about is the names of the people involved in the torture.” Then, after a large censored section, she says, “it makes it impossible for people at Guantánamo, who may have seen her when she was here as chief of base, to identify her and talk about it.”

Chief of base is a CIA term for the officer in charge of a secret foreign outpost. A 2014 Senate study of the CIA’s network of secret overseas prisons, called black sites, said the CIA had two such secret prisons at Guantánamo in 2003 and 2004 — apart from the Pentagon’s Guantánamo prison known as Camp Delta. While the military prison commanders’ names were disclosed, those who served as CIA chief of base were not.

The CIA sent the alleged 9/11 conspirators and other “high-value detainees” to military detention at Guantánamo in September 2006 after the captives spent three or four years in secret spy agency custody. But at least one 9/11 defendant, Ramzi bin al Shibh, was earlier held at Guantánamo, according to the public portion of the 6,200-page Senate Intelligence Committee study of the CIA’s overseas prison program, known as the torture report.

It says the agency operated two black sites there — code named Maroon and Indigo — from September 2003 to April 2004 then spirited them away for fear their captives might be entitled to attorneys.

Former CIA counterterrorism officer John Kiriakou told McClatchy that he was offered the Guantánamo chief of base position in late 2002 or early 2003 — and declined. “Nobody wanted the job,” he said. So they resorted to sending people on temporary duty assignments ranging from six weeks to nine months, he said.

“If it was during one of those periods when they couldn’t find somebody to fill the billet it would’ve made sense that she would’ve been there a short period of time,” Kiriakou said, describing a Gitmo stint as essentially a ticket punch for some agents associated with the black site program. “So when I read it, although I was surprised by it, I kind of believed it.”

Former CIA analyst Gail Helt, now a professor of Security and Intelligence Studies at King University in Tennessee, said there’s been “a lot of shadiness” with the way the spy agency has spoken about Haspel’s agency career.

An official CIA timeline of Haspel’s 33-year career notes that the agency won’t disclose 30 short-term, temporary duty assignments she held over the course of her career, suggesting they were covert. “Was one of those at Guantánamo for a couple of months?,” said Helt. “I don’t have personal knowledge of that, and couldn’t discuss it if I did. But it doesn’t surprise me.”

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, at left, in a photo released by the CIA soon after his March 2003 capture in Pakistan. At right, a never-published mug shot soon after his September 2006 transfer to Guantánamo, shows dramatic weight loss during his time in CIA custody. The mug shot, which also shows the arms of two soldiers in camouflage holding him, was taken from a chart of cell assignments at the covert Camp 7 obtained by McClatchy.

Reached by McClatchy, Radostitz said that restrictions imposed on defense attorneys with access to classified information prohibit her from elaborating or commenting on what was said in a closed session.

According to the transcript, Radostitz was arguing for dismissal of the charges, or to not make the trial death-penalty eligible, because of Haspel’s role as the top CIA official with control of top secret classifications. The trial judge, Marine Col. Keith Parrella, rejected the argument in December, weeks before the partial transcript was publicly released.

In it, Radostitz also argued that restrictions on defense attorneys asking questions about Haspel’s overseas black site service hamstrung their ability to prepare to defend Mohammed, who after three and a half years in CIA detention, including 183 rounds of waterboarding, declared that he oversaw the 9/11 attacks “from A to Z.” He is among five men charged in a death-penalty case alleging their conspired in the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings that killed 2,976 people in New York, at the Pentagon and aboard an airliner that crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

No trial date has been set as lawyers litigate what evidence the defense teams can see. Defense lawyers have been trying to explore what happened to captives at Guantánamo in their continuing bid to argue the case is compromised by the CIA years.

The CIA held at least five captives there, the report said, including alleged USS Cole bomber Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, whose interrogation in Thailand Haspel reportedly oversaw.

The circle of officers involved in the black site program in the aftermath of 9/11 was so small Haspel could have run the Guantánamo outpost, said former career CIA officer Glenn Carle, who was sworn in on the same day as Haspel in 1985, but rejected the rendition and enhanced interrogation program as “illegal, unnecessary, and immoral.”

“Could Gina have been chief of base? Certainly,” said Carle, who left the agency in 2007. “I do not know. I could not say if I did. But is it a realistic or plausible assertion to make? Yes. It seems from media descriptions that Gina was in Thailand. At least that was said. And it would not be implausible that an officer would go from place to place given a particular experience in this bizarre subset of operations.”

On why the agency would neither confirm nor deny an unclassified portion of a transcript alleging a Guantánamo chief of base posting, he said the CIA sees it this way: “The fact that a classified bit of information is in the public domain is irrelevant to us if we have not confirmed or spoken to it.”

Former FBI agent Ali Soufan said of Haspel, “I am not aware that she was down there.” Soufan, who conducted interrogations for the bureau at Guantánamo and elsewhere both before and aftermath the Sept. 11 attacks, said during his time at Gitmo the CIA’s chief of base “was a man and he was really helpful and very good. He was a great team player. We had a good relationship with him and his team.”

Soufan said he does not recall seeing Haspel in Guantánamo but says it is possible that while “she was chief of base in the black site where Nashiri was, she may had visited Guantánamo.”

Carol Rosenberg reports on the U.S. base and prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. She joined the Miami Herald staff in 1990 as Middle East correspondent. Her Guantánamo coverage has received the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the ABA Silver Gavel among other honors. She was also part of a Herald team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News coverage in 2001.