Donald Trump wants feminist cred for putting a veteran torturer in charge of the CIA

Anna North
Gina Haspel
Source: CIA

President Trump just appointed a new director of the CIA, a veteran intelligence official who helped oversee the Bush-era rendition, detention, and interrogation programs out of notorious black sites that President Obama eventually closed.

That intelligence official, Gina Haspel, happens to be a woman. Trump appears to be spinning this particular appointment as a victory for feminism, highlighting Haspel's gender in his tweet announcing the appointment.


Haspel's history — she oversaw techniques now considered by many to be torture, including waterboarding and locking detainees in coffins — makes the fact that she's a woman a moot

point. Installing her as head of the CIA is a signal from the White House of support for torture, a position that is harmful for people of all genders in the United States and around the world.

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And crowing over Haspel's gender is a cynical move coming from Trump, who presides over the least feminist administration in recent memory. Trump and his appointees have given cover to men accused of abuse, smeared women who came forward with reports of sexual misconduct, and worked to dismantle access to reproductive health care around the country. The idea that naming Haspel to head the CIA changes any of that is ridiculous on its face and insulting to all Americans.

Trump wants an image boost to distract from his deeply anti-feminist record

Recently, Trump has been eager to say that he's got women in his administration. After all, heading into the 2018 midterms, news has broken again and again about his administration's dismal track record on women's equality.

One of his top aides was accused of domestic violence by two ex-wives (and another aide left shortly afterward for the same reason). For months, Trump has been fighting reports that he paid Stormy Daniels, an adult film actress, to keep quiet about their alleged affair — those reports have serious implications for national security and in the context of the #MeToo movement. It turns out Trump's personal lawyer paid Daniels $130,000; she is now suing Trump. This is all in addition to the 19 women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct. In October 2016, Trump called the women speaking out against him liars who were out to hurt his campaign, prompting one of them to sue him in a defamation case that's still ongoing.

Trump, and other Republicans, backed Senate candidate Roy Moore, despite credible claims from multiple women that he sexually abused or assaulted them, or attempted to have relationships with them when they were teenagers.

Meanwhile, Trump and his appointees have worked to help defund Planned Parenthood, jeopardize access to birth control, and keep undocumented, unaccompanied minors in the United States from getting abortions. Trump has also helped make the federal court system more white, straight, and male.

Trump performed well with white women in the 2016 election. His numbers with this group are slipping, and he knows that he and his party need to win some of them back.

Haspel is the establishment

Haspel's résumé is chilling. "From 2003 to 2005, Gina Haspel was a senior official overseeing a top-secret C.I.A. program that subjected dozens of suspected terrorists to savage interrogations, which included depriving them of sleep, squeezing them into coffins, and forcing water down their throats," Dexter Filkins wrote at the New Yorker last year, after the Trump administration named Haspel deputy director of the CIA under Mike Pompeo.

In 2002, Filkins reported, Haspel was present at a CIA black site in Thailand during the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaeda suspect. According to a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Filkins wrote, Zubaydah "was waterboarded eighty-three times; at one point, he became non-responsive, with water bubbling up from his lungs. Doctors had to revive him. During his confinement, Zubaydah lost sight in his left eye."

Haspel has not been an agent of change at the CIA; she has no discernible record of standing up to the systems that have harmed women and men around the globe. Instead, she has been instrumental in perpetuating those systems and in helping the intelligence community carry out — and cover up — some of the worst excesses in recent memory.

After Haspel was appointed deputy director, Raymond Bonner of ProPublica combed through declassified documents and books on the Zubaydah interrogation and found evidence that as chief of base of the black site, she played a central role in organizing what occurred there. At one point, according to Bonner, Haspel wrote that her team had conducted a "dress rehearsal … which choreographed moving Abu Zubaydah (Subject) in and out of the large and small confinement boxes, as well as use of the water board."

"Team is ready to move to the next phase of interrogations immediately upon receipt of approvals/authorization," she wrote a few days later, Bonner reports. "It is our understanding that DOJ/Attorney General approvals for all portions of the next phase, including the water board, have been secured, but that final approval is in the hands of the policy makers."

According to Bonner, Haspel also "spoke directly with Zubaydah, accusing him of faking symptoms of physical distress and psychological breakdown." And once the interrogation was over, Haspel was also involved in the decision to destroy tapes of it, Filkins reports.

Rather than being a harbinger of feminist change — or any other kind — Haspel is a continuation of the past, a return to an era of torture that, until recently, seemed behind us. Last year, Filkins characterized Haspel's appointment to the deputy position as an endorsement of torture from a president who had sometimes vacillated on the issue. Her elevation to head of the CIA certainly seems like a further endorsement.

The fact that Haspel is a woman is immaterial when what she represents is not progress toward a more equal future but a return to policies that harmed countless people of all genders. No "congratulations" are due to Trump for choosing someone to lead the CIA whose claims to fame include robbing a man of half his eyesight.

Anyone who's been watching Trump knows he couldn't care less about supporting women. His transparent attempt to pass off his latest appointment as a feminist choice is just more evidence of that.