WASHINGTON >> Gina Haspel, director of the CIA, made a rare public appearance today to give a nostalgia-laced recruiting pitch to students at Auburn University. But she was confronted instead by a heckler shouting about her role in torturing suspected militants in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Haspel was recounting the excitement she felt at the start of her own career when the heckling began. “Tell these young children, tell them who you tortured. You know their names — they’re still in Guantánamo Bay,” an unidentified man shouted.
“You’re a decrepit human being,” he continued before being removed by security. “The only people you should be talking to is a prison guard in a jail cell.”
The CIA has strenuously sought to distance Haspel from the now-defunct torture program since 2017, when she was named the agency’s deputy director; she ascended to the top job nearly a year ago. In her speech Thursday, Haspel talked about the CIA’s efforts to change with the times — to diversify, to bring in recruits with new technology and language skills, and to refocus on the business of spying on rival powers after years of being deeply enmeshed in the fight against Islamic militants.
But Haspel has not been able to escape the part she played in the agency’s brutal detention and interrogation program under the administration of President George W. Bush. Haspel supervised a secret prison in Thailand in 2002 when an al-Qaida suspect was waterboarded there, and later conveyed orders to destroy videos documenting torture that had taken place at the so-called black site.
The same issue dominated the Senate hearing to confirm her as the director of the CIA last year, and it upended her speech today.
A few minutes in, Haspel was recounting the “thrill of being sworn in” as a CIA officer when the heckler interrupted.
“Do you remember the thrill of the CIA black sites you tortured people in and the evidence you destroyed?” he shouted.
Haspel stood silently at the podium, glancing at her notes as the heckler was removed. She then looked up and said, “I’ll continue.”
The speech was followed by questions from retired Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the military’s intelligence arm.