ProPublica leads media into correction of murky CIA story

Media-Haspel Correction
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AP Media Writer

NEW YORK (AP) β€” The news organization ProPublica issued a detailed correction of a story about Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s choice for the next CIA director, and the waterboarding of a detainee the year after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.It wasn’t alone: Other organizations, including The Associated Press, have issued their own corrections this week, illustrating the murkiness of reporting on the behavior of official actions by public servants whose work, by its very nature, remains in the shadows.

The retraction and apology on Thursday by ProPublica, an organization of independent investigative journalists founded in 2007, was unusual in the amount of detail it offered about its reporting process. ProPublica concluded it was wrong last year in reporting that Gina Haspel was chief of a secret CIA “black site” in Thailand where suspected al-Qaida detainee Abu Zubaydah was interrogated with waterboarding, a measure that some regard as torture.

That claim became relevant again this week with Trump’s proposed promotion of the longtime CIA official. ProPublica also apologized for incorrectly saying that Haspel mocked Zubaydah’s suffering. The organization said it is now clear that Haspel was not in charge of the base until after Zubaydah’s interrogation was finished.

“We at ProPublica hold government officials responsible for their missteps, and we must be equally accountable,” wrote the site’s editor-in-chief, Stephen Engelberg. “This error was particularly unfortunate because it muddied an important national debate about Haspel and the CIA’s recent history.” ProPublica said it was told by three former government officials, when Halsey became the No. 2 person at the CIA last year, that she had been head of the Thailand base at the time of Zubaydah’s waterboarding.

The New York Times also reported that same detail last year. But that was called into question this week, ProPublica said, when two of Halsey’s former colleagues said that she did not arrive in Thailand until after Zubaydah’s interrogation. The site said its original story
also relied on a book by James Mitchell, a CIA contractor who helped direct the waterboarding, and a faulty assumption made by the news site.

In his book, Mitchell at different times referred to the base’s chief as “he” or “she.” ProPublica said it assumed this was an attempt to conceal Haspel’s identity. But Mitchell told Fox News this week this wasn’t the case, and that he had been referring to an official other than Haspel when he wrote about Zubaydah’s treatment.

Engelberg wrote that the CIA declined to answer specific questions about Haspel before the story was written, although the agency said “nearly every piece of reporting that you are seeking comment on is incorrect in whole or in part.” ProPublica went ahead with the story, including that comment. “The awkward communications between officials barred from disclosing classified information and reporters trying to reveal secrets in which there is legitimate public interest can sometimes end in miscommunication,” Engelberg wrote.

“In this instance, we failed to understand the message the CIA’s press office was trying to convey in its statement.” Other organizations similarly corrected the assertion that Haspel had been involved in Zubaydah’s interrogation. Some cited ProPublica’s reporting, others appeared to rely on their own. The New York Times, for example, appended corrections both to a news story about Haspel and an editorial printed on Thursday, “Having a Torturer Lead the CIA.”

The Times said it had relied on its own reporting, and said in its correction that a “former senior CIA official” had confirmed that Haspel had arrived after the interrogation was complete. The AP on Friday issued a correction to its own stories from Tuesday and Wednesday about Haspel. The AP said that it “suggested” she oversaw the Thailand prison at the time Zubaydah was waterboarded, but that the CIA now would not confirm any details about Haspel’s role in his treatment.

The AP also wrongly reported that Hansel oversaw the prison between the years 2003 and 2005. The AP had relied on its past reporting when it said Haspel ran the prison, but in looking at declassified material, mistakenly conflated the years involved, spokeswoman Lauren Easton said. The AP investigated its own work after being contacted by a CIA official about the existence of ProPublica’s correction.

NBC corrected a Tuesday article on its website to say that Haspel was not present at Zubaydah’s interrogation. The network wouldn’t say what triggered its move, but the timing of the correction β€” on Wednesday, before the ProPublica piece moved β€” suggested it relied on its own reporting. National Public Radio on Friday added an editor’s note to a story about how Haspel’s nomination was reopening debate on torture. NPR said that according to several media reports, including from ProPublica, she was chief of the Thailand base starting in 2002.

The note mentioned ProPublica’s retraction and assertion that she was not at the site.
The Atlantic magazine cited ProPublica’s correction in updating its post, written by Ali Soufan, a former FBI official who said he participated in interrogation of Zubaydah without using any techniques regarded as torture. Soufan makes the argument that these enhanced techniques are not useful, and Haspel’s opinions should be an important part of her confirmation hearings. His original story stated Haspel was in charge of a prison where two detainees were tortured; it was corrected to say it was only one.