ProPublica retracts key claim against Trump pick for CIA director

The online news site ProPublica said Thursday night that it had retracted part of an article alleging Gina Haspel, President Trump's new choice to head the CIA, oversaw the waterboarding of an Al Qaeda suspect at a so-called agency "black site" in Thailand.

"We at ProPublica hold government officials responsible for their missteps, and we must be equally accountable," editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg said in a statement. "This error was particularly unfortunate because it muddied an important national debate about Haspel and the CIA’s recent history.

"To her, and to our readers, we can only apologize, correct the record and make certain that we do better in the future," Engelberg added.

Trump announced Tuesday that he had chosen Haspel to succeed Mike Pompeo, who is the president's pick to replace ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Several senators, including some Republicans, have said that Haspel must give a full account of her involvement in the CIA's interrogation program in the early days of the War on Terror.

"Current U.S. law is clear in banning enhanced interrogation techniques," said U.S. Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., who was beaten as a prisoner during the Vietnam War. "Any nominee for director of the CIA must pledge without reservation to uphold this prohibition."

The original ProPublica article, published Feb. 22, 2017, alleged that Haspel was chief of base at the Thailand site where accused terrorist Abu Zubaydah was interrogated in 2002. Engelberg said that after the original article was published, at least two of Haspel's former colleagues told them that she did not take up that position "until late in 2002, after the waterboarding of Zubaydah had ended."

The original ProPublica article, citing a book written by former interrogator James Mitchell, claimed Haspel went to Zubaydah's cell and "congratulated him on the fine quality of his acting."

"Good job! I like the way you’re drooling; it adds realism," the article quoted Haspel as saying. "I’m almost buying it. You wouldn’t think a grown man would do that."

However, Mitchell told Fox Business Network on Wednesday that Haspel was not the chief of base who made those comments to Zubaydah, saying she was "not the [chief of base] I was talking about" in his book.

In his statement, Engelberg noted that Mitchell's book had identified the Thailand chief of base as "both 'he' and she.'"

"We erroneously assumed that this was an effort by Mitchell or the agency to conceal the gender of the single official involved," he wrote. "[I]t is now clear that Mitchell was referring to two different people."

The New York Times, which published a similar story to the ProPublica article on Feb. 2, 2017, reported Tuesday that Haspel was chief of base when another Al Qaeda suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded three times during interrogations.

The Thailand prison closed in December 2002 and Haspel returned to Washington. Three years later, she reportedly pushed her supervisors to destroy tapes of Zubaydah's interrogations. Engelberg, the ProPublica editor-in-chief, said that his publication "did accurately report" on Haspel's role during the al-Nashiri interrogation and in the destruction of the Zubaydah tapes.

Former CIA Director John Brennan has declined to say what Haspel's exact role was in the interrogation program, but he told NBC News on Tuesday that she has a "lot of integrity" and has tried to carry out her agency duties "when asked to do difficult things in challenging times."

In the same interview, Brennan predicted Haspel would be confirmed. "Gina is a very competent professional who I think deserves the chance to take the seat," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.