ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now a correction to a story we aired Wednesday about Gina Haspel, the woman President Trump plans to nominate for director of the CIA. We spoke with a reporter for ProPublica who'd investigated Haspel's role at a secret CIA prison where terrorism suspects were interrogated. Last night, ProPublica retracted key details of that report. To correct the record, we spoke today with ProPublica's editor-in-chief, Stephen Engelberg.
STEPHEN ENGELBERG: Any suggestion that she had a direct or personal involvement in the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, which is quite an infamous thing in the history of intelligence - you know, he was waterboarded some 83 times - that would not be correct. The chief of base turns out to have been a different person. And so any suggestion that she was directly and personally involved in that is incorrect.
SHAPIRO: In fact, Gina Haspel became chief of base at the prison in Thailand after Abu Zubaydah's waterboarding. ProPublica now reports that she was present for the interrogation of a different detainee who was waterboarded three times. There are still questions about her role in the destruction of tapes showing Abu Zubaydah's waterboarding. The ProPublica journalist Raymond Bonner based his incorrect account on three sources he believed were knowledgeable.
This week, people who worked with Haspel began to defend her, including James Mitchell, a psychologist and CIA contractor involved in the Abu Zubaydah interrogation. Some of the ProPublica reporting was based on his book "Enhanced Interrogation." Today Mitchell spoke to me about the retracted ProPublica report saying Haspel mocked Abu Zubaydah's physical reaction to the interrogations.
JAMES MITCHELL: That's completely untrue. I mean, it's a hundred percent untrue. They mischaracterized the event. They misattributed who I was referring to. I know who I was writing about, and I know the incident that I was writing about. And she wasn't involved in it.
SHAPIRO: Mitchell explained why on this occasion he felt the need to speak out.
MITCHELL: I'm doing it in this particular case because they were using something that I wrote to smear a woman who is the best choice that this nation could have for that position.
SHAPIRO: Before the story was first published last February, ProPublica asked the CIA for comment, and the agency responded that nearly every element of the story was inaccurate in whole or part but would not specify which elements. Here's Engelberg of ProPublica.
ENGELBERG: That kind of blanket statement is sometimes or indeed often delivered by people who are, you know, not being honest in what they're saying. You know, there's some very small error somewhere, and they're saying, well, the story has errors, so you know, we deny it. And in this case, what was going on was very different. They were trying to steer us away from a story that was incorrect. I guess you'd have to ask them why on Earth they wouldn't just say she wasn't there.
SHAPIRO: Today I put that question to Dean Boyd, a CIA spokesperson. And he told me he thought the agency's on-the-record statement was quite clear.
DEAN BOYD: I will just say that we do operate in a difficult situation where we are not able to comment on specific details that may or may not be classified. We can push back strongly. And I think this was a pretty clear indication that there were errors in the story. But in many cases, we're not able to go into much more detail given classification issues.
SHAPIRO: I asked ProPublica's Engelberg how he views this major lapse in the context of a long journalistic career.
ENGELBERG: Well, you know, when we cover medicine, we talk about sometimes - they're called never events, you know, like operating on the wrong limb. I believe in journalistic practice, this is a never event. This should never happen. And I would never accept the notion that this is just something that's going to happen from time to time.
SHAPIRO: That's Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica, which has retracted significant portions of its reporting on Gina Haspel.
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