Deeply Versed in Spy Agency, and Dark Era
Posted May 7, 2018 9:20 p.m. EDT
When President Donald Trump picked Gina Haspel to run the CIA, he opted for a seasoned veteran of the nation’s spy apparatus, a career professional removed from the partisan skirmishes of recent years who had the respect of many fellow intelligence officers.
But Haspel’s greatest strength as a nominee, her extensive record, has become her greatest weakness as critics pick apart her role in some of the agency’s darkest chapters involving torture and secret prisons, a history that will be front and center at her much-anticipated confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Her nomination nearly unraveled last week because of that record when White House aides examined for the first time CIA message logs that made clear just how accepting she had been of since disavowed interrogation techniques. Haspel briefly contemplated withdrawing for fear that the president’s team would not give her its full support, according to current and former officials. She changed her mind only after Trump and top aides reassured her.
In a Twitter post on Monday, Trump signaled his eagerness to fight for Haspel, casting the congressional debate over her nomination as a question of whether she or her adversaries were more devoted to protecting national security.
“My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists,” he tweeted. “Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!”
Haspel’s opponents said the Senate should not approve her nomination until questions about her record are answered. “If Gina Haspel were to be confirmed with these allegations unanswered and the truth obscured by secrecy and obstruction, it would be yet another demonstration of the U.S. government turning a blind eye to torture committed in the program,” Amnesty International USA said Monday in a statement.
Friends and supporters said Haspel understood that she was in for a rough ride this week. “It’s going to be a living hell,” said Michael Hayden, a CIA director under President George W. Bush.
But he added that he participated in a “murder board” session last week in which she rehearsed for the hearing and she handled herself well. “We were coming at her with every stupid question we could think of,” he said. “She was calm, collected, fact-based, and what I would say is at peace with herself and her personal history.”
A 33-year CIA veteran, Haspel serves as the agency’s deputy director and has the support of former directors and acting directors from the administrations of both parties, including Hayden, George Tenet, John O. Brennan, Leon Panetta, John E. McLaughlin and Michael Morell, as well as the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper — most of them unstinting critics of Trump.
Critics, however, are focused on the period after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when Haspel ran a secret “black site” CIA prison in Thailand where detainees were subjected to brutal interrogation techniques. She was also involved in approving the destruction of videotapes of interrogation sessions at the Thailand prison. The agency has since closed such prisons and renounced the techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and confinement in boxes.
Among the materials handed over to the Senate are logs of internal chats from a CIA instant messaging system in which Haspel appeared to raise no objections to the interrogation program or the methods employed against al-Qaida suspects, according to a U.S. official, who like others declined to be identified discussing confidential matters.
The official said Haspel seemed completely comfortable with what was being done to the prisoners. Her allies said she hardly relished the task but was carrying out a program approved by policymakers and lawyers.
Although the Senate has had the chat logs for some time, the White House appeared to learn of them only late last week. Meeting with Haspel at the White House on Friday, some officials appeared unsatisfied with how she planned to address questions about the interrogation program and the destruction of videotapes, according to current and former officials.
The officials asked pointed questions and appeared skeptical that Haspel would be able to rebut critics on the Intelligence Committee. Haspel left the meetings concerned that the administration might not vigorously defend her and that the CIA as a whole was at risk of being abandoned by a president who has previously excoriated the nation’s intelligence agencies.
She was acutely aware of what happened to Dr. Ronny L. Jackson, the White House physician who withdrew his nomination for secretary of veterans affairs amid allegations about his workplace conduct, the current and former officials said.
Haspel did not want to be the next performer ushered onto the set of the Trump show, humiliated and then sent packing, they said. She agreed to the nomination out a sense of loyalty to the institution, they added, but would be just as happy to step back into her role as deputy.
She recommitted to the nomination after several White House officials, including Marc Short, the legislative director, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, rushed to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Friday to make clear they would defend her. Trump also called to pledge his support. Officials said Haspel underwent another murder board on Sunday that went well. Haspel ignored questions from reporters Monday on Capitol Hill, where she met with senators on the Intelligence Committee.
“Looking forward to Wednesday,” Haspel said as she ducked into a meeting with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the most persistent critics of the CIA’s use of torture.
Sanders seemed to obliquely confirm Monday that Haspel had briefly entertained second thoughts. “She wants to do everything she can to make sure the integrity of the CIA remains intact, isn’t unnecessarily attacked,” she said. “If she felt that her nomination would have been a problem for that and for the agency, then she wanted to do everything she could to protect the agency.”
“At the same time,” Sanders added, “she wants to do everything she can to protect the safety and security of Americans, which is why she is 100 percent committed to going through this confirmation process and being confirmed as the next leader of the CIA.”
One factor working in Haspel’s favor is who would be nominated if she were rejected, a question weighing on Democrats who fear a more political choice. Hayden, the author of a new book, “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies,” said Haspel was an independent voice who could say no to a volatile president and should not be sacrificed over past decisions made above her pay grade.
“I’m worried about the now. I’m worried about tomorrow,” Hayden said. “And who else are you going to get who’s going to have the character and the experience that Gina has?” Democrats, though, pressed for more of an accounting. The CIA has slowly declassified materials about Haspel’s career. The latest cache came Monday in a single cardboard box.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top minority member of the Intelligence Committee, wrote to Haspel on Monday calling the lack of transparency “unacceptable” and urging her to use her declassification authority as acting director to make public additional information about her career.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., accused the administration of overseeing a “cover-up from A to Z” of Haspel’s career by selectively declassifying only information favorable to the nominee.
“At every step of the way, the administration has tried to stonewall and kind of cloud this debate with something extraneous,” he said in an interview. “I’m really concerned about the prospect of this setting a precedent for what amounts to secret confirmations. Because if they can continue to do what they have done so far, this won’t be the last secret confirmation you’ll see.”