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A world of complex threats awaits Gina Haspel as CIA director

A world of complex threats awaits Gina Haspel as CIA director
Gina Haspel testifies during a confirmation hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

During a tense Senate confirmation hearing last week, Gina Haspel rattled off a list of national security challenges she could face as the first woman to lead the CIA — Russian aggression, Iranian ambitions in the Middle East, China's increasing global reach, destructive cyberattacks and deadly terrorist groups.

The senators barely touched those topics, however, instead focusing nearly all their questions on Haspel's role in the agency's then-secret network of overseas prisons where terrorism suspects were tortured in hopes of producing intelligence on attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.

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With the Senate voting 54 to 45 to confirm Haspel on Thursday, the career CIA officer's attention will pivot from a dark chapter in her past and in U.S. history to a daunting array of threats and opportunities around the globe.

The CIA is deeply involved in helping President Trump prepare for a June 12 summit in Singapore where he will try to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons. Two weeks ago, however, Trump pulled out of the international accord that has successfully blocked Iran from building any nuclear weapons — even as U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded Tehran was complying with the deal.

U.S. intelligence officials have warned Congress that Russia will try to meddle in American politics before the November midterm elections, much as they did in the presidential campaign in 2016. Trump has downplayed or dismissed those conclusions as a hoax.

"These are fraught and complex and dynamic times," Susan M. Gordon, principal deputy director of National Intelligence, told reporters on a conference call this week.

Haspel, 61, will face challenges at the White House as well. Trump has referred to her fondly as "our Gina" and pushed hard for her confirmation, but it's not clear whether she can forge the same close relationship with the president as her predecessor, Mike Pompeo, who is now secretary of State.

Haspel has built a "respectful" relationship with the president over the last 16 months, when she served as Pompeo's deputy, according to an intelligence official who declined to speak publicly in order to describe private conversations.

But the unusual political environment in the Trump era could be a hurdle for a veteran spy more accustomed to assessing adversaries overseas than navigating the toxic cross currents in Washington. She's the first CIA operations officer to rise through the ranks to the agency's top position in five decades.

Trump has been deeply suspicious of career national security officials — Haspel has worked 33 years at the CIA, mostly undercover — and sometimes refers to a "deep state" dedicated to undermining him. At times, he has publicly derided U.S. intelligence agencies, even once comparing them to Nazis.

"I think it was disgraceful, disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out," he said a week before he was inaugurated in January 2017, referring to a dossier of allegations about Trump's supposed ties to Russia. "That's something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do."

Congressional oversight is increasingly politicized as well. When a bipartisan majority on the Senate Intelligence Committee this week backed intelligence community findings that Moscow tried to help Trump win in 2016 by hacking computers and spreading misinformation on social media, it broke with the House Intelligence Committee, which had voted on strict party lines to reject a similar conclusion.

The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee is "acting in ways that are well outside the traditions and norms," said David Kris, a former assistant attorney general for national security who remains an external advisor to intelligence agencies.

The situation becomes more complicated when Trump feuds with the intelligence agencies under his control. "It puts the whole system under strain," said Kris, who founded the Culper Partners consulting firm.

Haspel's Senate confirmation was largely expected after several Democrats, nearly all facing reelection battles this fall in states that voted handily for Trump, signaled that they would cross the aisle to support her.

In the end, six Democrats voted in favor of Haspel and two Republicans — Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona — voted against her in the most narrowly divided confirmation vote in the CIA's history. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had urged his colleagues to reject Haspel, but he did not cast a vote because he is home in Arizona being treated for brain cancer.

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The vote followed a heated nomination battle that reopened the country's painful debate over the CIA's use of torture after the Sept. 11 attacks. Human rights activists, many Democrats and some Republicans said Haspel was unfit for the CIA's top job because in 2002 she ran a secret facility in Thailand where suspects were waterboarded and subjected to other abuses.

In 2005, she advocated for the destruction of 92 videotapes depicting the harsh interrogations. Although her supervisor at the time, Jose Rodriguez, issued the order, she drafted the cable directing CIA officers in Thailand to feed the tapes into an industrial shredder.

Haspel was not charged in a subsequent criminal investigation, and an internal review determined that she didn't break any agency rules.

Her opponents complained that the CIA refused to declassify relevant records about Haspel's role in the interrogations and the destruction of potential evidence.

"When the Senate votes on a nomination when all the relevant information is by design kept secret, how is this any different than a cover-up?" said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who voted against Haspel.

But Haspel found solid support among Republicans — and from an unusual array of former CIA directors, deputy directors and other intelligence professionals.

Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Haspel "the most prepared individual in the 70-year history of this agency."

"She is intimately familiar with the threats facing our nation," he said Thursday. "She has no learning curve."

Haspel has served as CIA acting director since Pompeo was confirmed as secretary of State on April 26. Before that, she was his second in command, the first public job she's held at the agency after more than three decades undercover in Asia, Africa, Europe and at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

Haspel, who is said to speak Turkish and Russian, is expected to emphasize some of the priorities she pushed as deputy director, including better language training for operatives and analysts. She also moved to deploy more CIA officers overseas to recruit agents, collect intelligence and commit espionage.

"Gina has clearly demonstrated that she is a person of high integrity with valuable front-line and executive experience as a career intelligence officer," Daniel R. Coats, director of National Intelligence, said after the vote. "Her confirmation represents the best we have to offer as a country."

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Twitter: @chrismegerian

UPDATES:

2 p.m.: This article was updated with details of the Senate vote and reaction.

This article was originally published at 12:15 p.m.

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