Gina Haspel, President Trump’s choice for new CIA director, would be the first woman to run the nation’s premier spy agency, but her confirmation hearings may focus more on her role in the agency’s torture of terrorism suspects and the destruction of key evidence more than a decade ago.
If confirmed by the Senate, Haspel would succeed Mike Pompeo, who Trump plans to nominate to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of State, in a reshuffle of his national security and foreign policy teams.
At 61, Haspel is a veteran CIA operative who has deftly navigated challenging foreign assignments as well as the vast bureaucracy of agency headquarters in Langley, Va. She steadily rose to top positions in the male-dominated spy service during a career, mostly in the shadows, that began in 1985.
Haspel served as CIA station chief in several overseas assignments, directing U.S. espionage in those countries or regions. She later served as deputy director of the CIA division responsible for clandestine operations, and was promoted to deputy director of the entire agency last year.
In a statement, Haspel said she was grateful and “humbled” by the opportunity to lead the CIA. “I look forward to providing President Trump the outstanding intelligence support he has grown to expect during his first year in office,” she said.
Trump called Haspel’s nomination a “historic milestone” for the CIA.
Haspel played a key role in the CIA’s urgent response to the 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Virginia and a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Most importantly, she was involved with controversial interrogation tactics under President George W. Bush that some at the CIA believed were necessary to prevent new strikes on American soil.
The CIA began seizing terrorism suspects and shipping them to secret overseas prisons, where some were waterboarded, beaten, deprived of sleep and otherwise harshly interrogated in an effort to obtain information about Al Qaeda’s plans. Haspel reportedly ran one such “black site” in Thailand, an experience that critics cited Tuesday to oppose her nomination.
"She was at the center of the rendition, detention and interrogation program,” said Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch. "Someone with that kind of history should not have been made deputy director, let alone head of an agency with this much power."
One suspect at the prison, Abu Zubaydah, was waterboarded 83 times, a painful process that simulates drowning. Some CIA officers grew so concerned about Zubaydah’s mistreatment that they reached “the point of tears and choking up,” according to a 2014 report from Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The extensive report concluded that the brutal CIA interrogations, which took place over several years, did not produce any actionable intelligence about impending or planned terrorist plots.
John Brennan, who headed the CIA under President Obama, vouched for Haspel in an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday, calling her a "very competent professional" working at an agency that “was asked to do some very difficult things in some very challenging times.”
Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who helped interrogate Zubaydah in 2002, said Haspel should face questions in her confirmation hearing about her handling of detainee interrogations.
“Maybe she was following orders,” Soufan said. “But we cannot deny there are a lot of issues that need to be discussed.”
When Pompeo was facing confirmation as CIA director last year, he told senators he would refuse a presidential order to restart what the agency called its “enhanced interrogation” program.
"The American people now deserve the same assurances from Gina Haspel," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a vocal critic of the CIA program. McCain, a former Navy pilot, was repeatedly tortured during his 5½ years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump voiced support for waterboarding and other harsh techniques that were discontinued and denounced after they came to light.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who led the Senate investigation into the CIA abuses, said, “It’s no secret I’ve had concerns in the past” about Haspel’s connection to the program.
But, Feinstein added, “to the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director, and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with her again.”
Others were far more critical, pointing to Haspel’s role in destroying videotapes of the CIA interrogations at the secret prison in Thailand.
In 2005, Haspel drafted a cable directing agency employees to feed the tapes into an industrial shredder, according to a memoir written by Jose Rodriguez Jr., who ran CIA covert operations at the time. Rodriguez, who was Haspel’s boss, wrote that he sent the cable.
“Her reprehensible actions should disqualify her from having the privilege of serving the American people in government ever again, but apparently this president believes they merit a promotion,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
Haspel will probably face a difficult balancing act when dealing with Trump, who has sharply criticized the nation’s intelligence agencies.
During the campaign, he mocked them for concluding wrongly that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, and during his transition, he compared U.S. intelligence agencies to “Nazi Germany” for allegedly leaking derogatory information about him.
As one of his first official acts, he went to CIA headquarters in Langley and stood before a marble wall marked with scores of gold stars to commemorate operatives killed in the line of duty. Trump said little about their sacrifice, using the speech instead to make false claims about the size of his inauguration crowd.
Trump also has publicly questioned the intelligence community’s judgment last year that Russian officials authorized meddling in the U.S. election in an effort aimed, in part, at helping him beat Hillary Clinton.
Pompeo has backed that assessment as CIA chief, but previously falsely claimed that officials determined that Russian meddling had no impact on the outcome of the election. The declassified intelligence community report issued in January 2017 did not address that question one way or another.
Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he would support Haspel’s nomination and looked forward to holding the confirmation hearing.
“I know Gina personally, and she has the right skill set, experience and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies,” he said.