Gina Haspel, a Kentucky native, loves Johnny Cash so much she keeps a 5-foot-tall poster of the country music star in her office at the Central Intelligence Agency. She became a spy more than three decades ago, a time when few women filled that job, and rose through the ranks holding some of the agency’s most sensitive posts.
She once orchestrated a last-minute operation that captured two terrorists linked to the bombing of an embassy — earning one of the agency's highest honors, according to her official biography.
When she appears before the U.S. Senate as President Trump’s nominee to run the agency, however, all that could fade in the glare of one chapter in a long career — her role after the Sept. 11 attacks, when she was stationed at a “black site” in Thailand where detainees were waterboarded.
Haspel's supporters, who include intelligence veterans from both political parties, say the full measure of her experience has perfectly prepared her to head the nation’s premiere spy agency. Not only would she be the first woman to hold that job, she would be only the second director in the agency’s history to have spent an entire career in its clandestine service — responsible for the difficult decisions that officers in the field face every day.
She remained undercover until last year, when she took over the agency’s No. 2 position, and her agency-approved biography leaves many gaps.
The agency won’t say, for example, what role she played in counter-terrorism operations or in which countries she served — although it’s known her first overseas assignment was in Africa and she once headed the agency’s station in London, a prestigious posting involving close coordination with the United States' closest ally.
That classified background poses a challenge for senators vetting her nomination.
“I think the more transparency, the better,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has demanded more information from Haspel, focusing on her role in Bush-era "enhanced interrogation techniques." He has sent her a detailed list of questions about waterboarding, forced nudity, slapping and sleep deprivation.
"We now know that these techniques not only failed to deliver actionable intelligence, but actually produced false and misleading information," wrote McCain, who suffered torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
“The use of torture compromised our values, stained our national honor, and threatened our historical reputation," he wrote.
Haspel’s personal views on torture remain unclear, as do her thoughts on challenges facing the United States, including Russian political interference, North Korea’s nuclear program and the grinding battle against Islamic State in the Middle East.
All of that will face close scrutiny when her hearings convene.
“No one really likes to go through it,” said Michael Vickers, a former intelligence and defense official who went through the confirmation process twice during his career. "People have compared it to a proctology exam. You get your life laid out."
The process could prove especially intense in the closely divided Senate. Republicans hold 51 seats in the Senate, but GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has already announced his opposition to Haspel. McCain’s support is in doubt as he spends time away from the Senate battling cancer.
That means Haspel will almost certainly need some Democratic votes. A pivotal one could be that of Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the previous Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who led the drafting of a 2014 report criticizing the use of torture.
When Trump announced Haspel’s nomination, Feinstein said, “To the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director.”
But she has since toughened her rhetoric, saying she was "very wary" of promoting someone "so heavily involved in the torture program."
“Her experience may have served her well as deputy, but the top position is another matter entirely,” Feinstein said.
Haspel, 61, was born in Ashland, Ky., the first of five children, but grew up on military bases around the world while her father served in the Air Force, the CIA says.
She returned to her home state to attend the University of Kentucky, later finishing a journalism degree with honors at the University of Louisville in 1978, the university confirmed.
After graduating, she got a job running the library and foreign language lab at a Special Forces base in Massachusetts. Vickers, a Green Beret at the time, remembers bumping into the studious and eager young contractor at the library and suggesting a career at the CIA.
Anxious for a job that would let her work overseas and use her love of languages, Haspel banged out an application on her manual typewriter and dropped it in the mail.
"I wanted to be part of something bigger than just me," Haspel said in one of a handful of statements released by the agency.
The CIA was trying to diversify beyond white, male Ivy League graduates, and Haspel began a 33-year career in which, former colleagues said, she earned respect by taking tough assignments and navigating the agency with a quiet professionalism.
"She is just as good at the corridors of Washington as she is in the back alleys in the Middle East,” said Hank Crumpton, one of several former CIA officers who have spoken out in her support.
The agency has deployed its public relations apparatus to support Haspel’s nomination, releasing a biography with cinematic detail but also many gaps.
Her experiences read like redacted CliffsNotes from a spy thriller — the agency says Haspel “learned to recruit and handle agents” but not in which countries; she “survived a coup d'etat” but not when; and “ran a small station in an exotic and tumultuous capital,” but not where.
Nor has the CIA said which embassy bombing led to the operation that earned Haspel an award in 1999. (The previous year saw attacks at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.)
Over the years, Haspel also gained expertise with a country dominating today’s headlines — Russia.
While based at agency headquarters in Langley, Va., she worked on operations to recruit Russian agents who could feed intelligence back to the United States, according to Michael Sulick, a former CIA official who was stationed in Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Sulick described her as "calm, very unflappable, very smart.”
Assessing Russian actions and motives could present a challenge: Trump has publicly downplayed threats from Russia.
Mary Margaret Graham, a former CIA official, said Haspel wouldn’t hesitate to share hard truths with superiors.
"I don't think there's any question in my mind that Gina does that,” she said.
About halfway through her career, Haspel requested a transfer to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Her first day on the job was Sept. 11, 2001.
“She walked in amid the commotion, sat down at a computer, and got to work,” the agency said.
Her official biography then glosses over the subsequent years, omitting some of the most controversial aspects of her career.
Five days after the attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney talked about working on the “dark side” to thwart Al Qaeda. Terrorism suspects were imprisoned in secret facilities around the world; some were tortured. The techniques were approved by government lawyers, but are now banned.
Some details of Haspel’s role can be gleaned from the writings of former officials, including Jose Rodriguez, who ran the counter-terrorism center at the time.
In his 2012 book “Hard Measures,” Rodriguez described dispatching a woman named “Jane,” a “superstar” at the agency, to one of the earliest black sites. The woman was Haspel, former officials said, and the facility was in Thailand.
Haspel reportedly arrived at the site after the brutal interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda suspect currently imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. But Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who officials said was involved in the 2000 bombing of the guided missile destroyer Cole along the Yemeni coast, was also waterboarded there three times.
The government has gone to great lengths to keep Haspel’s involvement under wraps, claiming last year that secrets crucial to national security would be revealed if she testified in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Haspel’s posting in Thailand led to another controversy.
Interrogations at the black site were recorded. Officials wanted to destroy the tapes when they closed the site in 2002 because they feared the location would leak to the media, Rodriguez wrote.
Instead, the 92 tapes ended up in a safe at the CIA station in Thailand, where they sat for years. Rodriguez ramped up his efforts to destroy them after the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004, when leaked photographs showed Iraqi prisoners being mistreated by U.S. forces. He wrote that he feared the recordings could inflame tensions in the Middle East or help expose officers involved if they became public.
The issue drew in lawyers at the CIA, the Justice Department and the White House. John Rizzo, the acting CIA general counsel at the time, wrote in his 2014 book “Company Man” that Rodriguez and his chief of staff — Haspel — were “the staunchest advocates inside the building for destroying the tapes.”
“On the edges of meetings on other subjects, in the hallways, they would raise the subject almost every week,” Rizzo wrote.
Finally Rodriguez issued the order on his own.
“My chief of staff drafted a cable approving the action that we had been trying to accomplish for so long,” Rodriguez wrote. The cable directed officials to feed the tapes into an "industrial-strength shredder" to turn them into "confetti."
The decision sparked turmoil within the agency. Two years later, when the New York Times reported what had happened, top lawmakers, who had been briefed on the existence of the tapes but not their destruction, were outraged. Some accused the CIA of a cover-up. However, no charges were filed by a special prosecutor appointed to review the episode.
Haspel’s involvement in the interrogations appeared to become a sticking point for some senators when she was poised to advance within the agency in 2013.
She was acting director of the National Clandestine Service, responsible for espionage and covert action around the world, and under consideration to keep the position permanently. But John Brennan, the CIA director at the time, selected Frank Archibald, a veteran officer who had previously reported to Haspel as the chief of the Latin American division.
Brennan said in a statement that he chose Archibald because he was more experienced and denied that politicians’ concerns played a role. Haspel became the deputy, a situation that could have fostered resentment, but one that Archibald said led to a close working relationship.
"She said: ‘Frank, I really don't care. I'm all about the job. I'm all about the mission. We're going to be a great team,’” recalled Archibald, who has since retired.
During quiet Saturdays in the office they would “give each other some lip” about college basketball — Haspel rooted for the Kentucky Wildcats, while Archibald remained loyal to the Tigers from his alma mater Clemson — and chew over strategic questions.
“I never saw the moment be too big for her,” Archibald said.
Haspel rose through the ranks again last year, becoming the CIA’s deputy director.
Now the question is whether she can rise higher.
Much will depend on how she answers questions about her role in the interrogations which, a decade after the CIA stopped holding terrorism suspects in secret facilities, continues to haunt the agency.