On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced he would nominate Gina Haspel to be the first woman to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. She’s a top-ranking career official whose won the praises of former intelligence leaders, but some have expressed concern about her past and how she would treat potential terror suspects.
Haspel, 61, joined the CIA in 1985 during the Cold War and appeared to play a substantial role in the United States’ counterterrorism efforts after September 11, 2001. Most recently, she served as CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s deputy and ran the agency’s day-to-day operations while Pompeo spent time at the White House.
She spent most of her 33-year career undercover and helped lead both the National Clandestine Service as well as the Counterterrorism Center.
When Haspel was appointed to deputy CIA director, she received praise from former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who touted her “broad-gauged” experience.
But some of Haspel’s experience raised concerns for lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Haspel’s Controversial Activity at a Secret CIA Prison
According to The New York Times, Haspel was a rising star who shaped her career with her counterterrorism efforts in the early 2000s. While leading a secret CIA prison in Thailand, she reportedly oversaw interrogations that employed enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding.
While one terrorist suspect underwent waterboarding, Haspel reportedly praised the interrogators’ performance. Paul, who said he would try to block Haspel’s confirmation, said she showed “joyful glee at someone who’s being tortured.”
A Senate report on Haspel’s program said that at one point, accused terrorist Abu Zubaydah was “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” Authorities reportedly waterboarded him 83 times.
Haspel was one of multiple CIA officials part of the decision to destroy interrogation videos when the CIA’s methods came under public scrutiny.
Former Counterterrorism Center head Jose Rodriguez said in a memoir that Haspel “drafted a cable” that he sent ordering the tapes’ destruction, according to The Washington Post. Although both the Justice Department and Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the matter, no one faced charges. The CIA, however, blamed Rodriguez for the decision.
Because of Haspel’s alleged role in trying to destroy the videos, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), former chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, blocked her nomination to head the agency’s clandestine service.
Haspel Will Likely Face Tough Questions During Confirmation Hearing
Haspel’s activities will likely bring intense scrutiny during her confirmation hearing in April.
Just after Trump announced he would nominate Haspel, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading Republican who experienced torture in Vietnam, called on the Senate to review Haspel’s participation in the CIA’s interrogation program:
The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history. The Senate must do its job in scrutinizing the record & involvement of Gina Haspel in this disgraceful program. https://t.co/p2eZfMDF5N
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) March 13, 2018
Paul, along with Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), already said he would oppose Haspel’s nomination.
According to Robert Eatinger, a former attorney for the CIA, senators will likely use Haspel’s confirmation hearing as an opportunity to probe deeper about the program.
“It’s going to be the first chance for senators to have someone intimately involved in the program in front of them to answer questions. I think they’ll take full advantage of that opportunity,” he said, according to The New York Times.
But Haspel also appeared to have an unlikely supporter in Feinstein, who, after investigating Haspel, met with her and said she was “a good deputy director” at the CIA.
“Since my concerns were raised over the torture situation, I have met with her extensively, talked with her,” Feinstein said. “She seems to have the confidence of the agency, which is good.”
Haspel found another unlikely defender in Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who said she did what was “the accepted practice of the day.”
“As a 30-year professional in the CIA, I have much more comfort in that than putting someone in who is a politician,” he said.
Other Republican lawmakers, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), also highlighted Haspel’s experience.
“She’ll have to answer for that period of time, but I think she’s a highly qualified person,” Graham said. But he too expressed concern about her previous activities.
“That was an authorized program at the time, that would no longer be legal,” he said. “The problem I would have is if she somehow tried to suggest you could still do that.”
Despite Haspel’s past, however, she received strong backing from both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. The White House’s support might help pressure congressional Republicans into throwing their weight behind her, marking a historic moment as she becomes the first female to lead the CIA.