After a protracted confirmation battle that resurrected a raw, nationwide debate about the agency’s post-9/11 use of enhanced interrogation techniques — thought by many to have constituted torture — Gina Haspel will officially become director of the Central Intelligence Agency. She is the first operations officer in more than five decades – and the first-ever woman – to be named to the role.
On Thursday, the Senate voted, 54-45, to confirm Haspel, one day after the, reported her nomination favorably. Overall, six Democrats voted in support of her candidacy; two Republicans, Sens. Flake and Paul opposed it.
President Trump, while announcing that her predecessor, former CIA director Mike Pompeo, was being tapped to lead the State Department. The president also praised her confirmation in a tweet.
Much ofwas spent in the clandestine service, and remains classified. Her reported oversight, in 2002, of a secret “black site” in Thailand — where detainees were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding — generated widespread controversy and ardent condemnation from civil rights groups. Her involvement in ordering the destruction, in 2005, of 92 videotapes – some of which documented the interrogations — while serving as chief of staff to then-Director of the clandestine service Jose Rodriguez was also roundly criticized.
Among those opposed was Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who survived years of torture as a POW in Vietnam, and who, as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer, was not present for the floor vote. Last week McCain issued a powerful statement opposing Haspel’s candidacy, calling her role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans “disturbing.”
“Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” McCain said, citing Haspel’s reluctance, during her public hearing, to provide a “yes” or “no” answer to a question from California Democrat Sen. Kamala Harris on the subject. McCain’s opposition became a key factor in swaying Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s vote, and was cited by a number of Democrats who spoke out against her nomination in the following days and, just before the vote, on the Senate floor.
“There is no greater voice on this subject than John McCain’s,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, citing his “powerful and unimpeachable views” as reason to oppose Haspel’s candidacy. As he had done in the weeks leading to the vote, Wyden also criticized parts of Haspel’s background, the extent to which it remained classified, and her reluctance to admit, during her hearing, that the interrogation program was morally objectionable. “This nomination process has been a disservice to our constitutional duties, to our democratic principles and to the American people,” Wyden said.
Those speaking out in favor of Haspel’s candidacy – like Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Virginia — cited, among other things, the immense support for Haspel from within the CIA. “I have heard from many Agency officers, and for that matter, members of the rank and file of other Intelligence Community agencies,” Warner, who had announced his intention to support Haspel on Tuesday, said. “And almost to a person, this rank and file have supported her nomination.”
He conceded he struggled with the decision: “To those here who have concluded that Ms. Haspel’s background with the [Rendition, Detention and Interrogation] program should preclude her from leading the CIA — I respect their arguments, and I know the passion with which they put forward their position.”
“I strongly believe that we, as Americans, have a duty to look squarely at our mistakes, and to not sweep them under the rug, but to learn from them, and in the future, to do better,” Warner said.
After news of her confirmation broke, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which led a sustained campaign in opposition to her nomination, called the process a “cover-up” and a “disgrace to our democracy.”
“Gina Haspel’s confirmation is a black mark in our history, one we will regret,” the ACLU said in a statement.
Even as seminal strategic and policy decisions are being made by the Trump administration with regard to adversaries like Russia, North Korea and Iran, it was Haspel’s past connection to enhanced interrogation and her current views on the morality of program that made up the overwhelming focus of her confirmation process. And although only three years – from 2001 to 2004 – of her 33-year career at the CIA were spent working within the agency’s counterterrorism operations, it was principally that period that proved to be of highest interest and of greatest concern to senators examining her eligibility.
In the run-up to her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the CIA engaged in a uniquely persistent campaign to disclose some elements of Haspel’s background and interests without compromising what it said were necessarily classified details. Apart from releasing mostly anodyne factoids about Haspel – that she was a fan of Johnny Cash and British mystery novels – the agency also made public a minimally descriptive timeline of her career, much of which was spent overseas and some of which was spent in some of the more dangerous parts of the world. As objections to her role in the destruction of the interrogation tapes intensified, the CIA also released an eight-page disciplinary review memorandum, written in 2011 by former CIA acting director and CBS News contributor Michael Morell, which cleared Haspel of any wrongdoing.
“I have found no fault with the performance of Ms. Haspel,” the memorandum said. “I have concluded that she acted appropriately in her role as Mr. Rodriguez’s Chief of Staff.”
Some senators, like Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, ultimately disparaged the agency’s moves as self-serving, accusing it of engaging in “selective declassification” while withholding damaging information about Haspel’s background.
Her May 9 confirmation hearing, from which five Democrat senators – Wyden; Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico; Kamala Harris, D-California; Dianne Feinstein, D-California; and Angus King, I-Maine – came away unpersuaded of Haspel’s suitability for the role.
After the hearing, Haspel – and her supporters with influence, mainly former CIA heads – worked behind the scenes with senators to remedy what came to be perceived as missteps at the hearing. She made repeated trips to Capitol Hill and, the day before her Senate Intelligence Committee vote, sent a letter to Warner more forcefully stating her views on the interrogation program.
“Over the last 17 years, the agency and I have learned the hard lessons since 9/11,” she wrote. “While I won’t condemn those that made these hard calls, and I have noted the valuable intelligence collected, the program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world.”
“With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken,” Haspel wrote. “The United States must be an example to the rest of the world, and I support that.”
It will now be up to Haspel to navigate an increasingly complex array of national security challenges while maintaining a stasis, domestically, between her agency and a president who has been known to be suspicious – and sharply critical – of its activities in the past. Though the relationship between Mr. Trump and the intelligence community – acrimonious at the start of his presidency – improved at now-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s coaxing, Haspel is not known to have or to want to imitate her predecessor’s uniquely effective bedside manner.
Especially as investigations into any of his campaign’s connections with Russian actors deepen, it may not be long before Haspel is forced to deliver some hard truths while in the Oval Office – something she and her supporters promised repeatedly she would neither shy from doing, nor fail to do.