By Jeff Seldin
Nearly two months after the Central Intelligence Agency launched an almost unprecedented public relations campaign to propel one of their own into the director’s office, the architects of that plan will get to see how well or poorly it worked.
Gina Haspel, a veteran CIA operative and current deputy director, went before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday in a confirmation hearing that most likely will center on her role in carrying out the agency’s enhanced interrogation program and possibly covering it up.
Few in the U.S. intelligence community downplay the importance of such questions, yet they worry such inquiries will overshadow concerns about preserving the professional and objective nature of the nation’s lead spy agency in an era in which hyperpartisan politics is infecting all levels of government.
Perhaps the only thing that is certain is that the hearing is sure to shine an ever brighter light on a woman who has made her career by operating almost entirely in the shadows.
Haspel, in her limited public exposure, appears to be trying to embrace the spotlight.
“Looking forward to Wednesday,” she told reporters Monday during a visit to Capitol Hill, before disappearing into the office of West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.
The comment stood in stark contrast to recent reports that Haspel sought to withdraw her nomination for CIA director and consented to go forward only after White House officials talked to her for hours, persuading her to stay the course.
“She is 100 percent committed to going through this confirmation process and being confirmed as the next leader of the CIA,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Monday, though she refused to shoot down the reports entirely.
“She [Haspel] wants to do everything she can to make sure the integrity of the CIA remains intact, isn’t unnecessarily attacked,” Sanders added.
The notion Haspel would back away from a challenge is foreign to those who have worked with her during her more than 30 years at the CIA.
Former colleagues describe the 61-year-old deputy director as tough, determined and principled, saying she is precisely the type of leader who would inspire confidence and loyalty from those in the intelligence community.
The idea that Haspel would place the well-being of the CIA above her own political fortunes resonates with those who have served with her.
“She’s not in it for glory and publicity or public acclaim,” said Carol Rollie Flynn, who like Haspel served for three decades at the agency, including stints in the clandestine service and at the counterterrorism center.
“I think she’s a genuine public servant who’s in this to do the right thing, do a good job and serve the country,” Flynn told VOA.
“She was self-effacing,” said Carmen Medina, another former colleague and former CIA deputy director of intelligence. “There was just not a lot of ego about her, at all.”
Yet it is precisely those types of qualities that would seem to make Haspel and this White House strange bedfellows.
Whereas President Donald Trump relishes the spotlight of campaign-style rallies and is constantly taking to Twitter to express his views, Haspel has been mostly invisible. Friends noted that Haspel had kept such a low profile that the initial Wikipedia entry on her had a photo of someone else.
And while friends and former colleagues say Haspel is a skilled political operator, they caution she is not a political animal and that she views her role at the CIA in the same way as some of her predecessors. She prefers to give policymakers an unvarnished, objective view of what the intelligence shows, and not color it with any preference for one set of policies or another.
“Gina’s the type of person who can really do that,” Flynn said. “When the policymakers all think their policy’s succeeding, and everything is roses, you’re the person who has to stand up at the table and say, ‘Well, no, Mr. President. That’s not actually the way we see it.’ ”
That approach may also stand in contrast to that of former CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who was often seen as being in lockstep with Trump on policy matters.
And that difference may explain in part why the agency has done so much to push for Haspel’s confirmation.
“An agency professional is what these times require, these times of alternative facts and partisan politics at a high level,” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director and former deputy director who has supported Haspel’s nomination.
“If it is not Gina Haspel, it could be a political figure who might not be as qualified or experienced,” he added.
Medina, who worked with Haspel from 2004 to 2006, feels likewise.
“I feel a certain amount of reassurance to know that the CIA would be led by a professional who I think would cast a very wary eye on anything that would posit the CIA incorrectly … that we would somehow get inappropriately activist on an issue,” she said, admitting, however, that while a more traditional approach might do more to appease many intelligence officers, it also could come with a cost.
“It might make her not as influential perhaps as someone like Pompeo, who has strong ideological views,” Medina said.
There is also a sense that as director, Haspel would be able to do more than just reassure CIA employees that the agency’s traditional role as a provider of unbiased, unpoliticized intelligence is safe.
Many feel she will be able to help soothe allies and cement long-standing ties, even if other aspects of their relationship with the U.S. may be strained.
“Relationships with intelligence services, our foreign partners, are, of course, important for responding to world crises and exchanging information, but more importantly for building the type of trust between governments that over the long term we can cooperate on some of the most difficult issues,” said Mark Kelton, a former colleague and a former deputy director of the National Clandestine Service for Counterintelligence.
“Gina’s done that,” he said. “She’s dealt with the most senior officials of foreign intelligence services and dealt with them effectively.”
Concerns about torture
Still, there are many for whom none of this is enough, given what is known about Haspel’s past.
In 2002, Haspel briefly oversaw a secret CIA prison in Thailand where detainees were subjected to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques.
Additionally, she is accused of drafting a memo calling for the destruction of 92 videotapes of interrogation sessions. The videotapes were destroyed in 2005, leading to a Justice Department investigation that ended without charges. The CIA has always maintained that Haspel’s actions were legal.
“The act of torture is a criminal act,” Alberto Mora, a former general counsel for the Navy, said during a conference call Tuesday.
“Gina Haspel always knew that whatever activities she engaged in had to be taken with the understanding that she could not exceed the boundaries of her authority to commit the criminal act of torture,” he said.
Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, is even more critical.
“These are not assignments where she’s given a choice of either take the position or leave the clandestine service,” he said. “She made a conscious decision to take these jobs, and therefore a conscious decision to be associated with the programs.”
The White House issued a statement Tuesday calling questions about the interrogation program “a false debate,” saying responsibility lies with policymakers who approved the program and not those who carried it out.
The CIA has repeatedly responded to the charges, defending Haspel’s role in her overseas posting, as well as her role in the destruction of the videotapes.
The agency even declassified and released a 2011 memo by former Deputy Director Michael Morell clearing Haspel of any wrongdoing with the tapes.
“I have found no fault with the performance of Ms. Haspel,” said Morell, who has come out in support of Haspel’s nomination.
“I have concluded she acted appropriately in her role,” he wrote. “It was not her decision to destroy the tapes.”
Yet the way the CIA has publicly rallied to defend Haspel has some former officials even more concerned, decrying the effort as shameful.
“We’re seeing an influence campaign, a very strong influence campaign,” said Ali Soufan, a former top anti-terrorism official with the FBI.
“When you selectively decide what information are you going to declassify as part of an influence campaign, you have only one aim and one aim only: to deceive,” he said. “The CIA deserves better than that. America deserves better than that.”
Former colleagues counter that the criticisms cast against Haspel could be applied to any senior leader at the agency at the time.
Late Monday, former CIA Director John Brennan, who served under former President Barack Obama, took to Twitter to defend Haspel:
For a growing number of former and current officials, though, the extent to which the CIA already may have gotten caught up in the extremely partisan debate is in itself perhaps the most worrisome aspect.
“It is reasonable, as a matter of informing the Congress and the public about this nominee, to be putting out public information about her [Haspel],” said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer now with Georgetown University.
“To the extent that any of the releases … go beyond the providing of useful information and seem to take the form of lobbying, then I think it is improper,” he added. “Individual senior officers from the agency, including currently serving officers, can go before the oversight committee and express opinions, pro or con, about Haspel as a potential director, but that is different from an institutional position.”