WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Tuesday has chosen CIA veteran Gina Haspel to be the spy agency’s next director, tapping a woman who spent multiple tours overseas and is respected by the workforce but is deeply tied to the agency’s use of brutal interrogation measures on terrorism suspects.
Haspel, 61, would become the first woman to lead the CIA if she is confirmed to succeed outgoing director Mike Pompeo, who has been picked to serve as secretary of state. Haspel’s selection faced immediate opposition from some lawmakers and human rights groups because of her prominent role in one of the agency’s darkest chapters.
Haspel was in charge of one of the CIA’s “black site” prisons where detainees were subjected to waterboarding and other harrowing interrogation measures widely condemned as torture.
When those methods were exposed and their legality came under scrutiny, Haspel was among a group of CIA officials involved in the decision to destroy videotapes of interrogation sessions that left some detainees on the brink of physical collapse.
Trump announced the move on Twitter on Tuesday, saying that Pompeo would move to the State Department and that Haspel would “become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”
Jameel Jaffer, formerly deputy legal director of the ACLU, said Tuesday on his Twitter feed that Haspel is “quite literally a war criminal.”
But Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, signaled his support for Haspel. “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. “I’m proud of her work and know that my committee will continue its positive relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency under her leadership. I look forward to supporting her nomination, ensuring its consideration without delay.”
Haspel spent much of her 33-year CIA career in undercover assignments overseas and at CIA headquarters, including serving as the agency’s top representative in London and as the acting head of its clandestine service in 2013.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials who have worked with Haspel praised her as an effective leader who could be expected to stand up to the pressures that Trump has often placed on spy agencies – including his denunciations of the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Officials described Haspel as a consummate “insider” and said CIA employees would greet her appointment with some relief, because an intelligence veteran would be back in charge.
“The building will love the fact that she’s an insider,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA officer.
At the same time, former officials cautioned that Haspel will face the challenge of working for a president who rarely reads his intelligence briefings, lashes out publicly at his national security team and rejects findings that don’t comport to his views.
Former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. endorsed the selection of Haspel but warned that she may be forced at times to choose between protecting the integrity of the agency and pleasing Trump.
“I think Gina will be excellent as director, as long as she is ready to be fired at a moment’s notice,” Clapper said in remarks posted to the Cipher Brief news site.
Career CIA officers have seen Pompeo as one of the most overtly political directors in the agency’s history and a staunch public defender of the president. Pompeo repeatedly downplayed Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, saying in a television interview Sunday that Moscow had merely “attempted” to do so.
Haspel, by contrast, has almost no public profile. But she is a visible presence inside CIA headquarters, running day-to-day operations while Pompeo handled the public-facing aspects of the job, making speeches and media appearances and meeting with the president.
“This is not someone who has sharp elbows, but she is a sharp competitor,” said a former senior intelligence official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss Haspel.
Pompeo had a strong rapport with the president, a quality that always makes a director valuable to the rank-and-file. But it is not clear that Haspel has the same close relationship with Trump.
“She does bring continuity after Pompeo,” said the former senior intelligence official, noting the two were in accord on strengthening the agency’s counterterrorism operations. “The question is, how much juice does she have in the White House?”
Her extensive involvement in a covert program that used harrowing interrogation measures on al-Qaeda suspects resurfaced last year when she was named deputy director of the CIA after Trump had signaled as a presidential candidate that he would consider reestablishing agency prisons and resuming interrogation methods that President Barack Obama had banned. Trump never followed through on that plan, which was opposed by senior members of his administration including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who was tortured while imprisoned in Vietnam, said Haspel’s Senate confirmation should be conditioned on securing a pledge to block any plan to reintroduce harsh interrogations. “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program,” McCain said.
Haspel ran one of the first CIA black sites, a compound in Thailand code-named “Cat’s Eye,” where al-Qaeda suspects Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri were subjected to waterboarding and other techniques in 2002.
An exhaustive Senate report on the program described the frightening toll inflicted. At one point, the report said, Zubaida was left “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”
Internal CIA memos cited in a Senate report on the agency’s interrogation program described agency officials who witnessed the treatment as distraught and concerned about its legality. “Several on the team [were] profoundly affected,” one agency employee wrote, “. . . some to the point of tears and choking up.”
Haspel later served as chief of staff to the head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez, when he ordered the destruction of dozens of videotapes made at the Thailand site.
Rodriguez wrote in his memoir that Haspel “drafted a cable” ordering the tapes’ destruction in 2005 as the program came under mounting public scrutiny and that he then “took a deep breath of weary satisfaction and hit Send.”
The Justice Department spent several years investigating alleged abuses in the interrogation program and the destruction of the tapes, but no charges were ever filed.
When she was named deputy CIA director last year, the agency took the unusual step of soliciting testimonials from seven former top intelligence and congressional officials. Their statements of support were included in the agency’s release. Former CIA director Michael Hayden described Haspel as “a trusted friend, lieutenant and guide to the sometimes opaque corridors of American espionage.”
Some believe she had been unfairly penalized for her role in counterterrorism operations that were launched after the 9/11 attacks and carried out with the legal approval of the Justice Department.
Haspel was passed over in 2013 for a permanent assignment as head of the CIA’s clandestine service, although agency officials said the decision was not driven by her connection to the prisons controversy.
The Washington Post’s Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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