Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to become the first woman to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, made her career in covert action, but her involvement in controversial interrogations has already provoked Senate opposition to her confirmation.
Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985, earned high-level awards during her career. She was sworn in early last year as deputy director and helps manage intelligence collection, analysis, covert action and counterintelligence.
Trump announced Tuesday he was removing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replacing him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The Senate must vote on Haspel's confirmation to succeed Pompeo.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said he would move to quickly confirm Haspel. "She has the right skill set, experience and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies," he said.
Haspel's past in the agency drew opposition to a potential promotion. Shortly after she became deputy director, senators raised questions about Haspel drafting a cable that called for the destruction of taped CIA interrogations in 2002 at a secret prison in Thailand.
Christopher Anders, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, called Haspel the “central figure in one of the most illegal and shameful chapters in modern American history.”
“She was up to her eyeballs in torture, both in running a secret torture prison in Thailand and carrying out an order to cover up torture crimes by destroying videotapes,” Anders said. “One man held at the secret prison she ran was waterboarded 83 times, slammed against walls, sleep-deprived and locked in a coffin-like box. After she was promoted to a position back at CIA headquarters, she worked to destroy evidence of the torture crimes committed at the prison she ran.”
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Trump said in a statement that Haspel’s appointment would be “a historic milestone.” Haspel and Pompeo “have worked together for more than a year and have developed a great mutual respect," he said.
Haspel said that after 30 years at the CIA, she was honored to serve with Pompeo during the past year. “If confirmed, I look forward to providing President Trump the outstanding intelligence support he has grown to expect,” she said.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., called Haspel “an excellent choice” and a “true professional.”
John Brennan, a former CIA director, told MSNBC the "very controversial" interrogation program Haspel was connected with was approved by President George W. Bush and deemed lawful by the Justice Department.
“Gina Haspel has a lot of integrity,” Brennan said. “She has tried to carry out her duties at CIA to the best of her ability, even when the CIA was asked to do some very difficult things in very challenging times.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was tortured as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, said the Senate would need the same commitment from Haspel as Pompeo gave to comply with the Army Field Manual’s rules for interrogation. He called the decision to waterboard prisoners after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, “dangerously misguided” and said the techniques are clearly banned now.
“The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history,” McCain said. “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process.”
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said he opposes Haspel to head the CIA. “Ms. Haspel's background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director,” he said. “If Ms. Haspel seeks to serve at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence, the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from her past.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., voted against Pompeo’s nomination and said, “Haspel has done much worse.”
“Not only did she directly supervise the torture of detainees, but she also participated in covering it up by helping to destroy the video evidence,” said Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient. “Her reprehensible actions should disqualify her from having the privilege of serving the American people in government ever again.”
The month Haspel became deputy director, Wyden and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., raised questions about Haspel drafting the cable that called for destruction of taped CIA interrogations. They're still waiting for answers. "Her nomination must include total transparency about this background, which I called for more than a year ago when she was appointed deputy director," Wyden said.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights filed a legal intervention with German prosecutors last year, calling for an arrest warrant for Haspel.
“Those who commit, order or allow torture should be brought before a court — this is especially true for senior officials from powerful nations,” Wolfgang Kaleck, the group’s general secretary, said in filing the documents in June 2017. “The prosecutor must, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, open investigations, secure evidence and seek an arrest warrant. If the deputy director travels to Germany or Europe, she must be arrested.”
Before rising to deputy director, Haspel served overseas as chief of station in several assignments for the agency. In Washington, she became deputy director of foreign intelligence and covert action and chief of staff for the clandestine service’s director.
She received the George H.W. Bush Award for excellence in counterterrorism, the Donovan Award, the Intelligence Medal of Merit and the Presidential Rank Award, the most prestigious award in the civil service.