President Trump’s nominee to take over the CIA faces a painful confirmation hearing in the Senate and a narrow political path to secure the job.
Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel is a career intelligence officer widely respected within the agency but tied up inextricably with one of the ugliest chapters in its history.
She ran a secret prison in Thailand where a suspect in the 2001 terror attack was waterboarded 83 times — and then was involved with ordering evidence about that waterboarding to be destroyed.
The CIA’s network of secret prisons and use of brutal interrogation techniques, which critics also call torture, has been a political ulcer for the intelligence community since the administration of President George W. Bush.
Haspel’s role in it meant that when President Trump nominated her for the No. 2 job last year, critics within and outside of Congress called for her to be blocked even though she did not require Senate confirmation.To become full director, however, she will. Haspel is up for the top job because Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday and announced he planned to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take his place.
Haspel would be the first woman to lead the CIA, and Trump told reporters outside the White House he had gotten to know her well.
Opponents started early in making clear that they believe the Senate intelligence committee should not confirm Haspel.
“During Gina Haspel’s long tenure at the CIA, she oversaw the agency’s torture and rendition program, one of the bleakest chapters in our nation’s history. No one who had a hand in torturing individuals deserve to ever hold public office again, let alone lead an agency,” said Raha Wala, director of national security advocacy for Human Rights First.
“To allow someone who had a direct hand in this illegal, immoral, and counterproductive program is to willingly forget our nation’s dark history with torture.”
Key Democrats also are expected to oppose Haspel. Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico both wrote Trump last year to say they felt she should not get the deputy director job at CIA.
Wyden said on Tuesday he feels the same way now.
“Ms. Haspel’s background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director. Her nomination must include total transparency about this background, which I called for more than a year ago when she was appointed deputy director,” his statement read. “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.”
If Democrats elect to oppose Haspel as a bloc in committee or the full Senate, Republicans will need every vote in order to confirm her, assuming the ailing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., remains absent from the chamber.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., opposed Pompeo as CIA director, and if he opposes Haspel as well, that could make for a narrow tightrope to walk.
The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, however, appeared eager to get Haspel’s nomination on his committee’s calendar.
“I know Gina personally and she has the right skill set, experience, and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
“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.”