The Trump White House has chosen as the CIA’s deputy director a veteran clandestine spy, Gina Haspel—an insider respected across the agency for her time in the field, but controversial for her role in the Bush-era harsh interrogation program.
Undercover her whole career, Haspel served as chief of staff to then-CIA counterterrorism chief Jose Rodriguez when al Qaeda suspects were subjected to waterboarding and other techniques like sleep deprivation at so-called black sites from Europe to Asia. She reportedly ran one of those sites, before working at the counterterrorism center where Rodriguez decided to destroy more than 90 videotapes chronicling some of the interrogations.
Her proximity to the program stymied Haspel’s chance to lead the clandestine service under the Obama administration. Her selection now is a clear signal that the Trump administration is closing the books on the controversy—or at least is prepared to ignore any Democratic and human-rights critics of the appointment.
President Donald Trump has said he won’t return to “enhanced interrogation methods,” deferring to his Defense Secretary James Mattis’s rejection of so-called EITs as torture. Congress passed legislation making the U.S. Army Field Manual the only legal procedure for interrogation. But Haspel’s appointment will signal that CIA officers need no longer be haunted by having followed what they thought were lawful orders at the time.
“There will be people who will be upset. While she wasn’t in the operations chain, she was working there when the tapes were destroyed,” said one former senior intelligence officer, speaking anonymously in order to discuss the once-classified program.
'“Her background makes her unsuitable for the position,” wrote Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM), in a letter to the president Thursday. Wyden and Heinrich were among those on the Senate Intelligence Committee who helped produce a 6,000-plus page classified report on the program, denouncing it as ineffective and calling the techniques torture.
The ACLU called Haspel “a person who has been the subject of credible reports of having run a secret CIA torture prison and then lobbied to destroy evidence of the crimes committed there,” said its Washington deputy director, Christopher Anders, in an email. “[New CIA Director Mike] Pompeo must explain to the American people how his promotion of someone allegedly involved in running a torture site squares with his own sworn promises to Congress—made just two weeks ago—that he will reject all forms of torture and abuse.”
The CIA disagrees with the Senate report’s conclusions and insists Haspel had no role in destroying evidence from the program, but will not comment further on her time undercover.
“The destruction of videotapes was thoroughly investigated by the FBI and Justice Department,” which decided not to pursue charges in 2010, said CIA spokesman Heather Fritz Horniak on Thursday. “Since that time, former CIA officer Jose Rodriguez has been quite clear in public that the decision to destroy the videotapes was his and his alone.”
“She drafted a cable instructing a field station to destroy videotapes of CIA interrogations of senior al Qaeda operatives,” but did so believing that it was lawful, wrote former acting CIA Director Michael Morell at The Cipher Brief. “I personally led an accountability exercise that cleared Haspel of any wrongdoing in the case.”
The choice of an experienced insider is welcome news to an agency bruised by Trump’s derisive tweets about the intelligence community and his controversial speech in front of the memorial to the CIA’s fallen.
Pompeo interviewed nearly 70 current and former CIA officers over the last several weeks to make his choice, according to a former senior intelligence officer familiar with the process, speaking anonymously to discuss confidential deliberations.
“The two most important qualities in the profession are judgment and discretion, and she has them in abundance,” said former acting director of the CIA John McLaughlin in an interview. The CIA announcement included a raft of statements of support, including one from Obama administration Director of National Intelligence Gen. James Clapper. “She has the broad-gauged experience from both foreign and domestic assignments to serve as the right arm for Director Pompeo,” Clapper said.
Haspel already has solid working relationships with partner intelligence agencies in the U.K. and Europe, key to the intelligence sharing needed to track the so-called Islamic State and al Qaeda, among other threats, and she’s well-versed in the inner workings of the CIA drone program, another former senior intelligence official said, speaking anonymously to discuss CIA matters.
Haspel joined the CIA in 1985, serving extensively overseas, often as chief of station in many of her assignments, according to a statement Thursday from the agency. Her multiple posts in Washington, D.C., include deputy director and chief of staff of the National Clandestine Service, deputy director of the National Clandestine Service for Foreign Intelligence and Covert Action, and a stint at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center.
Her counterterrorism experience is a nod to the ranks of officers who’ve served in war zones battling al Qaeda and ISIS, among others, since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. And most important for the women serving at the agency, her appointment is a nod to efforts to promote more women to senior posts. The first woman to hold the deputy post was Avril Haines, under the Obama administration, but Haspel will be the first career woman officer to rise this high.
“There’ve been a lot of questions over the years about the glass-ceiling aspect. She is the breakthrough,” said another senior intelligence officer who has worked with Haspel, describing her as a female Bob Gates, who went on from CIA service to run the agency, and later run the Pentagon. “It’s only a matter of time before a woman runs… the CIA,” the official said.
Known as practical and down to earth, and an avid reader of mystery novels, she’s fought fiercely on behalf of those who work for her, including those who faced investigation under the Obama administration for taking part in the interrogation program—and the loved ones of those lost.
“Whenever we lost an officer or had an officer in distress, this is a woman who said, ‘We have to take care of them,’” said Robert Richer, former associate deputy director of operations for the CIA’s counterterrorism center. “She speaks truth to power—and stands up for those she works with.”