The reason Gina Haspel’s nomination to be director of the CIA was so popular with her peers — her long years of experience during some of the agency’s most trying days — is the same reason she appears certain to face a tough confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.
Ms. Haspel, who could be the first nonpolitical appointee in decades and the first woman to hold the post, is facing serious questions about her involvement in overseas treatment of suspected terrorist detainees, including waterboarding and prisoner transfer programs.
Some in the intelligence community also worry that she won’t have the access that outgoing Director Mike Pompeo established with President Trump during a historically contentious time between the CIA and the White House. Mr. Pompeo, nominated to be secretary of state, faces what is expected to be a contentious confirmation battle of his own.
“Will [Ms. Haspel] continue to have Pompeo’s access to the Oval Office?” Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview. “He quickly built a positive personal chemistry with the president.”
Mr. Riedel, a 30-year CIA veteran and adviser to four U.S. presidents, is one of several former and current intelligence officials who noted Mr. Pompeo’s ability to shield the agency from Mr. Trump’s wrath. As president-elect, Mr. Trump in January 2016 compared the agency to Nazi Germany for its supposed role in leaking the notorious Democrat-funded dossier of Mr. Trump’s links to Russia.
Since taking office, however, Mr. Trump has trained much of his fire publicly on the FBI and Justice Department, which are still investigating the Russia issue, while largely sparing Mr. Pompeo’s CIA.
Mr. Pompeo, a West Point graduate and Kansas Republican who served three terms in the House of Representatives, cultivated a close relationship with the new president. He briefed Mr. Trump frequently in person and took a small office on an upper floor of the Old Executive Office Building just a short walk from the White House.
The depth of the backing for Ms. Haspel from her peers was on vivid display Monday when dozens of former top intelligence officials from Democratic and Republican administrations signed a joint letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence praising her nomination. Among the 53 signers were three former directors of national intelligence and six former directors of the CIA, all praising Ms. Haspel for “handling some of the most demanding assignments around the globe” in her more than three decades as an intelligence officer.
“Ms. Haspel’s qualifications to be CIA director match or exceed those of most candidates put forward in the Agency’s 70-year history,” the letter added.
But before Ms. Haspel considers where to set up her office as director, she must address what her critics call the darkest chapter in recent CIA history. Her supporters, though, insist the agency took a necessary course that kept America safe after the deadliest attack on the homeland in U.S. history.
‘A healthy debate’ about torture
Ms. Haspel, currently the deputy director at the CIA, will have her confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Although the hearing hasn’t been formally scheduled, it is widely expected by the end of April. The full Senate will then consider her nomination.
Some Democrats and human rights groups have expressed outrage over the selection of Ms. Haspel, and several leading Republican senators are on record insisting that their support hinges on her ability to address CIA interrogation programs conducted during the George W. Bush administration.
Getting particular focus is Ms. Haspel’s time just after 9/11 overseeing a secret CIA-run prison in Thailand where suspected al Qaeda members were waterboarded. At the direction of her office’s supervisor, Ms. Haspel later drafted a cable instructing a field station to destroy videotapes of 92 interrogation sessions.
Despite criticism of her actions, a Department of Justice investigation ended without charges and cleared Ms. Haspel of any wrongdoing. But the that incident could be her biggest obstacle to the top CIA job.
If Ms. Haspel “comes up with convincing arguments to those points, she will get confirmed,” one former agent said.
In a breakfast briefing with reporters in Washington last week, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said as much information as possible will be declassified for senators to judge the nominee.
“Gina plans to be totally transparent in regards to this issue” he said, calling Ms. Haspel an “exceptional, professional and talented individual.”
Late last month, the agency revealed a bit about Ms. Haspel’s more than three decades working undercover. Declassified personal details show that the Kentucky native is a fan of Johnny Cash and grew up overseas on U.S. Air Force bases.
Some see Ms. Haspel’s nomination as a chance to conduct a “healthy debate ” about torture and national security and to remind the country that the CIA did not engage lightly in waterboarding, sleep deprivation and what the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
“Agents did so only after receiving approval from the highest levels of the administration,” said a former senior intelligence official who has worked with Ms. Haspel. “As a result, they prevented another 9/11-style attack.”
A forthright defense could end the effective blackballing of U.S. intelligence professionals facing a deadly, shadowy foe in the post-9/11 global war on terror.
“There should be no bar to future public service by the thousands of CIA officers who worked on or were aware of covert activities like these that were appropriately assigned to the CIA,” said Stephen Slick, a former Clandestine Service officer who heads the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of the CIA and National Security Agency, wrote that while “the long knives” may be out to get her, Ms. Haspel “did nothing more and nothing less than what the nation and the agency asked her to do, and she did it well.”
“Memories fade,” Gen. Hayden said in an opinion piece for The Hill newspaper. “People forget how dangerous the world was after 9/11. That lesson has not been lost on her.”
Former CIA agents such as Mr. Slick are wary of reigniting debates about the agency’s handling of terrorist detainees. President Obama, on taking office in 2009, ordered a halt to the practices but declined to take action against those ordered to carry them out. Agency defenders have also sharply challenged a report by Senate Democrats saying the harsh techniques had not proved effective in getting intelligence and that the CIA tried block oversight of its programs.
“While the country might benefit from a detached, balanced debate on the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies, it is unlikely that the upcoming confirmation hearings will serve that purpose,” Mr. Slick wrote in an email. “The increasing partisanship of national security debates, years of sensationalized media coverage, and the bitter aftertaste from the Senate’s earlier flawed inquiry into the agency’s detention and interrogation activities make it unlikely this issue will be addressed responsibly.”
Said Mr. Riedel, “The CIA’s argument is that it was extraordinary times and that the president had directed them to do this [enhanced interrogation]. The weakness of that argument is that [then-FBI Director Robert Mueller] said, ‘I am not going to do this.’”
Mr. Mueller is now the special counsel leading an investigation into suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and suspected links to the Trump campaign.
Ms. Haspel’s confirmation challenge hasn’t dampened enthusiasm among seasoned CIA hands that one of their own is in line for the top job.
“It is good to have a career intelligence officer running the CIA, rather than a political appointee,” Mr. Riedel said. “For a long time, that was the norm in America, with the bulk of the early directors, for example [William] Colby and [Richard] Helms, having been career intelligence people who got there because of the merit of their accomplishments.”
Having a long familiarity with the agency’s secrets, ways and means — along with the respect of its toughest field operatives — could allow Ms. Haspel to put the agency back on the offense, moving past the political criticisms of the 9/11 years and the more recent criticisms of the intelligence community by Mr. Trump.
Former CIA Moscow station chief Daniel Hoffman said Ms. Haspel is likely to be embraced and celebrated inside the agency by officials whose careers and views exist in a classified setting, far from public view.
“It means a lot to the workforce that one of our own was able to reach the highest ranks of the agency and be promoted to be director,” said Mr. Hoffman. “It’s an incredible statement about how somebody can achieve great things from within, and it matters a lot.”
If confirmed, the 61-year-old will be the first female CIA director.
“CIA has been a boys club for far too long and a boys club in many of the worst ways,” Mr. Riedel said. “Breaking that culture is a good thing.”
• Guy Taylor contributed to this article.