President Trump’s latest personnel shake-up comes with a historic first: Gina Haspel is in line to be the first woman to head the CIA.
But the low-key, highly decorated CIA veteran, whose rise through the agency’s vaunted Clandestine Service put her at the center of some the most controversial U.S. intelligence missions of the past half-century, could face a tough confirmation battle.
Human rights groups expressed outrage Tuesday over the pick of Ms. Haspel to replace Mike Pompeo. They said her involvement in one the agency’s darkest periods — the waterboarding and rendition programs in the years after the 9/11 attacks — make her an unsuitable candidate to head the agency.
However, several former high-level U.S. intelligence professionals, as well as many lawmakers, heaped praise on Ms. Haspel, saying she represents an unprecedented choice from within the CIA’s ranks and that her rise to the top is an inspiration for America’s career intelligence officials.
“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,” former CIA Clandestine Service Officer Daniel Hoffman said in an interview. “It’s an incredible statement about how somebody can achieve great things from within. It matters a lot.”
James R. Clapper, President Obama’s director of national intelligence and an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, said he thinks “the world” of the president’s pick and that Ms. Haspel “will be good for the agency and good for the intelligence community.”
Mr. Clapper acknowledged that Ms. Haspel will have to deal with human rights concerns but expressed confidence that the 61-year-old career spy should survive the Senate confirmation process, even if it does turn contentious at times.
Through the ranks
Ms. Haspel began her career in the CIA’s junior officer corps in 1985 and rose quickly through the ranks in the Clandestine Service by the time of the 9/11 attacks.
Ms. Haspel took on a front-row role in the years that followed in the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation techniques against suspected al Qaeda operatives. Critics say the techniques amount to torture.
From 2003 to 2005, she reportedly oversaw a secret CIA “black site” prison in Thailand where al Qaeda suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri were waterboarded — a process that simulates drowning and is widely considered to be a form of torture.
As chief of staff for the Counterterrorism Center, Ms. Haspel wrote a memo instructing a field station to destroy videotapes that purportedly showed CIA officials torturing al Qaeda suspects. The incident is certain to be reviewed at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The agency ultimately cleared Ms. Haspel after an internal investigation, and she continued her climb through the agency’s highest administrative ranks.
When Mr. Trump nominated Mr. Pompeo to head the CIA last year, Ms. Haspel was given the position of deputy director, an internal promotion that did not require Senate confirmation. At the time, Michael Morell, deputy director and then acting director of the CIA under Mr. Obama, defended Ms. Haspel. He said the focus should not be on her past but on how widely respected she is throughout the agency.
In an article for the Cipher Brief, a web-based publication focused on intelligence issues, Mr. Morell argued that Ms. Haspel’s destruction of classified CIA interrogation videotapes was carried out “at the request of her direct supervisor,” Jose Rodriguez, under the belief “that it was lawful to do so.”
“I personally led an accountability exercise that cleared Haspel of any wrongdoing in the case,” Mr. Morell wrote.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a key Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, was one of the first lawmakers to indicate that he would vote against Ms. Haspel because her “background makes her unsuitable to serve.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who was tortured in Vietnam, said Mr. Trump’s nominee will have to detail her involvement in interrogations.
“Current U.S. law is clear in banning enhanced interrogation techniques,” said Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican. “Any nominee for director of the CIA must pledge without reservation to uphold this prohibition.”
Mr. Trump spoke during the 2016 election about reintroducing waterboarding and “a lot worse” but would face steep legal and legislative hurdles to do so. The harsh interrogation techniques have been roundly denounced by human rights groups worldwide.
The groups say Zubaydah, who is now a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, was waterboarded 83 times, slammed against walls, sleep deprived and locked in a coffinlike box during his interrogation by the CIA at the Thailand “black site” prison in 2002.
Raha Wala, the director of national security advocacy at Human Rights First, said that “no one who had a hand in torturing individuals deserves to ever hold public office again, let alone lead an agency.”
“To allow someone who had a direct hand in this illegal, immoral and counterproductive program [to become director] is to willingly forget our nation’s dark history with torture,” Mr. Wala said, according to The Associated Press.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, made no mention of the torture controversy in a statement on Ms. Haspel. Instead, he called her a “consummate intelligence officer and leader.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who had been rumored to be a candidate for the CIA job, said Ms. Haspel’s past shouldn’t hold her back. “The universal respect she commands within the CIA and the broader intelligence community, to include from some of the Obama intelligence officials, just goes to show what good hands the CIA will be in,” Mr. Cotton told Fox News.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, said he backed Ms. Haspel’s nomination. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said in a statement that despite concerns over the torture programs, “to the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director” under Mr. Pompeo.
John O. Brennan, CIA director under Mr. Obama, predicted that Ms. Haspel will face questions about her past involvement in “a very, very controversial program.” But, he added, “she will be confirmed and should be confirmed.”
“She has tried to carry out her duties at CIA to the best of her ability, even when CIA was asked to do some very difficult things in very challenging times,” he said.
Stephen Slick, a former Clandestine Service officer who heads the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an interview that Ms. Haspel’s nomination “is historic on at least two fronts.”
Ms. Haspel “would be the first female CIA director, sending a powerful signal to the many accomplished female officers at the CIA,” Mr. Slick said. “She would also be the first career agency officer with a background in operations to serve as director in more than four decades.”
Mr. Slick said the CIA’s former “rendition, detention and interrogation program remains a source of sharp disagreement even among professional intelligence officers, just as it has been with policy officials and the general public.”
But he also said it’s “important to remember … this program was authorized by [President George W. Bush], confirmed to be lawful by the attorney general and notified to Congress as required by statute.”
“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,” Mr. Slick said.
• Stephen Dinan, S.A. Miller and Sally Persons contributed to this article.