Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, faces a contentious hearing next week before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence amid questions of her central role in some of the agency’s most controversial policies of the post-9/11 era.
Both sides are lobbying heavily ahead of the showdown, and the onetime covert officer will be in entirely new territory when the TV klieg lights flick on and she finds herself publicly debating the morality of tactics that her defenders say helped prevent another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Despite a highly visible campaign of support from intelligence professionals and the White House, Mr. Trump singled out “our Gina” for praise Wednesday at a State Department function.
Ms. Haspel’s detractors have zeroed in on her work last decade overseeing a “black site” in Thailand where a prisoner was waterboarded.
Virtually unknown outside the secretive intelligence community, the 61-year-old former covert field agent enjoys strong support within it.
“She’s the absolute best choice,” Gen. Michael V. Hayden, former CIA and National Security Agency director, said in an interview Thursday. “She’s the woman you want in the room in this administration because she’ll stand up for what the agency believes to be true.”
But with both sides predicting a close confirmation vote in the Senate, opponents are organizing to defeat her. Ms. Haspel’s critics organized a conference call for reporters against her nomination Wednesday at nearly the same time the White House held a conference call for the press in her support.
The American Civil Liberties Union said this week that Ms. Haspel likely would be the first person in the Senate’s history to be confirmed to such a high government post “with a known operational role in using torture.”
Dan Jones, lead author of a Senate Democratic report criticizing the post-9/11 interrogation practices authorized by the George W. Bush administration, said Ms. Haspel was “aware of the deficiencies in the program” while working at the CIA’s counterterrorism center.
But James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence under President Obama and a Haspel supporter, said her direct experience with the debate over extreme techniques and their value would make her a “stalwart” against reinstating them.
After her hearing, scheduled for Wednesday, the full Senate will consider her confirmation. Ms. Haspel will need at least 50 of the chamber’s 100 votes, with Vice President Mike Pence able to break a tie.
Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs, told reporters this week that he was hopeful for enough “courageous Democrats” to get Ms. Haspel confirmed. “I still think at the end of the day it will be a close vote,” he said.
Republicans have a slim 51-49 majority in the chamber.
Several Democrats, including Senate intelligence committee members Dianne Feinstein of California, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Ron Wyden of Oregon, have voiced major concerns. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has been a strong critic of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” practices but is battling brain cancer with speculation in Washington that he might miss the vote.
If he makes it to Capitol Hill, it remains unclear if he will back Ms. Haspel. Mr. McCain was tortured during five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He played a major in role pushing Congress to prohibit the interrogation techniques used on terrorist suspects, stating that they “compromised our values, stained our national honour, and threatened our historical reputation.”
Another uncertain vote is Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and fierce critic of the torture programs who has yet to meet with the nominee.
He told the McClatchy news service last month that he had deep doubts about the nomination.
“I just don’t think it sends a good signal to the world to reward somebody who was involved with waterboarding,” Mr. Paul said. “I think it’s a big mistake.”
Ms. Haspel, currently the CIA’s acting director, is a 30-year veteran of the agency and could be the first nonpolitical appointee in decades and the first woman to hold the post.
For her long years of experience during some of the CIA’s most dangerous days chasing deadly, shadowy al Qaeda operatives around the world, Ms. Haspel has earned deep respect and a well of support from her peers. She has extensive foreign contacts given her multiple overseas assignments and is said to be fluent in several languages.
But that popularity and resume are unlikely to spare her a bruising confirmation fight. She will be forced to defend her role in carrying out some of the most divisive policies the agency has ever implemented.
Ms. Haspel’s actions at the Thai “black site,” a secret prison where suspected al Qaeda operatives were waterboarded, were carried out with presidential approval and later fully cleared during a Department of Justice investigation. But senators are sure to drill into this part of her career, as well as a cable that went out under her name instructing a field station to destroy videotapes of 92 interrogation sessions.
Some see the possibility that the Senate — and American culture at large — might be unable to swallow the bitter truth of what it took to prevent another 9/11-style attack.
“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,” Stephen Slick, a former Clandestine Service officer who heads the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, recently told The Times.
Mr. Slick added, “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.”
Late last month, the agency revealed personal details about Ms. Haspel’s more than three decades working undercover. Declassified information showed that the Kentucky native is a fan of Johnny Cash and grew up overseas on U.S. Air Force bases.
Many who served beside her at the heart of last decade’s covert battles said she is the best candidate for the job.
“She has it all,” former CIA Moscow station chief Dan Hoffman said in an interview. “She came up through the agency doing the three things that really matter. Early in her career, she worked on Russia. Later, she got expertise on liaising with our intelligence partners around the world, and then she has the extensive experience on counterterrorism.”