The second half of the story of the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the drama around the upcoming cabinet shuffle. Current CIA director Mike Pompeo is slated to take the helm at State, while Trump intends to nominate Pompeo’s deputy at Langley, career intelligence officer Gina Haspel, to run the CIA. The West Wing has not yet sent either nomination to the Senate.
Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985, would be the first woman to run the agency since its founding in 1947. In any other political environment, that fact would be celebrated. But in the era of perpetual resistance, it is casually tossed aside while people focus on a more unflattering episode in her career.
Haspel is in for a rough nomination process, with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul already threatening a filibuster over charges that Haspel was complicit in what Paul says was torture of terror suspects in a CIA “black site” in Thailand in the early 2000s. There has been a lot of misreporting about the issue, although not as much about the retractions.
The Waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah
ProPublica is a non-profit news organization whose work you can often hear on National Public Radio. The winner of four Pulitzer Prizes, ProPublica says its mission is “To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”
So you know their starting position. Their website boasts a link titled “leak to us.”
They put a major dent in their reputation this week when they had to retract a story accusing Haspel of overseeing the 2002 interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, accused of being a high-level al Qaeda officer. Zubaydah underwent “enhanced interrogation techniques” while in CIA custody.
In addition to losing an eye, he is one of three people the U.S. government has admitted to waterboarding.
ProPublica reported in February 2017 that Haspel was in charge of the Thailand site when Zubaydah was interrogated there. Last week, the group admitted it was wrong and deleted the old story. It is now clear that although Haspel was in charge of the Thailand site, she did not arrive until later in the year, after the CIA had completed Zubaydah’s interrogation.
Late Thursday afternoon, however, ProPublica published a massive mea culpa, retracting the 2017 story, deleting it, and tweets referring to it, from their archives. “This error,” wrote Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief, “was particularly unfortunate because it muddied an important national debate about Haspel and the CIA’s recent history. To her, and to our readers, we can only apologize, correct the record and make certain that we do better in the future.”
One black mark on her record that has stuck, however, is her role in the destruction of the videotapes of Zubaydah’s interrogation. While ultimately it was not her decision, by all accounts she lobbied heavily in favor of it. But while Sen. Paul is still upset over Haspel’s nomination, and several other senators have said she will need to provide an accounting of her participation in torture, she has defenders in unexpected places.
Top-Level, Bi-Partisan Defenders
Michael Morell, who served as deputy director and acting director of the CIA under President Obama, tweeted Thursday, several hours before ProPublica issued the retraction, that Paul had cited its “factually incorrect” article in his criticism. “Hope he reconsiders on Gina, a highly qualified candidate for CIA,” he added.
John Brennan, for whom Haspel worked as acting director of the National Clandestine Service (formerly, and currently known as the Directorate of Operations), called her “a very competent professional who I think deserves the chance to take the helm at the CIA.”
James Clapper, who served as Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, has taken the role of being one of the harshest critics of Trump administration national security decisions. Yet regarding Haspel, he said thinks “the world” of her, and called her “a tremendous intelligence officer.” He said he thought she’d be “good for the agency —she’s highly respected there — and will be good for the intelligence community.”
And Leon Panetta, who served as both director of the CIA and as secretary of defense under Obama, told CNN, “I’m glad that it’s Gina, because frankly, she is someone who really knows the CIA inside out.” Regarding the torture allegations, Panetta asked people to view it in context of what was considered legal and appropriate at the time, and also as part of “her entire record.”
I think it’s a testament to Haspel’s reputation and professional accomplishments that Trump has selected her, even with so many senior Obama administration officials on her side. While parts of the blogosphere continue to complain about “Obama holdovers” sabotaging the president’s agenda, the fact that Haspel has so many supporters on both sides of the ideological divide is encouraging.
A select group of professionals
The position of director of central intelligence, the predecessor of the director of the CIA, was created in 1946, more than a year before the birth of the CIA. Following the creation of the director of national intelligence in 2005, the DCI became the director of the CIA. In that time, there have been 22 full-time directors.
Only six people who have made a career in intelligence have served as DCI or D/CIA. Two others – Allen Welsh Dulles and William Casey – had intelligence experience, though it wasn’t their career field.
This puts Haspel in a small club within a small club — a club she appears eminently qualified to join. Her professional achievements over the course of her career, combined with her bipartisan support, she should be a no-brainer for confirmation.
Here’s hoping that Rand Paul reads ProPublica’s retraction as carefully as he read the preceding articles.