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The Misleading Rationales for Gina Haspel's Nomination as CIA Director

This week the nomination of Gina Haspel to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is expected to go to the Senate for a floor vote. In the maneuvering surrounding this nomination an assortment of reasons have been advanced—by Ms. Haspel herself, senators, and pundits—for why she ought to be confirmed despite the fact that she has not acknowledged her participation in the CIA torture program or forthrightly answered questions about it. These assorted rationales are misleading and here’s why.

 The leading rationale has to be Ms. Haspel’s own—that with her leadership the CIA will never again torture. The CIA put this out in its advance look at what the nominee would say at her May 9 nomination hearing, and that, indeed, is almost the only bit of substance in the open session. Others who have echoed Haspel’s theme add that this is why we want a professional at the head of the CIA. President Donald J. Trump, however, extolled the value of torture on the campaign trail in 2016 and promised even more waterboarding. Is Ms. Haspel going to defy the president? Spy chieftains who reject presidential desires never last. Thatis the lesson of history. In late 2005, pressed by George W. Bush’s White House, CIA director Porter J. Goss (who could be taken as a “professional” because he served as an agency officer before his political career), aware of the public surfacing of CIA torture and the increasing restiveness among his people, told the White House no. A few months later he was out on his ear. Before that you have to go back to 1975 to find a CIA director who dared defy a president. That was Bill Colby, who believed that a degree of cooperation with congressional investigations of intelligence was required to avoid the CIA being swept away, and overrode Gerald Ford’s preference to stonewall. President Ford fired Colby on November 1, 1975. The most likely result of Gina Haspel rejecting a Donald Trump demand to restart CIA torture will be a new CIA director.

 Texas senator John Cornyn, who is a member of the Senate intelligence committee, argues that Ms. Haspel ought to be confirmed because of her qualifications, her character, and the spurious claims of her critics. Qualifications and character are really about the person—one thing not two—and since the CIA has refused to declassify anything substantive about Gina Haspel it is impossible to make a considered judgment in that matter. At the same time the two real—and validated by previously declassified documents—things known about Haspel both concern her participation in the CIA torture program. They go directly to character. To call these “spurious” charges from critics, Cornyn invokes the sorry record of earlier Senate and Justice Department investigations—and the CIA’s own careful misleading of Congress in its briefings—as an argument that the CIA is being persecuted for what Congress decided later was unlawful. Cornyn seems to ignore the multiple international conventions and U.S. domestic laws that make torture a crime, then and now. As John McCain once said to Porter Goss, “It’s all torture.” In addition, changing the subject says nothing about Gina Haspel.

Another intelligence committee member, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, declared that not confirming Ms. Haspel would send the wrong message to CIA employees. This is a form of the same argument that John Brennan, when he was CIA director, used to try and discredit the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation of CIA torture. It suddenly seems the brave and skillful women and men of the CIA will rebel if not sent the right messages—and that they are entitled to them. More to the point, the message a Haspel appointment will send to the worldis that the United States is willing to put a suspected torturer at the head of its security service. That would seem much more chilling. 

John Sipher, a respected former CIA officer, at least acknowledges that Ms. Haspel’s role in the CIA torture program was “both messy and complex.” He proceeds to say she should be confirmed because she has the required integrity, experience, and personality. If we had a declassified record of Ms. Haspel’s service we could make a judgment on that. But we don’t—and Gina Haspel is the top CIA official in charge of declassification.I, for one, would like to draw a proper conclusion on Haspel’s integrity and experience but she is preventing that. Here again we have an element that speaks to integrity.

Conservative columnist Marc Thiessen escalates the rhetoric, declaring that sidetracking the Haspel nomination would be a greater attack on America’s intelligence professionals than anything Donald Trump has done. Considering that the FBI is a member of the U.S. intelligence community, and what Mr. Trump has done and is doing to them, that remark is foolish at best. Thiessen hints at, but Washington Post columnist David Ignatius puts better, the argument that Ms Haspel should be approved because she is expert on Russia as an intelligence target, and the contingent Moscow rules. 

At last—a proposition based on actual espionage tradecraft! Problem is that CIA directors are about management, the workforce, ambassadorship, and Congress, plus the president. Shoring up morale is likely to be difficult for someone who bears the stigma of the torture program. Retreating into managing the workforce will make Haspel less, not more visible. Some foreign allies are likely to frown on an American superspy with Ms. Haspel’s background. Judging from her nomination hearing, this CIA director will have a difficult time with Congress. And as for Donald Trump, that is what it is.

Ms. Haspel also will not have much scope for her espionage tradecraft. CIA directors do not run field agents, nor should they become very directly involved in operations. Langley’s excitement at having an agent inside Al Qaeda was among the factors that made CIA vulnerable to the Forward Operating BaseChapman terrorist bombing in 2009 where, Ms. Haspel tells us, she lost her friend and colleague Jessica Matthews. CIA officer Robert Baer attributes failure of an agency-backed effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein in the mid-90s in part to high level interference. The last CIA director to actively run agents was Bill Casey—and that led to Iran-Contra. In short, Gina Haspel’s Russia expertise is interesting but shouldnot be considered dispositive.

This nomination process should be slowed down. We are looking at an effort to railroad the Senate and put Ms. Haspel into Langley’s 7th floor director’s suite. The nominee has not answered the major questions about her service. The information supplied about Ms. Haspel is inadequate. The reasons various persons have given for approving her nomination are laced with holes. Republicans in the Senate are acting like a runaway jury.