The White House and the CIA are preparing to fight a fierce battle over the nomination of President Donald Trump’s pick to head the agency, Gina Haspel, who is already facing strong opposition over her participation in Bush-era interrogation programs.
If confirmed, Haspel, a 33-year CIA veteran and current deputy director, would become the first woman to head the agency. She is respected as a “pro’s pro,” one former CIA official told CNN, and has had some face time with the President in the past.
But more controversial aspects of her record are presenting potential obstacles. These include her time running the CIA’s secret “black site” prison in Thailand in 2002 called “Cat’s Eye,” the first secret detention facility created after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks designed to allow the CIA to interrogate suspects off the grid, and her later role in the CIA’s destruction of tapes from interrogation sessions of terrorism detainees.
Haspel’s nomination, announced in a tweet from the President on Tuesday morning, came as a surprise to many in the intelligence community and Congress, who are now scrambling to try to get her through the confirmation process unscathed as key senators in both parties have already voiced criticism of Haspel.
Outside Trump’s innermost circle, hardly anyone knew beforehand that Haspel would be nominated. The White House did not notify many of Trump’s national security advisers and officials, according to sources at various national security agencies. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said he was not consulted or given a heads-up before Haspel was selected.
“Senate leadership was notified on Monday morning,” White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told CNN in an email.
Haspel was at the White House during a visit from a South Korean delegation last week, but it’s unclear whether the President specifically discussed the new job with her then or if he made the decision over the weekend. Haspel has briefed Trump on previous occasions, according to two sources close to the White House.
Walters declined to say whether the President interviewed Haspel for the position before nominating her to the CIA post, but said Trump “got to know” Haspel during her time briefing Trump on intelligence matters.
“We are not going to get into internal deliberations, but what I can tell you is that the President got to know Gina Haspel during her time at the White House delivering the President’s intel briefings along with Director Pompeo,” Walters said.
Walters also touted Trump’s “great relationship” with Haspel and said Trump respects her “distinguished career.”
“She has dedicated her life to public service, and the CIA,” Walters said. “Gina Haspel has wide bipartisan support by national security professionals.”
The scramble to prepare
Efforts to prepare Haspel for the confirmation process are already underway.
Typically, a cadre of CIA experts come together to get the candidate ready, as well as former directors and the White House. The candidate will make courtesy calls to senators who will be voting on her nomination.
George Jameson, a more than 30-year veteran of the CIA who worked on multiple different confirmation processes, told CNN the process to get a nominee cleared through Congress varies, especially depending on the candidate’s experience. Haspel, as a career CIA employee, will require less background on the agency.
Prior to the hearing, Haspel will also be subject to written questions, both a general questionnaire and a separate document of specific questions from individual members. Jameson said it’s likely that legislative affairs, the general counsel’s office, congressional affairs, and different subject matter experts throughout the CIA will draw up briefings and papers and prepare questions for what is known as the “murder board.”
According to a former senior intelligence official familiar with the process, the White House will “feed in issues to the team at the agency that is assembling likely questions and contribute to the opening statement. The latter is hugely important in this case, as Gina will need to address clearly and properly the black site/records destruction issues” to “the satisfaction of key committee members.”
Meanwhile, the President’s national security advisers and intelligence officials have kicked off a flurry of meetings to vet Haspel and prepare her for her confirmation hearing.
At one meeting of professional staff of the National Security Council, who were not informed in advance about the nomination, concern was expressed that Haspel might not survive the confirmation process, two sources with knowledge of the matter told CNN. One source noted that officials were already floating alternative names in case Haspel’s past in Thailand wrecked her chances of being confirmed. Caught off guard, they were preparing for the worst, the source said. However, it’s unclear how much of a role the NSC will play as the process continues.
The plan to get Haspel through the nomination process – given the political headwinds – isn’t fully baked within the White House, as they’re “feeling it out,” another adviser with knowledge of the matter said.
However, one US official familiar with the matter told CNN that “Haspel’s qualifications are overwhelming, and anyone who knows the confirmation process knows she is on track to get confirmed, DC men’s rooms gossip not withstanding.”
Sarah Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, told reporters during the White House press briefing on Thursday that “we’re very proud of these nominees,” referring to current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who Trump announced would be replacing Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, and Haspel, “and fully expect them to both be confirmed.”
It isn’t clear if those in Trump’s inner circle are concerned about Haspel’s record or gave it a second thought when Trump announced the news.
The scrambling over Haspel’s nomination stands in stark contrast with that of Pompeo.
Two sources with knowledge of the matter told CNN that Pompeo had known for at least several weeks that he would be making the move and is already working on foreign policy projects behind the scenes. Advisers close to Pompeo are already taking meetings with foreign leaders to discuss upcoming projects and Pompeo’s vision of the department, one source taking such a meeting told CNN.
The mounting opposition
Haspel has already attracted opposition from several senators, including Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. Lawmakers are anticipating a bruising confirmation fight, as several key Republicans say she must answer for her role in the interrogation program. But Haspel has also garnered praise from some Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who led the 2014 report that was harshly critical of the Bush-era programs. Feinstein says she is reserving judgment on Haspel’s nomination until after her confirmation hearing.
On Thursday morning, Feinstein demanded that records relating to Haspel’s career be declassified “in order to fully and fairly review her record and qualifications” and give the American people the chance “to know the actual role the person nominated to be the director of the CIA played in what I consider to be one of the darkest chapters in American history,” she wrote in a letter to Pompeo and Haspel.
Jameson told CNN that the White House and the CIA together are “really going to have to make some decision about what they declassify” about Haspel’s record. However, the senators who are voting for her confirmation can get that information in a classified setting. “They don’t actually need to declassify,” he said. It all depends on if senators will demand open access to information for political gain or transparency for the American public. That debate could prolong the process.
Civil liberties organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have also raised concerns about Haspel’s nomination and are planning to fight her nomination aggressively.
“We are deeply concerned that President Trump has nominated a willing participant in this dark and shameful chapter of CIA history to lead the institution at a time when the United States’ commitment against torture and to the humane treatment of detainees demands unwavering enforcement,” Homer Venters, the director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights, wrote in a press release referring to her role in Thailand.
The CIA declined to comment, and the National Security Council’s spokesman, Michael Anton, did not respond to a request for comment.
Haspel’s controversial career
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, national security and intelligence officials caught off guard by the plot were scrambling to provide the White House with options and intelligence to track down and monitor any future danger. One way the CIA did that was by establishing secret prisons around the world to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects. The first suspect, Abu Zubaydah, was captured in Pakistan, and the CIA ultimately decided to create a facility to house him in Thailand called “Cat’s Eye.”
After Haspel’s nomination, ProPublica a published correction to stories about Haspel’s role in Thailand overseeing the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, concluding that Haspel did not arrive at the base in Thailand until after that interrogation was complete. Zubaydah was not the only suspect subject to such methods at the black site in Thailand once Haspel arrived. There are still questions about her record overseeing other detainees who may have been subjected to enhanced interrogation that are likely to come up in her confirmation hearing.
Haspel, in addition to leading the first “black site” in Thailand, was also involved in the destruction of videotapes that demonstrated the CIA’s use of extreme interrogation methods, including waterboarding, though the former head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez has largely taken the blame for that incident in the public record.
Her involvement in the Bush-era interrogation program is technically still classified, despite widespread public reporting. Senators Wyden, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and now Feinstein, the champion behind the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the interrogation program, are demanding that those records be declassified and subject to review prior to accepting her nomination. Haspel has been undercover for most of her career, so there is not much information publicly available about her decades of service.
David Priess, a former CIA briefer who wrote “The President’s Book of Secrets,” told CNN that Haspel’s involvement in the interrogation program was “a very small slice of her career,” and that she was following policy and adhering to the law throughout — a position many other former CIA leaders have taken publicly in recent days.
“My sense is that most of the people that have interacted with her” both in Congress and in the rest of the government “have felt generally positive” about her and her record, Priess said.
There’s also a sense she’s a popular pick within the agency. Former agency officials have swarmed to TV and radio stations in the two days since she was nominated to congratulate her and defend her record. One former CIA official who has spoken with current employees said Pompeo’s departure was expected after months of rumors, and that Haspel’s nomination was largely welcome, especially as opposed to alternatives like Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee who is close to Trump and was rumored to replace Pompeo months ago.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb, Jeremy Diamond and Jim Sciutto contributed reporting