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Opinion The facts about Gina Haspel and reportorial ‘failure’

Gina Haspel, nominee to be director of the CIA. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

At her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday morning, CIA director nominee Gina Haspel came face to face with a book. “Company Man” by John Rizzo indicated that an official known to be Haspel had run the CIA’s controversial interrogation/torture program in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

As reported in this space Tuesday, that claim in Rizzo’s book has had a lively spring. Reporter Spencer Ackerman of the Daily Beast repeated the claim after checking with Rizzo. But two days later, Rizzo renounced it. “After reading your story, and upon further reflection, I want to make clear that I never intended to suggest in my book that Gina Haspell was in charge of CIA’s interrogation program. She was not. I have nothing further to say on this subject other than to stress that I fully support her nomination to be CIA Director,” Rizzo emailed to Ackerman. A CIA spokesperson also said that “this specific claim” was inaccurate.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) went straight at this controversy. Here’s the exchange:

FEINSTEIN: In his memoir, former CIA [high-ranking lawyer] John Rizzo described how, in 2005, Jose Rodriguez was promoted to be deputy CIA director for operations and installed as his chief of staff an officer from the counterterrorist center who had previously run the interrogation program. Is that you?
HASPEL: Senator, I am so pleased you asked me that question. Um —
FEINSTEIN: Yes or no will do.
HASPEL: No. And for the record, if you have your staff check, Mr. Rizzo has issued a correction. It is true that it is hard for, in a secret…
FEINSTEIN: In my understanding, he recently confirmed that it was you.
HASPEL: No, he issued a correction. When people write books — I didn’t read Mr. Rizzo’s book so I didn’t even know that was out there. Mr. Rizzo — and actually I read about it in The Washington Post last night. Erik Wemple, I believe, wrote a story talking about the failure of certain organizations to correct their facts, and that was one of them. And he noted that Mr. Rizzo, about ten days ago, he was wrong, he didn’t fact-check. And that has been corrected. I…never even served in that department, nor was I the head of it.

Bolding inserted to highlight one interpretation of the post in question. Another interpretation is that hard facts on Haspel’s 30-plus-year record climbing the ranks at the CIA are very difficult to procure. Since Haspel’s nomination by the White House, the CIA has released very selective bits of her service record. In the preamble to her question to Haspel, Feinstein herself lamented that the agency had declassified “only small pieces of information to bolster your nomination while keeping damaging information under wraps.” The Erik Wemple Blog post cited by Haspel wasn’t focused on reportorial “failure,” given the informational constraints at hand.

Opinion writers Ruth Marcus and Stephen Stromberg say it's not misogyny to expect CIA director nominee Gina Haspel to have a moral compass. (Video: The Washington Post)

To make her own point, Feinstein asked for one aspect of the Haspel work record that has been widely reported and not challenged. As the media has reported, Haspel was in charge of a “black site” CIA post in 2002 when al-Qaeda suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was subjected to waterboarding. Feinstein asked, “In November and December of 2002, did you oversee the enhanced interrogation of al-Nashiri, which included the use of the waterboard, as publicly reported? Yes or no?”

Haspel: “Senator, anything about my classified assignment history throughout my 33 years, we can talk about in this afternoon’s classified session. There are guidelines on, as you know, existing classification guidelines, and I should go back to your first point, which is very, very important about why we haven’t declassified more about my history. There are existing classification guidelines that apply to operational activity of any officer. It has been suggested to me by my team that if we try to declassify some of my operational history, it would help my nomination. I said that we could not do that. It is very important that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency adhere to the same classification guidelines that all employees must adhere to.”

Sweet move: Hint that the stuff the public will never see is very positive.

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