Gina Haspel was confirmed Thursday as the first female CIA director in a 54-to-45 vote. The Post reports:
Lawmakers approved Haspel’s nomination 54 to 45, with six Democrats voting yes and two Republicans voting no, after the agency launched an unprecedented public relations campaign to bolster Haspel’s chances. She appears to have been helped, too, by some last-minute arm-twisting by former CIA directors John Brennan and Leon Panetta, who contacted at least five of the six Democrats to endorse her bid to join President Trump’s Cabinet, according to people with knowledge of the interactions.
Brennan and Panetta went out on a limb for her, as did the agency that, in a break with tradition, heavily lobbied on her behalf. The intelligence community is looking for someone to defend its reputation, to ground the president (to the extent humanly possible) in reality and to combat Russia’s multi-pronged assault on Western democracies. Former CIA director Michael Hayden, who also supported Haspel, said recently on CBS’s “Face the Nation“: “Some days are good days, some days are bad days. But the core here, even in this co-existence, is the president’s view towards truth and reality. . . .We’ve had presidents who disagree with us; we’ve had presidents who lie. We’ve not had presidents for whom objective reality doesn’t seem to be compelling.”
Hayden continued: “Case in point: the Muslim ban. Remember, about a week out of the gate for the new administration, because why? Because we had an apocalyptic threat from Syrian refugees and an absolutely dystopian vetting system? No reality whatsoever. By the way, you don’t see the intel community — even the ones currently in government — arguing for that. It was made based upon something else. Not an argument over objective reality.”
What will this require of Haspel?
She cannot, as her predecessor did on occasion, provide rhetorical cover for the president to lie, exaggerate or mislead the American people — be it about North Korea, Russia or Iran. CIA directors are limited in what they can say publicly, but in her case she owes Congress and the public a degree of transparency we have not always seen from CIA. She has pledged to stand up to the president when he is wrong, which entails a higher degree of candor when testifying in open hearings or giving public speeches. “Iran is in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” “Refugees who are vetted over 18-24 months do not pose a security threat to the United States.” These simple, accurate reaffirmations of reality are critical now, while the president engages in a misinformation campaign against his own countrymen.
In addition, Haspel needs to continue making a cogent case for the post-9/11 surveillance systems we have in place, explaining their importance and rebutting unfounded claims that rogue FBI agents can bamboozle the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts. “The FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] judges are no pushovers. They are responsible individuals in my experience who carefully review all the evidence that is presented to them,” Panetta remarked during the made-up scandal regarding the FISA warrant to monitor Carter Page. If she wants those programs to continue, it will behoove her to knock down bogus arguments on everything from “unmasking” to “the government is listening in on your calls.”
Finally, Haspel is inheriting a severely damaged oversight process, thanks to the rank partisanship of House Republicans. When Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) released a misleading and inflammatory memo concerning the FISA application, Panetta spoke up:
I think the release of this memo is going to do some very serious damage, damage to the Intelligence Committee and the bipartisanship that is necessary in order to do oversight of classified information — damage because the president and the Congress now have a position of distrust with the Justice Department and the FBI — damage to the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] process which has been important to our national security, and all of this sends a terrible message to our allies who are going to worry about sharing classified information that is so easily released as part of this political effort, and it’s also frankly going to encourage our enemies who will see this as a breakdown in our national security process. . . . I have never in my lifetime seen anything like this happen.
Haspel should do the same if similar shenanigans occur. Even at the risk of losing her job, she must prevent further corruption of oversight and insist that the agency has a right to expect nonpartisan, responsible members on the key intelligence committees. By the same token she needs to be entirely forthcoming with congressional leadership when misconduct or errors happen (as they will) at her agency, even if that means casting the CIA in a bad light. The woman who once advocated destruction of the interrogation videos must vow to preserve and, when appropriate, share with elected leaders critical information.
As a career CIA professional, Haspel understands that she serves the Constitution and the American people. She owes the president her best advice but not her personal pledge of loyalty. To the contrary, given the circumstances in which she was confirmed and the times in which she will serve, we have every right to demand uncommon candor and independence. Now is no time for careerism.