After more than 30 years living in the shadows, Gina Haspel emerged drained of color.
The longtime CIA operative and President Trump’s nominee to head the agency appeared in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday morning dressed in a cement-colored jacket and — as acting director — in control over what memorable parts of her history to keep classified.
“I welcome the opportunity to introduce myself to the American people for the first time,” she said in a flat accent that belied her Kentucky roots. “I think you will find me to be a typical middle-class American.”
This was a new experience not just for Haspel, but also for everyone else involved: a public hearing about a woman whose story is not for public consumption; a “typical middle-class American” except for covert information exchanges on “dark, moonless nights,” clandestine meetings in “dusty back allies of Third World capitals” and, reportedly, overseeing the torture of a terrorism suspect.
Haspel didn’t want to elaborate on any of this.
“Anything about my classified assignment history throughout my 33 years we can talk about in this afternoon’s classified session,” she said when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) asked whether she oversaw the waterboarding of a terrorism suspect. “There are very good reasons for those classification guidelines.”
And who, exactly, is responsible for making those guidelines?
“Well,” said Haspel, who is technically in charge of the rules, “I have chosen to follow the guidelines that exist.”
Anything else about the way the CIA chooses to classify things would presumably be — well — classified.
“This is probably the most difficult hearing in more than two decades that I have ever sat on,” an exasperated Feinstein said.
On the Republican side of the aisle, things didn’t seem all that difficult. Committee Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.) spoke for most of his colleagues when he said: “Gina, I have reviewed your record closely. . . . You are without a doubt the most qualified person the president could choose to lead the CIA and the most prepared nominee in the 70-year history of the agency. You have acted morally, ethically and legally over a distinguished 30-year career.”
Haspel came highly recommended by a large cast of the intelligence community, including the former director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., and former CIA director John Brennan, two vocal critics of Trump. She was introduced by Democrat Evan Bayh, the former senator from Indiana, to showcase her bipartisan support.
She mentioned that she’d been in the CIA since 1985, when she became an operations officer in the Clandestine Service. She served in “distant posts” and the “capital of a major U.S. ally.” She served seven tours in the field, including four as chief of station.
But for Democrats looking for details, getting a straightforward answer from Haspel was like interrogating vapor.
Haspel — who has worked as a spy, grilling suspects out of view — was mostly able to glide past the attention-loving senators questioning her.
Haspel pledged that if she were to be confirmed she would not restart the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. But whether she thinks the program was immoral in retrospect, she wouldn’t say.
“Can you please answer the question?” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) asked pointedly.
“Senator, I think I’ve answered,” Haspel said.
Harris: “No you have not. Do you believe the previous techniques now armed with hindsight, do you believe they were immoral? Yes or no?”
Haspel: “Senator, I believe that we should hold ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the Army field manual.”
Even on the matter of whether torture had been effective, Haspel dissembled, at one point answering, “I don’t think torture works,” only to later add that it was impossible to know whether interrogation techniques played a role in gathering valuable information from al-Qaeda operatives.
One group of people who were not surprised by Haspel’s deft verbal evasion: the peace activists who showed up early to the hearing to get a seat. They expected the hearing to be nothing more than political theater.
“There’s a reason why we almost always have civilians come in to head the CIA,” said Bill Tighe, a member of the antiwar group Code Pink, who had arrived at 6 a.m. in his Guantanamo-orange jumpsuit. “It’s the only way the public can hear them answer questions instead of just saying things are classified.”
(Tighe wouldn’t hear any of the answers, anyway: He was arrested for disturbing the hearing before Haspel arrived).
“It’s a crime that she would even be considered,” said Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who runs a group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. “I almost feel like there should be an exorcism in there.”
(McGovern was exorcised from the hearing by Capitol Police after demanding answers about waterboarding).
Dozens of spectators filled the room — a pastor, a researcher from Amnesty International, students on summer break looking for a unique tourist experience — but the careful question-and-answer session lacked the circuslike atmosphere of, say, a James B. Comey hearing. And in the end, most people left with little more understanding of the woman they came to see.
“This could set a horrendous precedent, a secret confirmation process,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “I believe if Americans could see what I have read, what is classified, they would tell their senator they have no choice but to turn down the nominee.”