The argument against Gina Haspel’s nomination to be CIA director is simple and, in some ways, compelling: The Senate shouldn’t approve someone who was involved, however tangentially, in the torture of al-Qaeda suspects authorized by the George W. Bush administration.
There’s one counterargument that resonates, and it’s worth pondering as Haspel prepares for her confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. At a time when the United States is transfixed by the investigation into Russia’s covert influence operations in the 2016 presidential campaign, Haspel is probably the senior intelligence officer who best understands the Russia threat.
The CIA has been conducting an influence campaign of its own to support Haspel’s nomination, putting out fact sheets, timelines and the sort of background information the agency usually holds tight. It’s obvious from all the laudatory statements they’ve gathered from former agency officials that the CIA old boys and girls really want Haspel confirmed — and fear who might be nominated as an alternative, if she’s rejected.
Haspel isn’t the kind of colorful character who walks out of a spy novel. Asked for personal stories or vivid recollections about her, several former colleagues draw a blank. She seems to have left behind few anecdotes. That’s reassuring, in a way: Haspel’s strength has been sheer competence — a calm, no-drama approach to managing complex spy operations. She’s not a shouter or a table pounder or a dropper of F-bombs.
Soldiers don’t get to elect their officers, and neither should spies. So the fact that Haspel is popular with the CIA workforce, while interesting, is not dispositive. The real issue is how she would manage a CIA that, because of the Russia investigation, is perilously close to a White House that’s fighting for its life. President Trump has shown in his statements about the FBI that he’ll attack career intelligence professionals to save his skin. Could Haspel fend off similar attempts by the White House to manipulate the CIA?
Haspel’s Russia experience is the most important detail in her biography, beyond her three years of work for the Counterterrorism Center, from 2001 to 2004. She appears to have spent much of the first 15 years of her career in Russia-related operations, starting with a posting in a Soviet client-state in East Africa in 1987.
Though she never served in Moscow, former colleagues say she ran operations against Russian targets in several postings. And as deputy chief of the Russian operations group of the Central Eurasia Division from 1998 to 2000, she reviewed most sensitive operations involving Russia. Michael Sulick, who ran the division at the time, remembers she would give a balanced assessment of the risks and benefits of every potential Russian recruitment.
Haspel also learned the special tradecraft that’s required to keep agents alive in hostile “denied areas” such as Russia. These are the CIA’s most precious secrets, and Haspel is one of the few initiates. “She has a Ph.D. in the FSB, SVR and GRU,” jokes Dan Hoffman, a former Moscow station chief who worked closely with Haspel, referring to the initials of the three main Russian intelligence agencies. “That gives her a gravitas within the building and with our foreign liaison partners.”
Haspel is also said to have built a strong relationship with MI6, Britain’s spy service, when she was London station chief from 2014 to 2017. Britain remains America’s indispensable partner in operating against hard targets such as Russia and China.
A test of Haspel’s ability to manage sensitive Russia operations with the Trump White House came in March, after the poisoning of Russian intelligence defector Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. As CIA deputy director, Haspel worked closely with MI6 to coordinate the response, and she personally briefed Trump about the case — and recommended the expulsion of 60 Russian spies as punishment. Trump went along, in the toughest action against Russia of his presidency.
Haspel has also helped oversee the delivery of highly sensitive Russia files to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the House and Senate intelligence committees. Colleagues say she and CIA Director Mike Pompeo (now the secretary of state) facilitated the investigations, while trying, not always successfully, to protect what one calls “some incredibly sensitive stuff.”
When people watch Haspel before the Senate Intelligence Committee, they should focus on two urgent questions: Is she so tainted by her involvement with the torture issue that it will undermine her leadership and shred America’s moral authority? And how would her special expertise on Russia help the CIA manage the Trump administration’s most delicate and potentially explosive challenge?
What makes the Haspel nomination a moral issue is that it’s a hard choice, with costs on both sides.
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