The nomination of Gina Haspel to become the next director of the CIA is facing opposition from some senators who have questioned her role in destroying videotapes of brutal interrogations conducted by the agency.
In conversations with senators and their staff ahead of Haspel’s confirmation hearing, which has yet to be scheduled, she has acknowledged that she drafted a cable in 2005 ordering CIA officers to destroy tapes of the interrogation of two suspected terrorists. The interrogation sessions included waterboarding, which is widely considered a form of torture.
But Haspel has said that she wrote the cable at the instruction of her boss, Jose Rodriguez, who was then in charge of the CIA’s clandestine operations and ultimately gave the order to destroy the tapes.
Haspel’s version of events is important because it suggests she was not acting in defiance of orders from the CIA general counsel and White House officials, who had told the CIA not to destroy the tapes.
While her explanation to lawmakers is largely consistent with what she has told investigators and CIA officials in the past, it has left the impression among some on Capitol Hill that she is trying to shirk responsibility for her role in the tapes episode.
Haspel has told lawmakers and their staffs that she was away from CIA headquarters at the time Rodriguez gave the order and that she believed he planned to review the cable with senior leaders at the agency, including then-director Porter Goss, before sending it. Rodriguez never did, though he has written in a memoir that he believed the decision had been fully vetted by agency lawyers and that he was within his authority to order the destruction.
The decision was one of the most fateful in the CIA’s history. It spawned an investigation by a Justice Department special prosecutor who, after nearly three years, declined to seek criminal charges against agency officials.
But some lawmakers and their staffs appear unsatisfied by Haspel’s explanations. According to two congressional aides, Haspel has said during at least one of her meetings that she simply signed off on the cable ordering CIA officers to destroy the videotapes after a staffer wrote it — leaving the senator with the impression that she was trying to evade responsibility for her role.
But in other conversations, Haspel has consistently said that she wrote the draft, according to people familiar with her role. Whether there is truly a discrepancy in her account or a misunderstanding in her conversations on the Hill is unclear.
“Haspel has been consistent and clear about her role. She drafted the cable at Rodriguez’s request,” said a CIA spokesman, Ryan Trapani. “She made sure CIA lawyers were consulted. She made sure the affected officers, whose security was at risk from al-Qaeda, were consulted. And she provided the draft cable to Rodriguez with the understanding that he would use the draft cable to raise the issue with Director Goss.”
Trapani said that “when she subsequently saw that Rodriguez had sent the cable to the field she asked him whether he had raised the matter with Goss. Rodriguez told her that he had not talked to Goss and he had sent the cable out based on his understanding of his authority.”
Several people in Congress who are close to the situation also noted that Haspel’s guide during the interview process has been a staffer who works for the president’s director of legislative affairs, Marc Short, instead of a more senior “sherpa,” oftentimes a retired member of Congress who can use personal leverage with former colleagues to vouch for the integrity of a candidate, particularly a controversial one.
The experience, coupled with Haspel’s answers, has left at least some senators she needs to win over unsatisfied and questioning whether Haspel and the White House are taking the vetting process seriously enough.
Several senators, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle, are now disinclined to support Haspel’s nomination, absent a stronger showing during future interviews with her.
There is no indication that Haspel opposed the decision to destroy the tapes. And some congressional staff members believe that Haspel was a full-throated advocate both for the tape destruction and the interrogation program.
One official said that lawmakers are seeking access to a handful of cables and other CIA material that might shed more light on Haspel’s role in the program, but the information remains classified.
Becca Glover, a spokeswoman for Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he “believes Ms. Haspel and the agency have been forthcoming about her career, and he looks forward to her service as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Her career and experience make her eminently qualified to lead the agency. If she isn’t qualified, no one is.”
Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the committee’s vice chairman, said he “believes the more transparency, the better. He has personally encouraged the CIA to be aggressive in declassifying as much information as possible about Ms. Haspel’s background.”
The 51-to-49 party split in the Senate leaves Haspel’s nomination little room for error — particularly with the prolonged absence of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is undergoing treatment for a rare form of brain cancer. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has already pledged to oppose Haspel’s nomination, meaning she must win over at least one Democrat — presuming McCain’s absence continues — to be confirmed.