The battle in the Senate on Wednesday over Gina Haspel’s confirmation as the new director of the CIA is set to become a public reckoning of one of the darker chapters in modern US history.
Haspel, who is currently the CIA’s deputy director after 33 years in the agency, ran a secret detention centre in Thailand in 2002 where inmates were tortured. Over the following two years she was a senior operations officer at the CIA counter-terrorism centre, which oversaw the interrogation programme around the world. Then, in 2005, she drafted an order for her then boss, Jose Rodriguez, the head of the CIA clandestine service, calling for the destruction of nearly 100 videotapes of interrogation sessions.
Despite strong support from former CIA chiefs, Haspel’s chances of becoming the agency’s first female boss are delicately balanced in a divided Senate. Senators had demanded greater transparency from the CIA over her history and on Monday the agency delivered a cardboard box full of classified documents.
But it is unclear what those documents will prove, and they may raise more questions than answers. The New York Times reported that the White House has seen newly released documentation including records of chats in the CIA’s internal messaging system in which Haspel raises no objections to the CIA’s interrogation techniques.
After being summoned to the White House on Friday to discuss the new information, Haspel is reported to have offered to withdraw, uncertain over the administration’s commitment to backing her. She had to be talked out of quitting by senior presidential aides, including the legislative director, Marc Short, and White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, who was urgently dispatched to the CIA headquarters in Langley to bolster Haspel’s resolve.
“She wants to do everything she can to make sure the integrity of the CIA remains intact, isn’t unnecessarily attacked,” Sanders said on Monday, when asked about Haspel’s apparent crisis of confidence over the weekend. “If she felt that her nomination would have been a problem for that and for the agency, then she wanted to do everything she could to protect the agency.”
“At the same time she wants to do everything she can to protect the safety and security of Americans, which is why she is 100% committed to going through this confirmation process and being confirmed as the next leader of the CIA.”
In an effort to boost her standing ahead of the Senate confirmation hearings, Trump sent out a tweet that celebrated rather than downplayed Haspel’s role in the “enhanced interrogation” programme that included waterboarding – the simulated drowning of detainees.
“My highly respected nominee for CIA director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on terrorists,” Trump declared. “Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror.”
Haspel herself is expected to say she has learned from past mistakes and would not go along with any future order to use waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other forms of torture.
At the heart of Wednesday confirmation hearing will be an examination of what happened in Detention Site Green, a secret prison in Thailand which Haspel briefly ran in 2002; her role in overseeing interrogation while running the agency’s counter-terrorism centre in the two years after that; and how much say she had in a decision to destroy interrogation videotapes without the explicit assent of the CIA leadership or congressional oversight committees.
The CIA itself has conducted an unusual lobbying campaign on Haspel’s behalf, reflecting the agency’s desire to have an insider in charge rather than risk a political appointee. CIA veterans would also see her confirmation as a sign that the agency had been officially absolved of its misdeeds in the war on terror.
John Brennan, CIA chief under the Obama administration, used Twitter to appeal for her confirmation by sceptical Democrats.
“Senators,” Brennan wrote, “show that you put country above politics. Gina Haspel is a competent, experienced and highly qualified intelligence professional. Ask her tough questions, listen to her answers and then decide but don’t penalize her for previous policy decisions or because [Donald Trump] picked her.”
Furthermore, Haspel is seen as a Russia expert and a close ally of Britain’s MI6, having being London station chief from 2014 to 2017. She is reported to have insisted on the forceful US response in solidarity with the UK, to the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, using a nerve agent that is alleged to have originated from Russian government laboratories.
CIA insiders hope that Haspel will insulate the agency from Trump’s indulgent approach to Vladimir Putin. But to achieve that Haspel will have to prove on Wednesday that she, and the agency she seeks to run, have atoned for their past.