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Former ambassadors express reservations about Gina Haspel to lead CIA

Confirmation of Haspel would send a message to authoritarian governments "that their behavior is no different from ours," more than 90 former ambassadors wrote in a letter to the Senate.
by Phil Helsel, Ken Dilanian and Jesse Rodriguez /
Image: Gina Haspel speaks at the 2017 William J. Donovan Award Dinner, Oct. 2017.
Gina Haspel speaks at the William J. Donovan Award Dinner, Oct. 2017.The OSS Society / via YouTube

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A group of more than 90 former United States ambassadors and other diplomats is voicing concerns over President Donald Trump's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency over her reported role at an overseas facility where a detainee was waterboarded.

The letter addressed to the Senate urges members to reject Gina Haspel's nomination if the record demonstrates she played any role in torture, abuse or destruction of evidence. The letter says that many details of her roles and responsibilities in the CIA’s "rendition, detention, and interrogation program generally, and the use of so-called 'enhanced interrogation' specifically," remain unknown.

"What we do know, based on credible, and as yet uncontested reporting, leaves us of the view that she should be disqualified from holding cabinet rank," the letter reads. "This includes that, in 2002, she oversaw a secret detention facility in Thailand in which at least one detainee was repeatedly subjected to waterboarding, and that she later strongly advocated for and helped implement a decision to destroy video tapes of torture sessions, including ones she oversaw."

The letter from the former ambassadors comes as Haspel is expected to be questioned by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in an open hearing on Wednesday. It is unclear when the committee will vote, or when it could come before the full Senate.

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If confirmed, Haspel would replace former CIA director Mike Pompeo, who is now secretary of state. Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson, who was fired by Trump in March.

Haspel is a career intelligence operative. She would become the first woman to head the CIA on a permanent basis if she is confirmed. She is currently deputy director of the agency.

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Former CIA case officer John Maguire, who supports Trump, as well as John Brennan, the former CIA director who served under President Barack Obama, have expressed support for Haspel to become the next head of the intelligence agency.

Haspel was sent to Thailand to run a secret CIA prison — a black site — where a detainee was waterboarded three times and confined to a small box, NBC News has reported.

A few years later, she drafted a cable — later sent by her boss, Jose Rodriguez — ordering the destruction of videotape of all CIA interrogations. The CIA's lawyers had urged that the tapes be preserved, and Rodriguez was reprimanded for the order, though Haspel was not.

The former ambassadors in the letter to the Senate argue that although “We have no reason to question Ms. Haspel’s credentials as both a leader and an experienced intelligence professional,” they say “she is also emblematic of choices made by certain American officials in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001 that dispensed with our ideals and international commitments to the ultimate detriment of our national security.”

"We have little doubt what lesson governments that rely on torture and other forms of mistreatment to maintain their grip on power will draw from Ms. Haspel’s confirmation," the former ambassadors wrote in the letter.

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They said that even if Haspel rejects torture at her confirmation hearings "the point will remain that her record of involvement in torture was judged worthy of and compatible with holding the CIA’s highest office."

"The message inherent in this decision will be understood by authoritarian leaders around the world. They will welcome it, as it will allow them to proclaim, however cynically, that their behavior is no different from ours," the former ambassadors said.

Among the former ambassadors who signed their names to the letter are Thomas Pickering, the former ambassador to the United Nations, as well as Russia, where he served from 1993 to 1996; Ruth Davis, former director general of the Foreign Service; Thomas Hubbard, former ambassador to South Korea from 2001 to 2004; and Samantha Power, former U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. during the Obama administration.

More than 100 retired generals and admirals have also said in a letter that they were "deeply troubled" that somebody connected to torture would be picked to lead the CIA.

NBC News has reported that Haspel is expected to say publicly Wednesday what she already has told senators privately: That is if she has anything to say about it, the CIA will never again engage in brutal interrogations.

But she will not be able to discuss her specific role, because those details — including her status as base chief in Thailand — remain classified. U.S. officials have said separately that Haspel played no hands-on role in any interrogations.

President Trump said on Twitter Tuesday morning that "Gina Haspel, my highly respected nominee to lead the CIA, is being praised for the fact that she has been, and alway [sic] will be, TOUGH ON TERROR!" and that "This is a woman who has been a leader wherever she has gone."

Some of Haspel’s supporters who are current or former CIA officials say that her background makes her perfect for the job. If confirmed, she would be the first operations officer to lead the spy agency since William Colby in 1973.

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