Last week, Gina Haspel told White House officials that she was considering withdrawing her nomination for CIA director ahead of what is sure to be a confrontational confirmation process today. Luckily for President Donald Trump — and America — she reconsidered.
While Haspel will have to answer questions about her past actions, she remains a uniquely inspired choice for director of the CIA. If confirmed, Haspel will be the agency’s first female director in its 70-year history. This is a momentous, and frankly overdue change given the large number of women at every level of the CIA, many of whom are putting their lives on the line in support of our country.
The key role women have played in the CIA dates back to the days of Virginia Hall, an OSS operative who, with her prosthetic leg strapped over her shoulder, jumped behind enemy lines in Nazi controlled France during World War II to aid the French Resistance. This heroic tradition continues to this day; a 2009 suicide bombing of the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan killed 7 CIA personnel, including Base Chief Jennifer Matthews.
While women have held high-risk senior positions across a wide swath of the agency for years, a woman has never led it. Change is long overdue.
While women have held high-risk senior positions across a wide swath of the agency for years, a woman has never led it. There are also no women advising Trump on international security at the cabinet level. Change is long overdue.
Get the think newsletter.
But Haspel is not simply qualified as a woman. Trump’s pick stands virtually alone as the most qualified professional in the intelligence business. No one in the intelligence community can equal her experience in a combination of policy-level, leadership and field positions. During the last 15 years of my career at CIA, I worked up close with several directors, and for a while even physically worked beside them as acting deputy director of operations. I know first-hand what challenges Haspel will face as director, and there is no doubt in my mind that she is ideally suited to lead the agency.
Those who have worked with her within CIA and in government circles know her as a genuine professional who is talented, smart and deeply dedicated. Haspel unquestionably commands the respect of the workforce, and is uniquely positioned as the current deputy director to lead the agency in confronting hardball challenges: Russia’s meddling in our elections and alleged assassinations in the U.K.; North Korea’s brazen assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in a Malaysian airport; China’s reported execution of a dozen CIA informants; and Iran’s apparent continuation of its support for terrorism. It is going to take a tough-minded and career professional to take the lead on facing down these challenges.
That said, much attention has been given to Haspel’s record on the CIA’s now defunct “enhanced interrogation” program, a controversial program many have since likened to torture. When evaluating Haspel’s record on this issue, as Congress surely will do during its confirmation hearings, we must keep in mind both the national mindset at that time the torture occurred and the reality of Haspel’s role in it. This is not to minimize the program, but rather to contextualize it.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the American people were looking for a forceful and robust response against Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist cohorts. There were very few voices of restraint, including in most senior leadership positions across President George W. Bush’s administration.
By the end of the Bush presidency, however, the country had regained its footing on this issue as the threat subsided, and a debate ensued about the merits of the program.
Although the American people remain roughly split on the appropriateness and effectiveness of torture, the intelligence community and Congress moved against its use. President Barack Obama signed an executive order banning the use of torture, and the Senate voted in 2015 to amend the National Defense Authorization Act to prohibit its use for the entire U.S. government, including the CIA. This issue is settled.
Congress is going to hit this issue hard during confirmation hearings, this we know for sure. But politicians need to know the real facts about what happened, as well as why it happened. Three former CIA directors — George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden — have all insisted that torture did indeed save American lives, led to the capture and demise of the Al Qaeda organization and disrupted terrorist plots. They also insist that Bush approved the program, his attorney general deemed it legal and the Congressional leadership did not raise objections.
Haspel, in her confirmation hearing, can be expected to describe her past role in the counter-terrorism arena in detail, a role that will likely be far less dramatic and far less integral than portrayed to date. She has already stated that she endorses and will abide by America's prohibition on torture. In the process, I expect these confirmation hearings to showcase Haspel’s extraordinary professionalism and leadership strengths.
I truly believe that Gina Haspel is the right person to close the book on a dark and conflicted period of CIA history — and the right person to lead the agency as it works to regain public trust and keep America safe in its next chapter.
Jack Devine is a 32-year veteran of the CIA whose posts include acting director and associate director of the CIA’s operations outside the United States. He is the recipient of the agency's Distinguished Intelligence Medal. Devine is also a founding partner and president of The Arkin Group LLC. His book, "Good Hunting! An American Spymaster's Story," a New York Times bestseller, was published in 2014.