President Trump early Tuesday tweeted that he would nominate Gina Haspel to become the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. She would be replacing Mike Pompeo, who would be nominated as the next Secretary of State replacing Rex Tillerson. She of course would be the first woman to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, aka the CIA. The agency director’s position must be confirmed by the Senate, and the confirmation appears at this point looks like it will be contentious. Despite the historic significance of her nomination, it has been almost immediately overshadowed by her reported link to the black site, where suspected al-Qaida high-value detainees were waterboarded. Because of that, being the first women and extremely qualified, the long knives are already out because of her role in agency’s counterterrorism program.
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
First, briefly Pompeo, by all accounts, thinks and speaks more like President Trump than Tillerson ever did. He has also been more willing than previous CIA directors to infuse his public commentary with pro-administration policy prescriptions and ideas. At the same time he has gotten good marks for straight up reporting of the agency’s views – in fact last week on Fox News Sunday, he explicitly rejected the notion of some pundits saying; “I’m here to justify whatever the big guy wants” theory of governance. He thinks a lot like the president does, however, he is more candid and to the point, and may be less of a counterpoint than Tillerson had been.
Secondly, for Gina Haspel, she has had a long career at the CIA. Most recently, she had been Deputy Director under Director Pompeo, and she has worked at the CIA since 1985. She has held numerous leadership positions in the CIA and spent much of her career undercover, and has been reported to have been deeply involved in the agency’s Enhanced Interrogation program. As noted her confirmation hearing will most likely be combative and quarrelsome and petulant.
Already many Democrats have already pointed out that the fact that she’s been able to stay in the agency, rise in the agency, and now is in line to be director is deeply troubling, because of her so-called association with the Bush-era torture program – which of course it was not. Haspel herself will probably stick to the line that she was just following orders, and that the agency is now operating within the law. But Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, is already saying that her torturous background” makes her “unsuitable to serve as CIA Director.” And civil liberties groups are even more determined to oppose her. Christopher Anders, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, claimed Haspel “was up to her eyeballs in torture.”
Similarly, this was echoed by John McCain, the Arizona senator who was tortured as a POW during the Vietnam war by the Viet Cong, which was in fact torture. Nevertheless, McCain said “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process.” He called the torture of U.S. detainees during the Bush era “one of the darkest chapters in American history” – despite the fact that they were and are ruthless, radical Islamic terrorists. McCain, has a problem with the Geneva Convention classification of terrorists and flagged nations enemy combatants. Let alone the Army Field Manual which governs treatment and interrogations of soldiers of foreign armed forces who are captured versus terrorists.
Geneva Convention, Jan 1, 2004 – concluded that members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban militia are illegal combatants under the laws of war, and so cannot claim the legal protections and benefits that accrue to legal belligerents, such as prisoner of war status under the Third Geneva Convention.
An unlawful combatant, illegal combatant or unprivileged combatant/belligerent is a person who directly engages in armed conflict in violation of the laws of war. An unlawful combatant may be detained or prosecuted under the domestic law of the detaining state for such action, subject to international treaties on justice and human rights. The Geneva Conventions apply in wars between two or more sovereign states. Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention states that the status of a detainee may be determined by a “competent tribunal”. Until such time, he must be treated as a prisoner of war. After a “competent tribunal” has determined that an individual detainee is an unlawful combatant, the “detaining power” may choose to accord the detained unlawful combatant the rights and privileges of a prisoner of war as described in the Third Geneva Convention, but is not required to do so.
President Obama closed the black sites in 2009. In 2013, when then-CIA Director John Brennan sought to promote Haspel into the position of directing all of the agency’s covert operations, within the clandestine service. Senator Feinstein objected and blocked the move, citing again her involvement in the illegal torture program, terms again misrepresented. Likewise, there were more protests from Senate Democrats when Haspel was made Pompeo’s deputy, but that position does not require Senate confirmation or any hearings, so they soon subsided. Feinstein signaled that she would vote for both Haspel and Mike Pompeo, again, Trump’s choice for the new Secretary of State. So that will be noted and seen as the confirmation goes forward.
Haspel did nothing more and nothing less than what the nation and the agency asked her to do, and she did it well. No one should read anything into her current nomination other than, as they say with any job vacancy she is the “best qualified” available to fill the position — an assessment supported by CIA veterans of the past two-three decades. As a career, senior intelligence officer who has served within the national intelligence community as long as she has, I concur, having worked in programs she was involved in, I couldn’t concur more. When President Trump selected her to be the agency’s Deputy Director shortly after his Inauguration, I wrote that with her choice, it signaled that the agency intended to neither repeat, nor repudiate its past. And that it signaled she would in line for the top spot. That still holds and I stand by that.
Haspel’s alleged links to the Thai black site were scrutinized in February last year when Trump appointed her CIA deputy director, where she worked under Pompeo. Pompeo said in a statement: “I am proud of the work we have done on behalf of America and know that the agency will continue to thrive under the leadership of Gina Haspel.”
The effect of this appointment on the CIA’s relationship with the rest of the Trump administration will be another interesting question. You could argue that the White House is trying to reassure the nation’s spies that the President has confidence in them after an extended period of presidential criticism of their intelligence capabilities. A former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the promotion of Haspel amounted to nothing more than the CIA’s revenge. Suggesting that the agency was essentially giving the finger to anyone who was ever critical of the Enhanced Interrogation program.
Haspel’s hearings will be interesting. Administration critics will have to keep in mind a possible Plan B if she’s blocked, by Democrats and more liberal Republicans like McCain. Last fall when rumors of a Tillerson-to-Pompeo shift at State were widespread, it was reported that Senator Tom Cotton might want and get the job. If that were to happen, Cotton could follow in George H.W. Bush’s footsteps by becoming the second CIA director to take his secrets with him right to the White House. While Haspel would become the first woman to head the CIA, she’s not looking to break that higher, stronger glass ceiling, but as from the standpoint of a seasoned professional, bent on ensuring the intelligence performs the best it can, with the capability and capacity to provide and serve the President with the best intelligence it can.
Going forward, the President has already indicated that he is not yet done with his personnel changes. There are near-daily rumors that National Security Adviser McMaster will soon leave, and many are handicapping John Bolton as the odds-on choice to succeed him. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, would be another Trump-like voice for the administration choir.
So to those on the political-left of the American political centerline, a word of caution. Think twice before you oppose Gina Haspel as the next CIA Director for her imagined past sins. She loves America and the agency, and she will work to preserve it. No matter what happens in the short term, we should all agree that we will need her for the long term? And with regard to that truth-to-power thing in the White House, where loyalty is paramount, Haspel is someone you want to be in the room when critical national security decisions are being made.