The CIA is starting to share a bit of the covert past of Gina Haspel. But a lot more transparency may be required if the agency veteran is to become its next director.
Senators who hold the keys to her confirmation are asking the CIA to provide more details on Haspel’s role in using brutal interrogation tactics against detainees during the George W. Bush administration. Those requests, made by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and three Democrats on the intelligence committee, have so far been met with silence by the nation’s spymasters.
And in a chamber divided 51-49, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) already opposed to Haspel, the degree that the agency tries to tackle McCain’s concerns could prove make-or-break for the nominee.
McCain’s not the only swing vote wanting to know whether Haspel was directly involved in the reported destruction of video evidence of harsh interrogations tantamount to torture. Even the Senate Democrat most friendly toward President Donald Trump is looking for more.
“To get her on the board, I have to see everything that’s available,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a must-have vote for Haspel to be confirmed. “It should be made available to us, absolutely. Because there’s some concerns there and I understand that.”
Manchin would seem to be an easy vote for Haspel given that he’s running for reelection in West Virginia, a state where Trump is highly popular. But last year, he voted against Stephen Bradbury, another Trump administration nominee linked to Bush-era detainee abuse. Manchin was personally lobbied by McCain, who despite undergoing cancer treatment away from Washington is gearing up to closely scrutinize Haspel’s nomination.
McCain’s not the only Republican in the undecided camp on Haspel, who had spent much of her three-decade CIA career operating out of the public eye until she became deputy director last year. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have stayed noncommittal, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) could be another tough vote to win.
But McCain’s judgment, as a decorated veteran who was tortured during more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, promises to be critical as his colleagues weigh Haspel’s involvement in detainee treatment that Congress has since prohibited. He sent Haspel eight detailed questions on Friday, including several about her involvement in the destruction of videotapes showing the harsh interrogation of two high-level terrorism suspects.
McCain, whose Armed Services Committee chairmanship makes him ex officio member of the intelligence panel, “has serious concerns about Deputy Director Haspel’s reported involvement in the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, and expects her to provide a full explanation during the confirmation process,” spokeswoman Julie Tarallo said.
Another intelligence committee member who’s on the fence about Haspel, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), said he wants more information on her role in the Bush-era detainee interrogation program, “and also the destruction of the videotapes.”
“It’s going to be an open session, and I’ve said I want the CIA to declassify as much as they possibly can about that incident so we can talk about it in an open setting,” King, who caucuses with Democrats, said in an interview. “Because, frankly, I’m undecided.”
Haspel also supervised a so-called CIA “black site” in Thailand where high-level suspected terrorists were detained and waterboarded. While a recent retracted report clarified that Haspel took over the site after one of the two most controversial interrogations took place, her involvement in the second instance is not publicly in dispute.
The CIA took a unique step in touting Haspel’s bid on Friday by publishing a biographical sketch of the nominee, who by many accounts is well-respected by her colleagues. That followed an earlier roundup of praise for Haspel from intelligence officials appointed by both parties, including Obama-era CIA Directors Leon Panetta and John Brennan.
But however humanizing her official CIA portrayal — Haspel is described as a University of Kentucky basketball fan who found her first overseas posting “right out of a spy novel” and would be the first female CIA chief — senators want to know far more politically volatile things about her.
The intelligence committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said last week that “it’s important” for the agency to respond to a year-old request from Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) seeking the declassification of specific material about Haspel. They referred specifically to her role in the interrogation program and the destroyed videotapes.
“The more transparency, I think, the better for this process,” Warner said. “People have [got] legitimate questions to ask.”
Haspel’s critics on the left, particularly civil liberties and human rights groups, were surprised by the CIA’s public promotion of her last week.
Katherine Hawkins, an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, said the biographical piece was "not really appropriate" given that the declassification request by Wyden as Heinrich, as well as a separate letter from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have gone unaddressed.
Wyden, for his part, is girding for battle to get more information into the open as part of Haspel’s confirmation.
“If there is any effort to continue this cover-up, that is going to make it harder to have a real debate,” he said in an interview last week. “And I’ll be pushing back with everything I can."
The intelligence committee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), said that he expects the CIA to provide some more details on Haspel — but that the extent should be up to the agency.
“[C]ertainly, they made a nomination of somebody, they’re going to have to provide some background information,” Burr told reporters last week. “But there will never be enough for Ron Wyden, so I don’t think that anything they do is going to be responding to Ron. It’s going to be responding to what they can do without revealing sources and methods.”
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said by email Monday that the agency is "aware of the requests relating to Deputy Director Haspel and will be responding appropriately as part of the Senate confirmation process."
While Haspel’s path to confirmation remains fraught, the CIA director she would replace is already on track for a committee hearing next month to lead the State Department. Senior Republicans are expected to steer CIA chief Mike Pompeo’s secretary of state bid to the floor even if he is dealt a negative vote in the Foreign Relations Committee in part because of Paul’s opposition.
Manchin, whose vote could also prove pivotal for Pompeo, described the current CIA chief as "very open, very straightforward, coming across well" during their interactions.
As for Haspel, Manchin said, “I don’t know enough about her. I’m going to find out. … I’m going to ask directly and try to do a little bit of my intel myself.”