Gina Haspel is scheduled to appear before the Senate intelligence committee Wednesday for her confirmation hearing to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Although the odds seem slimmer than they did a week ago, confirmation still appears well within reach. The outcome is likely to hinge on what questions the senators ask and how she answers, a rare feature for modern confirmation hearings. This largely reflects how little is known about Haspel’s background—and the fact that many view what is publicly known as cause for concern.
Haspel, the acting CIA director, has spent more than 30 years working in the agency’s clandestine Directorate of Operations. As a result, much of her resume remains classified; indeed, even members of the intelligence committee are, despite repeated requests, reportedly still waiting for the CIA to declassify relevant documentation. The CIA has revealed only a few broad details about Haspel’s past work, primarily as part of a ham-fisted advocacy campaign on her behalf. This campaign’s clearest impact has been to bring the CIA’s objectivity (including in its declassification decisions) into question, perhaps demonstrating why federal agencies—particularly intelligence agencies—should not engage in such efforts.
Two aspects of Haspel’s background that have come to light, however, tie her to the deeply controversial rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program that the CIA operated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The resulting furor—and the questions raised—have proven concerning enough that Haspel reportedly sought to withdraw her candidacy last week, though she was dissuaded by White House officials.
Beginning in late October 2002, Haspel reportedly ran a CIA “black site” in Thailand, where suspected al-Qaeda members who had been captured elsewhere overseas were detained and interrogated as part of the RDI program. At least one individual, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was subjected to waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques—many of which were undeniably brutal and are widely considered torture—at that site during Haspel’s tenure. And CIA chat logs in the possession of the Senate intelligence committee reportedly show that Haspel was not only aware but also supportive of these activities until the site was shut down and she was reassigned in early December of that year.
Later, Haspel became the chief of staff to the head of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, Jose Rodriguez. In late 2005, Rodriguez made the controversial decision to destroy video tapes of several interrogations that had taken place at the Thailand black site where Haspel had served, over the reported objections of the White House and without authorization from then-CIA Director Porter Goss. Haspel reportedly advocated destroying the tapes and even drafted the cable implementing the decision at Rodriguez’s direction. Subsequent CIA and Justice Department investigations found that she had not violated relevant laws or regulations.
For many observers, Haspel’s involvement with the RDI program and its aftermath will be sufficient to disqualify her from being CIA director. They likely view the RDI program as patently illegal and so unethical that the integrity of anyone who voluntarily participated in it is automatically too deeply in question to qualify for public office. Alternatively, they may believe that, whatever Haspel’s individual culpability, participation in the RDI program needs to be severely stigmatized to prevent similar programs from being implemented in the future. Whatever their motivation, those who view Haspel as necessarily disqualified are likely to find her confirmation hearing a convenient opportunity to further examine the RDI program and to underscore its dark mark on our national history. But her answers are unlikely to have any impact on their support for her confirmation; as Haspel unequivocally participated in the RDI program, their decision is ultimately an easy one. The same is true on the opposite end of the spectrum: Those who do not object to the RDI program or Hapsel’s participation in it will almost certainly support her confirmation, regardless of what new information her hearing might produce.
Those without such clear lines—whatever the relative merits—are likely to find the decision far more challenging. Hundreds of U.S. national security professionals played some role in the RDI program; many of them have generally admirable records of public service. Only a small portion of these participants helped shape the program with full knowledge of its scope and risks. Many others were simply following orders in executing elements of a presidentially authorized program that they were told was both lawful and necessary to ensure U.S. national security. To many people, including many members of Congress, these circumstances do not fully absolve these intelligence officials’ decisions but do color the context in which individual actions should be judged. What people knew at the time and how they reacted reflects their judgment and integrity, and is clearly probative of whether or not they are qualified for higher office. The same is true of how they view their actions in hindsight and the manner in which their thinking has since evolved.
The fact that Haspel has been nominated by President Trump gives these considerations exponentially more weight. Both as a candidate and as president, Trump has maintained—contrary to the views of most experts and policy professionals, including his own defense secretary—that coercive interrogation and other aspects of the RDI program are effective, and he has pledged not only to recommence but to expand them. Perhaps more importantly, he has embedded these promises in a broader “get tough” rhetoric that celebrates such measures not as necessary evils but desirable tools of intimidation and retribution. Many of Trump’s defenders will paint these comments as rhetorical excess, but there are reasons to believe that they reflect more fundamental aspects of his worldview. At a minimum, having a U.S. president willing to entertain such policies necessitates confirming a CIA director who is willing to speak truthfully and forcefully about the substantial costs such policies would entail. And some may reasonably question whether someone who failed to do so the last time such policies were implemented is likely to be up to the task a second time around, particularly in the face of a decidedly more intransigent commander in chief.
Ironically, a willingness to speak truth to power is one of the reasons that many of Haspel’s former CIA colleagues—including several who are highly critical of President Trump—have given for endorsing her confirmation. Former CIA director Michael Hayden, for example, has said:
With a president who does not always attach his decisions to the real world, to data, to evidence, Gina Haspel is the one woman I want in that room. When everyone else will be going into north-south auto-bob and saying, “You’re right, boss,” Gina Haspel won’t. ... [H]er only existence as a professional has been within the agency. Her only goal is to live out the agency’s mission which frankly is to tell the truth to the president even though most often that makes the president’s life less comfortable than it would otherwise be.
Equally motivating is the question of who President Trump might nominate in the alternative. While her record with the RDI program may not be encouraging, Haspel is a career civil servant with real experience, the clear confidence of her colleagues and no apparent political agenda. Given Trump’s apparent preference for allies and loyalists over policy professionals, there is little reason to think that his next choice would be substantially more qualified on any of the metrics that matter (though at least a few names in that category are emerging).
This leaves members of Congress who are skeptical but open-minded about Haspel in an exceedingly difficult spot. Haspel may well be the best plausible candidate for the post. Still, lawmakers have important questions that need to be answered and Haspel, justifiably, will be unable to give a full accounting of her own record due to classification concerns. As a result, the challenge in Wednesday’s hearing will be attempting to square this circle by asking questions that are evocative of the necessary information and may avoid running afoul of direct classification concerns. Below we offer questions that a senator who wishes to pursue this tack should consider asking. Whether the answers are satisfactory depends on Haspel herself.
Participation in the RDI Program
- At the time that the RDI program was active, what was your level of awareness regarding its operational details? Were you aware of the conditions of capture and confinement of different detainees? Were you aware of the specific methods of interrogation being used?
- Did you consider the RDI program to be an effective means of gathering intelligence? Why or why not?
- Did you understand the RDI program to be lawful? What was the basis for this opinion?
- Did you have reservations regarding any aspects of the RDI program? If so, did you ever express these reservations to peers or superiors?
- In hindsight, do you regret any aspect of your personal involvement in the RDI program? If so, what would you do differently in the future?
Destruction of the Interrogation Tapes
- At the time it was being discussed, did you support destroying the tapes of detainee interrogations? Why or why not?
- Did you understand the decision to destroy the interrogation tapes to be lawful and properly authorized at the time it was made? Why or why not? What steps, if any, did you take to verify that it was, in fact, lawful and properly authorized?
- Did you have reservations regarding the decision to destroy the interrogation tapes? If so, did you ever express these reservations to peers or superiors?
- In hindsight, do you regret any aspect of your role in the destruction of the interrogation tapes? If so, what would you do differently in the future?
Legacy of the RDI Program
- Several key U.S. national security partners have been extremely critical of the RDI program and, as a result, have limited intelligence cooperation in the past. Do you think your involvement in the RDI program will affect your ability to engage with these partners? If so, how do you intend to address that? How would you explain your past involvement in the RDI program to these allies?
- What, if any, assurances should the United States provide to key national security partners regarding future activities like those pursued as part of the RDI program? Do you believe you will be able to credibly give these assurances?
Transparency and Accountability
- What is your view of Congress’s proper role in overseeing the activities of the CIA, including those that were a part of the RDI program? What about the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General? The Department of Justice?
- Do you believe that the CIA has a legal or ethical obligation to preserve records of its conduct, particularly where that conduct is subject to ongoing investigation? Why or why not?
- What safeguards do you believe should be in place to ensure that CIA records are not destroyed in an unauthorized or unlawful manner? Do you intend to take steps to ensure that these safeguards are in place?
- Do you believe that the activities pursued as part of the RDI program would be lawful if they were pursued today? If so, why? If not, what would have to change to make them lawful?
- Do you currently consult attorneys when formulating CIA policy? How frequently? Do you intend to do so more or less frequently as CIA director?
- What steps do you believe rank-and-file CIA personnel should take to ensure that their activities are lawful? Do you believe the CIA currently provides adequate guidance and resources on these questions?
- What, if any, role do you believe a program like the RDI program should play in current U.S. national security policy? Are there conditions that you believe would make these policies more or less appropriate?
- While a candidate, President Trump stated that he would authorize the use of waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques. Would you advise that he do so? Would you participate if he directed you to do so? Why or why not?
- While a candidate, President Trump stated that he would support targeting terrorists’ family members with lethal force. Would you advise that he do so? Would you execute such an order if he directed you to do so? Why or why not?