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Undercover to under scrutiny: Gina Haspel, nominee to head CIA, to face Senate grilling

One summer night in the late 1980s, Gina Haspel, a young CIA field officer on her first overseas assignment, found herself standing outside a hotel in Addis Ababa talking to Jimmy Carter. The former president was visiting Ethiopia to foster peace talks between the government and Eritrean rebels and urgently needed to get word to a local guerrilla leader that he had to cancel their planned meeting. Learning that Haspel worked for the CIA, Carter asked to meet her after an official dinner they’d both attended and requested that she relay his message. 

Haspel used her contacts to successfully deliver the message through a back channel. The episode, described by people familiar with Haspel’s career, was one of several clandestine assignments that left the young Kentuckian feeling as if she had entered a life “right out of a spy novel,” as Haspel recalled three decades later. 

On Wednesday, she faces an entirely different assignment, one she surely never expected — persuading the U.S. Senate to support her nomination as the next director of the CIA. Haspel’s chances of winning confirmation are considered uncertain, in part because Republicans hold only a slim majority and not all GOP senators have pledged to vote for her. On Monday, she called on senators, while the administration said it would share more classified information with lawmakers about Haspel’s career.

Haspel is one of a few career intelligence officers to be tapped for director, and the first woman. She also has the most secretive résumé. Nearly every one of her 33 years in the CIA was spent undercover, and only in recent days has the agency revealed the dates and nature of some of her assignments, as part of an unusual public relations campaign to secure Haspel’s confirmation. 

But her success is not guaranteed and could hinge on one chapter in her mysterious career: Haspel’s role in the CIA’s controversial program of detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists. On Friday, Haspel’s nomination was nearly derailed when she offered to withdraw rather than face a bruising public debate over the program that she feared could damage the agency and her reputation, according to four administration officials who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. White House officials ultimately persuaded her not to drop out. 

In 2002, Haspel oversaw a secret CIA detention facility in Thailand where interrogators waterboarded two al-Qaeda suspects — Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known by the nom de guerre Abu Zubaida, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. (Abu Zubaida was interrogated before Haspel took charge of the site.) Later, while serving in a powerful senior position at CIA headquarters, Haspel argued for destroying nearly 100 videotapes that recorded the interrogation sessions. Haspel worried the tapes could become public and expose the interrogators, whose faces were clearly visible, to reprisal attacks by terrorists, according to people familiar with the matter.
In 2005, at the direction of Haspel’s boss Jose Rodriguez, the director of the National Clandestine Service, CIA employees fed the tapes into a shredding machine.

Senior CIA and George W. Bush administration officials shared Haspel’s concern for agency personnel and their families. But they expected the White House to give a final sign-off on destroying the tapes before any action was taken. Rodriguez did not tell CIA leaders or the White House before issuing the order, though the destruction had been discussed among top officials for years.

Senators and staffers then with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will hear Haspel’s testimony this week, were livid. “It was just brazen. It really was to me a violation of norms and the rule of law in many ways,” said Todd Rosenblum, a former committee staff member. He said the tapes should have been preserved for the panel’s examination of the interrogation program. An internal CIA review cleared Haspel of any wrongdoing in the destruction of the tapes.

Current committee members have said that other “disturbing” facts in Haspel’s record need to be declassified for the public to take the full measure of the nominee. Critics charge the CIA with selectively declassifying the most anodyne and flattering moments of Haspel’s work — including a two-page biographical statement in which she fondly recalled her time in Ethiopia without actually naming the country. 

“Concealing her background when no sources and methods are at stake shows nothing but contempt for the Senate and the public,” Intelligence Committee Democrats Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (N.M.) said in a joint statement last month. 

In interviews with 15 current and former intelligence officials, including some who worked closely with Haspel, a portrait of her cloak-and-dagger life emerged. Straddling the twilight of the Cold War and the dawn of a global campaign against terrorism, Haspel, 61, finds herself poised to take over an agency that is returning its focus to traditional state adversaries, including China, North Korea, Iran and Russia — a country Haspel has studied especially closely. 

A hard place

Haspel, who was born in Kentucky but spent her childhood living on military bases overseas, joined the CIA in 1985 as a trainee in the Directorate of Operations, the espionage branch that recruits and handles spies in foreign countries. She is not married and has no children, and friends say she has effectively dedicated her whole life to the CIA.

Two years after she joined the agency, she was given her first assignment in Ethi­o­pia, then a major beneficiary of Soviet aid.

“She started as a boots-on-the-ground field officer,” said a retired senior CIA officer who is a friend of Haspel’s. She met agents, collected intelligence. “She’s got grass stains because she played in the field.”

After two years in Ethiopia, Haspel enrolled in a year of Turkish language training. She had studied languages at college in Kentucky and majored in journalism, although her school newspaper has no records showing she ever wrote articles.

In 1990, she was assigned as a case officer in Ankara, Turkey, according to people familiar with her early career. She spent three years there, amid the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

The early work was not glamorous, but it raised Haspel’s stock. “If you study a hard language and go to a hard place, then your credibility among the ranks immediately goes up,” said Henry “Hank” Crumpton, who years later hired Haspel as his deputy when he ran the CIA’s national resources division, which gathers intelligence in the United States by talking to people who have traveled to countries the agency wants to know more about. 

Although the Soviet Union was no more, Haspel’s interest in Russia and the former Soviet republics intensified. So did her study of Russian tradecraft, said former CIA officers who know her. Haspel became a student of Moscow’s methods for recruiting agents and secretly communicating with them. One of her favorite TV shows is “The Americans,” Haspel’s friend said, because it accurately portrays Russian espionage in the 1980s. 

The facility in Thailand

On Aug. 7, 1998, while she was serving as chief of the CIA’s station in Baku, Azerbaijan, Haspel’s career took a turn. Al-Qaeda launched simultaneous bombings against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans. A few days later, Haspel received a middle-of-the-night call summoning her to the office, where she learned that two senior al-Qaeda associates linked to the bombings were heading to the former Soviet republic, according to an administration official familiar with Haspel’s career. 

Working with Azerbaijan’s KGB-trained intelligence service, Haspel organized an operation to intercept the men. Although they never stood trial in the United States, the CIA credits the operation with retrieving valuable information from the men’s computers about a separate al-Qaeda plot. Haspel won a CIA award for her work. 

The embassy bombings were the clearest signal yet to the U.S. intelligence community that al-Qaeda intended to inflict massive damage on American targets. Haspel continued working for the next two years on operations against Russia, and then served for a year as a deputy chief of station in the CIA’s Europe division. In 2001, she requested a transfer to the agency’s Counterterrorism Center. Her first day on the job was Sept. 11. 

Suddenly, the CIA confronted a new enemy that organized itself into loosely connected networks, not along bureaucratic hierarchies like state adversaries. Intelligence officials worried that it would take years for the CIA to learn how to penetrate al-Qaeda. With the Soviets vanquished, the United States had slashed spending on intelligence and droves of CIA officers had retired. 

“By 9/11, we were gutted,” said Daniel Hoffman, a 30-year veteran who worked with Haspel at CIA headquarters. 

Haspel was well known in the Directorate of Operations for her work against Russia and her honed tradecraft. She was someone who knew how to find people inside organizations, identify their vulnerabilities and learn who was connected to whom. 

Hoffman and others credit Haspel for putting that knowledge to work after 9/11 and helping to establish the CIA’s early approach to understanding al-Qaeda’s structure and identifying its members. 

“She was present at the creation” of a new era for the CIA, Hoffman said. 

But the CIA also embarked upon operations for which it had never trained its officers — capturing terrorists and holding and interrogating them in secret detention facilities. By the time Haspel arrived to run the facility in Thailand, one detainee, Abu Zubaida, had already been subjected to some of the harshest interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, approved by CIA and administration leaders and lawyers, above Haspel’s rank. Members of Congress had also been briefed on the program. 

Haspel apparently was not made aware of the agency’s use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, widely regarded as torture, until shortly before she arrived at the detention facility, according to public records and people with knowledge of her time there. 

But Haspel was surely aware that interrogations were providing information about al-Qaeda. Some officials said that internal documents and CIA cables show Haspel was an enthusiastic supporter of the program. Haspel is not expected to deny that she believed detainees provided valuable information. But she may take pains to distance herself from the decisions to implement the program in the first place, according to U.S. officials. 

“She wasn’t the architect of the program, by no means,” said Michael Sulick, the director of the National Clandestine Service from 2007 to 2010. 

Haspel was, however, a leading advocate for destroying the tapes. She did not give the order, in 2005, but she lobbied senior CIA officials and drafted a cable for Rodriguez, ordering field officers to destroy the material. Haspel believed that Rodriguez was going to first get the approval of CIA leaders before giving the order, but he did not, according to people with knowledge of the events. 

“To say that she was part of this [detention and interrogation] program, from a management standpoint, and is not qualified to lead the agency, is misguided,” said John Brennan, who served as CIA director under President Barack Obama.

Brennan joined 52 other former senior national security officials in signing a letter of support for Haspel’s nomination, calling her a “true intelligence professional who brings care, integrity and a commitment to the rule of law to her work every day.” 

But more than twice as many retired military generals signed a letter opposing Haspel. “We do not accept efforts to excuse her actions relating to torture and other unlawful abuse of detainees by offering that she was ‘just following orders,’ ” they wrote. 

Speaking truth to power

Haspel’s role in the interrogation program did not impede her rise within the CIA’s power structure. She held several senior leadership positions, including chief of staff to Rodriquez. 

In 2008, she received a plum job in England, the United States’ closest intelligence ally — chief of station in London. For Haspel, an Anglophile and devourer of British mystery series, the posting was particularly satisfying, those who know her said. It also signaled to the CIA workforce that she was destined for top leadership. 

More senior posts followed, including deputy director of the National Clandestine Service, as the Directorate of Operations was then known, from 2012 to 2014. That year, Haspel went back to London and remained until 2017, when she was tapped as deputy director of the CIA. 

Haspel’s presence back at headquarters helped to ease anxieties among CIA employees, many of whom regarded the new director, Republican former congressman Mike Pompeo, as a ruthless partisan sent in by a president who was overtly hostile to intelligence officers, comparing them during the transition to Nazis and accusing them of trying to delegitimize his election.  

While Pompeo nurtured his relationship with President Trump, Haspel was put in charge of most of the day-to-day operations of the agency. She also became a trusted partner to Pompeo and a key player paving a path toward a meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Those efforts culminated in a secret meeting between Pompeo and Kim in Pyongyang over the Easter weekend, The Washington Post previously reported

Haspel has spent some time with Trump in briefings, though they are not as close as the president and Pompeo, people with knowledge of Haspel’s interactions said. She has staked out a tough position on Russia that runs contrary to many of the president’s positions and instincts. In response to Russia’s alleged use of a nerve agent in England in March, Haspel helped coordinate the expulsion of Russian diplomats by U.S. allies around the world, according to officials familiar with the matter. 

Those who know Haspel well said they had no doubt she would be candid with Trump on matters that might put the two at odds — including torture. Trump has spoken in favor of the use of torture. On Wednesday, Haspel is expected to say she would not favor reinstating the “enhanced” interrogation program, in any form, according to people familiar with her planned testimony.

Brennan, who has gone head to head with Trump in Twitter feuds, said, “I have great confidence that Gina Haspel has the requisite background and the professional credentials to be able to speak truth to power, irrespective of the policy druthers of the person in the Oval Office.”