Why you should care
Because Kentuckian Gina Haspel could head the storied agency.
It was the 1980s, and Gina Haspel, a Kentucky native and fresh graduate from the University of Louisville, was working as a contractor at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. Surrounded by soldiers, the language-lover was inspired by their global mission. And so, after some research, Haspel typed up an application letter on her typewriter and sent it off. For an address, she simply wrote: “CIA, Washington, D.C.”
That decision led to three decades of a clandestine life that earned her medals and accolades. Now that she has been nominated by President Donald Trump to be director of America’s storied intelligence agency, some of those details have emerged. With a few tweaks to her résumé, her ascent would be lauded in bestselling novels and Hollywood films: an all-American military brat and Johnny Cash fan who rose through the intelligence ranks to become the first female CIA chief. The only problem: Haspel is also tied to one of the worst torture scandals in American history, begging questions of morality and sexism as she awaits Senate confirmation.
Hero or not, she’s experienced and would become the first clandestine professional turned chief since the 1970s.
Her career didn’t start in controversy. Arriving in 1985, Haspel recalls “the initial shock of witnessing grinding poverty and the excitement of carrying out a clandestine mission amid billboards plastered with Marxist-Leninist slogans,” according to a two-page CIA memo released on Thursday, which declassified much of her past. She served as a case officer in Africa — “It was right out of a spy novel,” she said in the memo — and was named chief of station in an “exotic and tumultuous” capital city. In an attempt to lean into the ongoing female empowerment movement, the memo continues: “The skepticism of her male colleagues was obvious, with comments like, ‘I can’t believe they’re sending you to a place like that.’ ” And yet Haspel earned her place, helping arrest two terrorists linked to an embassy bombing — likely one of the 1998 embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, or Nairobi, Kenya — an achievement that earned her the George H.W. Bush Award for Excellence in Counterterrorism.
On September 11, 2001, as the twin towers fell and the Pentagon burned, Haspel began her first day at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in Langley, Virginia. Jose Rodriguez, the center’s chief of staff and then director, noticed Haspel and “stole her away,” as he recalls in his autobiography, Hard Measures, to head a secret prison in Thailand, one of the earliest CIA “black sites.” She arrived after the accused terrorist Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded almost a hundred times, but almost certainly oversaw the U.S.-sanctioned torture of others, including Saudi national Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. In 2005, as chief of staff for Rodriguez, she directed agents to shred videotapes of black-site interrogations. “She was knee-deep in all of the torture stuff. What message does that send to the world?” says former Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), who sat on the Intelligence Committee during investigations into CIA torture. Adds University of California–Santa Barbara professor Lisa Hajjar, author of Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights: “It further confirms the idea that there is no accountability and no justice for torture.”
Yet three of Washington’s most powerful men — the attorney general, CIA director and president of the United States — had authorized so-called “enhanced interrogation tactics” as legal and necessary, reaffirming that decision at least three times. “To blame her for what lawyers on the staff and her boss directed her to do seems kind of like a stretch,” says a former senior intelligence official, who requested anonymity to talk about classified matters. When former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell investigated the destruction of evidence, he excoriated Rodriguez but expunged Haspel of “any wrongdoing in the case,” as he later wrote in The Cipher Brief, saying she had acted in good faith in following orders. With those tactics now declared illegal, Haspel will note the agency hasn’t engaged in torture for years, intelligence officials argue.
Is Haspel getting different treatment because of her gender? Rodriguez went on to become chief of the CIA’s clandestine service during the George W. Bush years. After Obama refused to try torture actors, saying “we need to look forward,” only three caucusing Democrats voted against CIA Director John Brennan, who also faced questions about his role in the agency’s torture. Meanwhile, Specialist Lynndie England — who, like Haspel, grew up in Ashland, Kentucky — became the poster child for abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, as opposed to her male colleagues. While female firsts have been celebrated broadly, it’s been a different case for Trump nominees: See the intense vitriol aimed at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, or author Michael Wolff’s baseless suggestions that UN Ambassador Nikki Haley had an affair with Trump. The Atlantic proclaimed Haspel’s “gender is the least important fact about her,” and The Huffington Post wrote after her nomination, “Not every woman in a position of power is a feminist hero.”
Hero or not, she’s experienced and would become the first clandestine professional turned chief since the 1970s. “There is a world full of threats out there with the Russians, Chinese, cyberterrorists, and the agency needs strong leadership,” the senior intelligence officer says. “You have to ask yourself: If she’s not given that opportunity, who are they going to come up with?” In the coming weeks, such thinking might spare Haspel from enhanced interrogation in the Senate.