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Michael Hayden: Why Gina Haspel is the person America needs at the CIA

Michael Hayden: Why Gina Haspel is the person America needs at the CIA
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There was a lot of talk early in the Trump administration about the so-called “axis of adults,” that group of tested professionals surrounding the president who would guide and, from time to time, limit an inexperienced and impulsive commander in chief.

Except, it now seems, the president isn’t all that willing to be guided or limited. Evidence of that was clear in last week’s decision to hike tariffs on steel and aluminum imports made, reportedly, in a fit of presidential pique about being so limited. That was done without the knowledge of cabinet officials, a legal review, implementing documents, consultations with Congress, a heads-up to allies, or even a public rollout plan.

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Gary Cohn, the highly regarded head of the White House National Economic Council, opposed the tariff move, fought it, lost the fight and decided to leave the Trump administration. Props, by the way, to Cohn for walking when he saw he had outlived his usefulness and relevance. At some point, if you aren’t a guard rail, you’re an enabler or legitimizer.

Now ascendent in White House economic circles is Peter Navarro, an iconoclastic (some would say fringe) economist working as director of the White House Trade Council. Navarro has been an unabashed hawk on trade, successfully calling for the American withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership and counseling a similar pullout from the North American Free Trade Agreement. Not surprisingly, he was an ardent advocate for last week’s tariff announcement.

It’s pretty easy to find economists who disagree with Navarro. Canada’s largest circulation newspaper published an editorial calling him “Ottawa’s worst nightmare.” Politico once labeled him as the “loopiest member of Trump’s retinue.” My instincts follow a similar path, but I’m no economist, so I’m going to abstain on that issue.

What I really want to focus on is Navarro’s definition of his role and, by extension, what appears to be the expected role of real or claimed experts in the Trump administration. In an interview with Bloomberg, as the tariff question was hitting the fan, Navarro offered the following job description: “This is the president’s vision. My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters.”

Let that sink in. I mean it. Just let your mind wander and reflect on what a senior advisor to the president just said: He exists to find whatever data he can to build a case for whatever intuitive narrative, a priori vision, instinctive call or spontaneous response the president might come up with. And this is possible or permissible or appropriate because the president is always right.

Lewis Carroll, anyone? “Sentence first. Verdict afterwards.” It seems the ultimate expression of the president’s well-documented demand for loyalty to him, above all else. Which brings us to Tuesday’s decision to fire Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonWatchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US Trump administration rigging the game, and your retirement fund could be the loser Haley’s exit sends shockwaves through Washington MORE and replace him with CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoWatchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US State Dept. denies report Pompeo heard recording of Khashoggi's murder The Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump MORE. (Again, I will leave aside the public humiliation of a tweeted “you’re fired” on top of other humiliating actions directed at H.R. McMaster, Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRosenstein to appear for House interview next week Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure McGahn departs as White House counsel MORE, Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinRosenstein to appear for House interview next week Former FBI lawyer speaks with House lawmakers on Rosenstein, 2016 Meadows calls on Rosenstein to resign 'immediately' MORE and others).

Pompeo, by all accounts, thinks and speaks more like the president than Tillerson ever did. He has also been more willing than previous CIA directors to infuse his public  commentary with pro-administration policy prescriptions. Still, he has gotten good marks for straight up reporting of the agency’s views and, three days ago on Fox News Sunday, he explicitly rejected Navarro’s “I’m here to justify whatever the big guy wants” theory of governance. He thinks a lot like the president does, however, and may be less of a counterpoint than Tillerson has been.

Pompeo will be replaced at the CIA by Gina Haspel, a highly-regarded, three-decade agency professional, but the long knives are already out because of her role in CIA’s counterterrorism program. The agency director’s position must be confirmed by the Senate, and confirmation looks like it will be contentious. It shouldn’t be.

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 in the NFL, she is the “best athlete available in the draft,” an assessment supported by CIA veterans of the past two decades. When she was selected to be deputy director last year, I wrote that her choice signaled that the agency intended to neither repeat nor repudiate its past. That still holds.

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 my newfound friends to the left of the American political centerline, think twice before you oppose Haspel as director for her imagined past sins. She loves the agency, and she will work to preserve it. No matter what happens in the short term, can we not all agree that we will need it for the long term? And with regard to that truth-to-power thing in a White House expecting Navarro-like loyalty, Haspel is someone you want to be in the room when big decisions are made.

Gen. Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency, is a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His forthcoming book, “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies,” is due out later this year.