The Haspel nomination: The delicate balance of the process

The Haspel nomination: The delicate balance of the process
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Somewhat lost in the Sturm und Drang over the nomination of Gina HaspelGina Cheri HaspelCongress set for chaotic year-end sprint A strong, committed intelligence community is part of America's good fortune Women set to take key roles in Biden administration MORE to be CIA director (DCIA) is the fact that she is the first CIA officer who spent her entire career in the operations side of the agency; further, the success or failure of her nomination will be determined by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), another first. The precedent being set on how the committee handles her nomination will have implications for future DCIA nominees.

Congress created SSCI and its counterpart, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), in the wake of the Church Committee and Pike Committee investigations of the CIA in the mid-1970s. A result of these investigations was the belief that Congress needed to be more informed and have direct oversight over the CIA, while understanding the unique nature of how it does business.

The key goals of protecting secrets — methods and sources — while preserving the congressional oversight function has always necessitated finding a delicate and sometimes difficult balance.


The last two operations officers whose nominations the Senate considered were Richard Helms, who served as director of Central Intelligence (DCI) from 1966-1973 — the creation of the director of National Intelligence changed the role of the CIA director from being responsible for the entire intelligence community to only the CIA — and William Colby. While Helms served in a different era, Colby was nominated in 1973 amid revelations and controversy that led to the Church and Pike commissions. He withstood three days of hearings and ultimately was confirmed by a vote of 83-13. Both those nominations went through the Senate Armed Services Committee, which had oversight responsibility for CIA before the creation of SSCI and HPSCI.  

What’s at issue with respect to the present process, in an age of transparency and rapid-fire social media, is how to handle a nominee who has lived a classified life. There is no doubt that some of Haspel’s life will be declassified as part of the confirmation process. Much of it already has been, but it is impossible to declassify it all. In addition to sources and methods, there are security, personnel and other related issues that can hinder the declassification of information. Indeed, the information about which people are most curious may be some of the most sensitive. 

The open question is whether SSCI can adequately vet and consider a nominee who has led a clandestine life.

The good news is that SSCI was created just for this purpose. SSCI is a proxy for the American public with its oversight of the intelligence community. The principle is simple. It is impossible to tell everyone about what the CIA does, so instead the CIA tells this select group of senators the classified information so the committee can do appropriate oversight. As the director of the Office of Congressional Affairs at CIA from 2009 to 2011, I witnessed this process work firsthand. This was an extraordinary period of activity on sensitive counter-terrorism operations culminating in the Bin Laden raid. There are always bumps in the road, but I saw that the oversight system created 40 years ago could do good and responsible oversight.

But nominations are different. By definition, they are personal. So, SSCI faces a crucial test. Can it proceed on a nominee in a fair and balanced way, despite the challenges of not being able to share all it knows about her with the American public? The answer most likely is yes. The SSCI leadership, and the committee members, no matter their views on the nomination, understand the responsibility they have to shine a light on one of the most important national security nominations in the federal government, while respecting their stewardship of protecting an agency and its personnel whose mandate is to operate largely in the shadows.

There are some steps that can ameliorate the potential awkwardness of the process. First, as noted, the CIA will declassify some information. There is information that is appropriate to release. Second, SSCI likely will make available to all senators operational information that is usually restricted to SSCI members. There will be a public hearing to discuss important issues.  After that, however, SSCI will have to do what it was created to do. It will have to consider the public record that all can see, and the classified one that only it will see, and then act as a proxy for the public and pass judgment on Deputy Director Haspel’s qualifications. 

The precedent it sets will have a lasting effect, not only on future nominations but also on the relationship between the CIA and the committee.

Regardless of the results of their deliberations on the Haspel nomination, this is an opportunity for the committee and its members to prove the process is fair and works. This is an important and useful signal to send to the American people, and one I am optimistic they will send.

Williams Danvers was director of the CIA’s Office of Congressional Affairs under Leon Panetta from 2009-2011. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity.