Haspel nomination should not be ‘Mission Impossible’

Greg Nash

With impeccable timing, the next Tom Cruise “Mission Impossible” movie, “Fallout,” will open just a few weeks after the Senate Intelligence Committee’s scheduled vote on Gina Haspel, President Trump’s choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. If confirmed, she would be the first woman to assume the prestigious post.

The opening script of the “Mission Impossible” movies and the predecessor TV series is well known: “Your mission, Ethan, should you decide to accept it is…” (Insert dangerous, wildly illegal assignment upon which the fate of the United States, and possibly the entire world, will depend). “As always, should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good Luck, Ethan.”

{mosads}Unlike the fictional Ethan Hunt, Haspel is the real deal, a CIA agent with years of experience in covert operations often conducted in distant, dangerous locations. Given her stellar credentials, the Democratic senatorial attempts to make her appointment an impossible mission is difficult to fathom.


Even a cursory examination of Ms. Haspel’s resume suggests that she is extraordinarily qualified to serve as CIA director. She joined the agency in 1985 after graduation from the University of Kentucky and has served in a variety of important assignments. Haspel is no political ringer being rewarded for campaign contributions or political support. She is a seasoned CIA operative who has put her life on the line in the service of her nation.

At her Senate hearing last week, she recounted a vivid recollection of her first covert field operation as an agent, describing a so-called “brush pass” of information in an unnamed foreign locale that could have been drawn from a John le Carré spy novel:

“I recall very well my first meeting with a foreign agent. It was on a dark, moonless night with an agent I’d never met before. … When I picked him up, he passed me the intelligence and I passed him an extra $500 for the men he led.”

In her opening statement to the committee, Ms. Haspel described 30 years of varied assignments often conducted in the “shadows.” After the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, she volunteered to work in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Undoubtedly, based on her field experience and reliably good judgment, she eventually was given an extremely controversial assignment of commanding a CIA black-ops interrogation center in Thailand, where the waterboarding of an al Qaeda suspect occurred.  

She was not the person who authorized and ordered the waterboarding; it was legally sanctioned by Department of Justice lawyers. Though she was accused in aggressive senatorial questioning of playing a central role in the decision to destroy 72 videotapes that depicted the waterboarding and interrogation of the suspect, her former boss, Jose Rodriguez, has said the destruction decision was his, not Ms. Haspel’s. His claim was confirmed by an internal CIA investigation.

In Senate testimony, Ms. Haspel explained that if the video had been publicly revealed, the lives of the CIA agents who conducted the interrogation might have been endangered. The decision to destroy the video, she explained, was legal because there was a detailed written record faithfully recording every detail of the interrogation. What went unsaid was the sensible assessment that the screams of a waterboarded suspect, even a terrorist, would cause enormous damage to the reputation of the United States as they echoed on devices throughout the world. The video also would have become an al Qaeda and ISIS recruiting tool, potentially costing more American lives.

Haspel confirmed that after the 9/11 attack, no one knew what al Qaeda’s next target or weapon of choice might be. It was even thought that a nuclear attack could be in the cards. In short, the atmosphere was different in 2001 and, in retrospect, she accepts that waterboarding should not have been among U.S. interrogation techniques. The CIA, she said, never should have been in the interrogation business in the first place.

She strongly defended the decision to destroy the videotapes while under the particularly sanctimonious questioning of California Democratic Sens. Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris, who undoubtedly normally would have been highly supportive of the first female in American history nominated to lead the agency. Retrospective analysis is always easy and 100 percent accurate, but the CIA conducted the interrogations and destroyed the tapes while smoke was still rising from the terrorist attack that killed 3,000 innocent Americans. The interrogations had one purpose: to prevent additional attacks by an enemy willing to do anything to destroy America.

No doubt the aggressive interrogation by the California senators was primarily motivated by a knee jerk resistance to all things Trump, necessitating the removal of Ms. Haspel from the senators’ customary “progressive” gender agenda. To be fair, most of their male Democratic colleagues joined in the attacks on the nominee, having suddenly developed an interest in the “moral compass” of CIA covert operatives acting under presidential authority in the aftermath 9/11.

The Democratic senators should remember that President Trump has great need for strong advisers such as Ms. Haspel to help guide his unsteady hand on the rudder of the nation’s defense. Her testimony demonstrated that she is just such an adviser. Her appointment will set an example to others in the CIA that the agency’s top spot can be awarded not only to those with political connections but also to a seasoned professional, even if that person happens to be a woman.

If the United States Senate musters the courage to do the right thing and confirm Nina Haspel as director of the CIA, a new “Mission Impossible” script may be necessary with a tough and talented woman assuming the lead role. Unlike her movie counterpart, Ms. Haspel appears ready to assume the role and accept full responsibility for future missions of this critical agency. No “disavowals” by the Secretary will be necessary.

Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, a former New York City homicide prosecutor and media law professor. He is of counsel to Edelman & Edelman PC, focusing on wrongful conviction and civil rights cases. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCallan.

Tags Central Intelligence Agency Donald Trump Gina Haspel Interrogation techniques Waterboarding

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