Senators should be unanimous in their support of Haspel for CIA chief

Senators should be unanimous in their support of Haspel for CIA chief
© Greg Nash

Undecided Democratic Senators need to hop off the fence and support Gina Haspel’s confirmation as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Put partisanship aside, look closely at Gina’s experience, and afford her the margin of victory deserving of such a high-caliber candidate.

The undecided should follow the lead of Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerThis week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Congress set for clash over surveillance reforms Trump's intel moves spark Democratic fury MORE (D-Va.), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampSusan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama Pro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA The Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same MORE (D-N.D.), Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Lawmakers push back at Trump's Pentagon funding grab for wall Overnight Health Care: Appeals court strikes down Medicaid work requirements | Pelosi's staff huddles with aides on surprise billing | Senate Dems pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit MORE (D-W.Va.), Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade Lobbying world Bottom Line MORE (D-Fla.) and Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyGinsburg health scare raises prospect of election year Supreme Court battle Watchdog accuses pro-Kavanaugh group of sending illegal robotexts in 2018 Lobbying world MORE (D-Ind.).

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With no additional defections expected from the Republicans, Haspel almost assuredly has secured 50 votes, the minimum needed for confirmation.

 

Let’s not deny the first woman nominee the mandate afforded male predecessors nominated by both parties — Mike Hayden, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus and John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanEx-CIA chief calls Trump intel shakeup a 'virtual decapitation' of the intelligence community DOJ attorney looking into whether CIA withheld info during start of Russia probe: NYT Federal prosecutor looking into Brennan's role in Russian interference findings: report MORE — confirmed with 78, 100, 94 and 63 yea votes respectively. 

Gina Haspel is one of the most qualified individuals ever nominated to serve as CIA director. With decades of experience in critical human intelligence operations in Cold War and counterterrorism efforts, she has acquired intimate knowledge applicable against today’s revived Russian threat.

Her counter-terror work and leadership at stations abroad also provided her critical understanding of the broader CIA mission — including analytic, scientific, technical and support operations — and how CIA integrates with elements of the U.S. intelligence community to produce finished intelligence for U.S. officials.

That same work also gave her vital experience working with (and often against) foreign intelligence services, from our closest allies to those working in opposition or to frustrate our activities — like the Russian FSB and SVR.

For Democratic senators concerned about a president having either little experience with U.S. intelligence capabilities or self-ambitious designs, having a professional intelligence officer of this caliber with an analytic capability deeply devoted to telling truth to power, seems to be a no brainer. 

What about the question of torture? First, CIA officers never participated in torture: Under legal definitions at the time, enhanced interrogation techniques were not torture. The harshest of these techniques — waterboarding —used on only three detainees in the life of the program, was last used 15 years ago.

The CIA stopped using this technique voluntarily five years before it and other techniques were declared illegal in congressional action in 2008.

Second, almost all post-9/11 directors, in Democratic and Republican administrations, contend that detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided unique, actionable intelligence that resulted in the prevention of terrorist attacks against the U.S. and allied nations.

The CIA today admits it is unknowable if the information could have been obtained without those techniques, but because of that information, there are Americans alive today, perhaps some even exercising their First Amendment rights by protesting against CIA’s use of these techniques. That’s not only okay; it's great.

The activities have been reviewed by multiple organizations during the Bush and Obama administrations — by CIA’s general counsel and inspector general, the Department of Justice, a special investigation led by federal prosecutor John Durham and by congressional oversight committees.

The vast majority of officers involved were exonerated, the exceptions being only those whose abuse was self-reported by the agency. President Obama himself took action to move our nation beyond this debate. The debate is over, laws have been modified — it’s time to move on. 

Where is Haspel on all of this? She stated in her confirmation testimony that CIA will never return to a program like the one run during the Bush years. Full stop. Why? It would be illegal and improper.

For those concerned Haspel would have to follow orders from President TrumpDonald John TrumpAdvisor: Sanders could beat Trump in Texas Bloomberg rips Sanders over Castro comments What coronavirus teaches us for preventing the next big bio threat MORE to restart these programs, rest assured that Haspel, a woman I have known for the past 14 years, has a backbone of steel and would respond to such an illegal order with an unequivocal “no.”

But what about her role in the program, shouldn’t that disqualify her from such a vaunted position? She has been described by others as more “foot soldier” than “leader” in its execution, but classification rules prevent a fuller disclosure.

But Haspel undoubtedly played a more minor role than that of John Brennan, a top CIA leader during those years, who was easily confirmed as CIA director during the Obama administration with 49 Democrats and 13 Republicans in support.

As to her participation in the destruction of videos showing the techniques being used on a detainee, Durham, reporting to Democratic Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderIf Roger Stone were a narco, he'd be in the clear Trump flexes pardon power with high-profile clemencies They forgot that under Trump, there are two sets of rules MORE, found no criminal wrongdoing, and an internal accountability board led by CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell (who later endorsed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden faces do-or-die primary in South Carolina President Trump's assault on checks and balances: Five acts in four weeks Schiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again' MORE for president) found no need for administrative sanction.

In a letter to Sen. Warner, Haspel averred that in hindsight, the program should never have been launched, given the damage done to CIA officers and our standing in the world.

Which brings me to my final point and one that has received little expected progressive support: Haspel is the first woman nominated to lead the agency, and it's a historic moment. Haspel's confirmation would resonate deeply for female (and male) career intelligence officers. 

They would see that anyone can reach the top of the most powerful intelligence agency in the world, regardless of his or her gender.

As Hayden’s chief of staff, I sat through many a presentation with requisite graphs outlining inherent and seemingly inescapable barriers to female advancement to the most senior positions at the agency. Nothing helps dispel those biases more than having qualified women ascend to those spots.

As a high school student, Haspel aspired to attend West Point, but was disappointed to learn that it was not possible, as it was not yet integrated.

The Senate should ensure that a talented girl in our country today who aspires one day to run the CIA can be told by her mom or dad: “Go for it! Look at Gina Haspel — she’s running it today.” 

Larry Pfeiffer is the director of the Hayden Center at GMU’s Schar School for Policy & Government. He previously served as the chief of staff to the CIA and director of the White House Situation Room. He has served 32 years in the intelligence community.