White House steps up efforts to confirm CIA director
The White House is ramping up an eleventh-hour effort to build support for President Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, just days before she is scheduled to face a grilling from the Senate Intelligence Committee over her role in the agency’s controversial detention and interrogation program.
For weeks, the CIA has led the charge on promoting now-acting Director Gina Haspel — a forward-leaning public relations campaign that some critics have said is inappropriate for the clandestine agency.
Only late last week did the White House stand up the kind of broad-based press campaign typical of other high-stakes nominations, issuing a swath of laudatory press releases and briefing reporters.
The delay, an administration official told The Hill, was intentional.
Letting the agency introduce her, the official said, “reaffirmed the idea that she was nonpartisan and nonpolitical.”
“It made sense in terms of reaffirming that that’s who she is — a career intelligence official who is going to head an intelligence agency and that intelligence agency is the one who had her story to tell.”
The official stressed that there was no effort to distance Haspel from Trump, who has been deeply critical of the CIA in the past and has faced accusations from critics of politicizing intelligence.
One GOP source familiar with the confirmation process suggested that the White House hadn’t done enough to combat the narrative that Haspel was heavily involved in a Bush-era interrogation program that used techniques widely criticized as torture. Human rights groups and some lawmakers are opposing her confirmation over the issue.
According to The Washington Post, the White House on Friday summoned Haspel for a meeting to discuss her role in the controversial program — only to have Haspel signal that she was going to withdraw her nomination if it would avoid what is expected to be a brutal confirmation that could damage both her reputation and the CIA’s.
After hours of discussions with White House officials, Haspel by late Saturday afternoon had decided to stick with her nomination, the Post reported.
But the dramatic incident underscores the challenges the White House and the CIA have faced in promoting Haspel — and grimly foreshadows her hearing this week.
The GOP source claimed that the administration has done far less for Haspel than it did for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, and, more recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“You’re just not seeing the same amount of coordination or the same amount of urgency to get information out and change the narrative,” the source said.
The administration official pushed back on that notion, saying that the plan had always been to more aggressively back Haspel after Pompeo was confirmed.
“It wasn’t a White House scramble as much as it was the White House flipping the switch,” the official said.
Haspel has been meeting with lawmakers for weeks, and groups supporting her plan to begin targeting Democrats who represent states won by Trump ahead of her confirmation hearing.
“It is kind of like a campaign style where you have a media strategy nationally and then this sort of in-state strategy for folks who they think are gettable, particularly in the Senate,” said Andy Keiser, a former senior adviser to former House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and a former Trump transition national security official.
Complicating the efforts to sell Haspel is the fact that most of her history is classified. The agency has provided little by way of detail about her 32-year record — a decision that, as acting director, Haspel herself controls.
Some details have been publicly reported. She briefly ran a CIA “black site” prison in Thailand in 2002, during a time when the suspect behind the USS Cole bombing was waterboarded three times.
But the agency has not confirmed that timeline. There is no public evidence that Haspel took part in the interrogations personally.
Some of her fiercest critics, such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), have hinted heavily that her classified record is deeply troubling, while former intelligence officials have praised her as a professional, experienced officer. But even her defenders aren’t able to directly address specifics about her various posts in the agency. Critics lambasted the CIA for publicizing human interest details, like the fact that she is a fan of country music legend Johnny Cash, without addressing her role in the interrogation program.
The GOP source said the hints and allegations about her previous involvement in the program from the left have proven to be far more successful than the Trump administration’s efforts to rein them in.
“Her role, whatever it was and whatever you think of torture, her role in it is not as deep or not as horrific as Democrats are describing it. The narrative — you’re already losing that, right?” the source said.
Broadly, the agency and the White House have leaned on characterizations of Haspel from former senior intelligence officials — including critics of the Trump administration such as former CIA Director John Brennan — to respond to allegations that she was an inappropriate champion of techniques now widely considered torture.
“I noted that certainly there are critics who also support her candidacy. I think that speaks to what a strong candidate she is for this role,” Short said during a press call with reporters on Wednesday.
The White House circulated an internal 27-page memo last week laying out the administration’s messaging plan for Haspel, including talking points about how her defenders should respond if “pressed on a specific matter,” which appeared to point to her involvement with the program.
“She is an ‘intelligence and national security expert’ who follows the law as written, and has demonstrated strong and clear leadership in very challenging positions,” the memo advises surrogates to say.
The White House press shop also pushed out multiple emails on Wednesday detailing “widespread praise” of Haspel from current and former national security leaders.
But those vague assurances aren’t likely to satisfy Haspel’s fiercest critics.
Many of the officials who are praising Haspel were also involved in the post-9/11 program in some way. Former Deputy Director Michael Morell lead an internal review of Haspel’s role in the 2005 destruction of tapes documenting a pair of brutal interrogations at the prison in Thailand that has been slammed by critics as incomplete.
Brennan, meanwhile, was a senior official at the agency when the program was initially established—a fact that scuttled his own first nomination as CIA director in 2008.
Brennan was confirmed for the position in 2013, after Obama won his second term, and some supports of Haspel have suggested that she is being penalized for being a Trump appointee more than for her role in the program.
“I’m wondering if there’s a double standard here,” Morell said on his podcast “Intelligence Matters” this week.
“The Senate confirmed John Brennan, who was the No. 4 in the agency when the program was conceived and approved in policy circles, and now they’re challenging a foot-soldier in that program.”
Haspel’s confirmation hearing is set for Wednesday morning.
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