By MARSHA MERCER
As Gina Haspel tells it, her life was “right out of a spy novel.”
Haspel, President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, joined the agency in 1985 and worked undercover for more than 30 years.
“From my first days in training, I had a knack for the nuts and bolts of my profession,” she told senators Wednesday at her confirmation hearing. “I excelled in finding and acquiring secret information that I obtained in brush passes, dead drops or in meetings in dusty alleys of third world capitals.
“I recall very well my first meeting with a foreign agent. It was on a dark, moonless night with an agent I had never met. When I picked him up, he passed me the intelligence and I passed him an extra $500 for the men he led. It was the beginning of an adventure I had only dreamed of.”
It sounds like fiction all right, and that’s the way Haspel, 61, wants it.
There’s much the public doesn’t know about her career because the records are classified, and Haspel herself, as acting CIA director, decides how much – or, in this case, how little -- to declassify.
Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who have read the classified material about Haspel but can’t divulge what they’ve read, are frustrated.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee, said Haspel has the knowledge and experience for the job, but “many people – and I include myself in that number – have questions about the message the Senate would be sending by confirming someone for this position who served as a supervisor in the counterterrorism center during the time of the rendition, detention and interrogation program.”
Haspel would be the first woman CIA director, and she has bipartisan support from former CIA directors.
But more than 90 former U.S. ambassadors and diplomats and more than 100 retired generals and admirals have signed letters, raising concerns about her nomination and the extent of her role in “enhanced” interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, as well as destroying evidence of the activities many call torture.
Most Senate Republicans support Haspel but Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who suffered torture for five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, issued a statement Wednesday night urging the Senate to reject Haspel.
“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense,” McCain said. “However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”
In 2002, Haspel ran a CIA “black site” detention facility in Thailand where at least one suspected terrorist was waterboarded repeatedly.
In 2005, as Congress was about to launch an investigation, she advocated destroying more than 90 videotapes of the suspect’s interrogations. At the request of her boss, she drafted a cable ordering the destruction. He sent the cable himself.
Haspel proved a wily witness at her confirmation hearing. Often evasive, she repeatedly said she has a strong moral compass. She dodged questions about her role at the detention center but insisted the techniques were legal and approved by President George W. Bush.
She said she would not restart the “enhanced” interrogation program, even if Trump, who said during the campaign he might bring back waterboarding, ordered her to do so.
“We’re not getting back into that business,” she said.
The committee is expected to vote next week, with a full Senate vote in a few weeks. It appears Haspel may squeak through.
Republicans hold a 51 to 49 Senate majority, but McCain is battling brain cancer in Arizona. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has said he will vote no. But Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia will vote for confirmation, and a couple of other Democrats also facing tough re-election bids may do the same.
Haspel portrayed herself as “a typical middle-class American,” although one with no social media accounts.
It’s time she put more on the table than her spy novel stories. Haspel needs to declassify records of her career, so everyone can judge whether she’s fit for the job.
©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.