Even Gina Haspel isn’t sure she should be director of the CIA. The longtime operative sought to withdraw her nomination to the post on Friday amid concerns she might not be confirmed by the Senate, according to a report from the Washington Post, but senior White House aides talked her back into it. Haspel has come under scrutiny for her role in overseeing the torture of a terrorism suspect in a secret prison in Thailand, and the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of the man’s interrogations.
President Donald Trump in March announced he would nominate Haspel as director of the CIA to replace Mike Pompeo, who he tapped as Secretary of State after ousting Rex Tillerson. If confirmed, Haspel would be the first woman to lead the CIA. But her nomination doesn’t come without issues. While she is widely respected in intelligence circles, she is a controversial figure because of her years-long involvement in a CIA program that led to the torture of dozens.
According to the Post, Haspel on Friday told the White House she was interested in withdrawing from her nomination to avoid what will likely be a brutal confirmation hearing this week. Officials were concerned about material coming up in questions from Congress and wanted to hear her explanations for it.
Head of legislative affairs Marc Short and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders went to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, after hearing about her reservations on Friday to try to talk her into sticking with it. Trump had initially signaled he’d accept whatever she wanted but then decided to push for her to stay on.
The administration wasn’t sure she would stay on board until Saturday afternoon, which might explain this Saturday tweet from Sanders:
Gina Haspel doesn’t want to get the Ronny Jackson treatment
Per the Post, Haspel said she was worried her confirmation hearing might damage the CIA and hurt her own reputation, telling officials she didn’t want to be the “next Ronny Jackson.” Jackson, Trump’s White House doctor, withdrew his nomination to become Veterans Affairs secretary after allegations emerged that he drank on the job, oversaw a “toxic” work environment, and overprescribed medication.
Haspel is controversial because she oversaw a secret CIA detention site in Thailand when in 2002 operatives conducted a brutal interrogation of terror suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri that included waterboarding. Before she arrived at the site, another suspect, Abu Zubaydah, was tortured there as well. The CIA videotaped the torture. Haspel later served as chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, the head of the agency’s counterterrorism center, when he ordered that the tapes be destroyed. Her name was on the cable that made the call. The Justice Department investigated the tape-destruction order but filed no charges.
Lawmakers have been pushing for more information on Haspel’s work. In March, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to the CIA asking for more details on Haspel’s work in the CIA’s interrogation program. “I also believe the American people deserve to know the actual role the person nominated to be the director of the CIA played in what I consider to be one of the darkest chapters in American history,” she wrote. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has also said Haspel needs to “explain the nature and extent of her involvement” in the program.
Despite the controversies, the White House has continued to push for Haspel’s appointment. Officials have attempted to cast her nomination as a feminist victory and have gone as far as to cite comments from former Obama officials John Brennan and James Clapper, who Trump often derides, complimenting Haspel’s record in their communications about her nomination.
But whether Haspel will ultimately win confirmation is unclear. Republicans have a narrow 51-seat majority, and McCain has for quite some time been absent as he is in Arizona undergoing treatment for brain cancer. According to the Post, Short, the legislative affairs director, told Haspel she still could be confirmed despite her history. She will face the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.