Critics say opposition to Haspel about 'ethics and judgment,' not toughness on terrorists

This March 21, 2017, photo provided by the CIA, shows CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel. (CIA)

President Donald Trump claimed Monday that Democrats criticizing his nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, want to stop her “because she was too tough on Terrorists,” but her detractors maintain that her past involvement in “enhanced interrogation” programs raises valid questions about her ethics and leadership.

“Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror,” he wrote. “Win Gina!”

Haspel was set to speak to senators Monday as preparations continued for her confirmation hearing Wednesday. The Washington Post reported she offered to withdraw her nomination Friday, citing concern about the impact a bruising confirmation battle could have on the agency’s reputation, but senior White House officials convinced her to continue.

According to CNN, President Trump called her Saturday to reaffirm his support.

Democrats and some Republicans have expressed hesitation or outright opposition to Haspel’s nomination in recent weeks, as the administration and the CIA work to defend her record. With a slim Republican majority in the Senate and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., currently sidelined by cancer treatment, her confirmation is far from assured.

“I think the main issue is the whole torture question, and to me and many other people, that’s a litmus test,” said Loch Johnson, author of “Spy Watching: Intelligence Accountability in the United States” and a professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia.

In 2002, in the aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, Haspel was assigned to oversee a CIA black site in Thailand where waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques were practiced. In 2005, as chief of staff to the director of the National Clandestine Service, she drafted a memo granting permission to destroy videotape evidence of interrogations.

A special prosecutor investigated the destruction of the tapes and determined no charges should be filed. Haspel has said she was following orders, and officials said she believed he would get approval from senior officers before sending the memo.

The White House has highlighted bipartisan support for her nomination. A factsheet distributed to the press last week quotes three former CIA directors, two former deputy directors, and a former director of national intelligence who served under Democratic and Republican presidents praising Haspel.

"I don't agree with the standards that were put in place, but at the same time, I think we just need to think about that time and the way we approach the threat to the country," former Obama CIA Director Leon Panetta told CNN after she was nominated, explaining his support. “Just judge that and look at her entire record, that’s all I ask.”

Top Senate Republicans have also come to her defense ahead of her confirmation hearing. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said on Twitter Saturday that opposing her “puts our national security at risk.”

“The president could not have found a more qualified candidate than Gina Haspel to lead the Central Intelligence Agency,” Sen. Orrin Harch, R-Utah, said in a statement Monday. “With decades of experience in the organization, Haspel has the respect of the men and women of the CIA and will lead it admirably as its first female director.”

Some key Democrats, including Sens. Mark Warner, D-VA., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., remain undecided. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee when it investigated Bush-era interrogation practices, has repeatedly called on the CIA to make Haspel’s full record available to lawmakers. She has suggested putting Haspel in charge sends the wrong message to the world, but she has not said publicly how she will vote.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is also among those seeking more information before making a decision on Haspel. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is on the record as a “no” vote, but he made similar proclamations about then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo before ultimately voting to confirm him as secretary of state.

“Direct participation in the program itself would be disqualifying enough for me, but appointing someone who also helped push for destroying evidence of that program to run one of the most powerful organizations in the world should not be acceptable to Congress,” Sen. Paul wrote of Haspel in a March Politico op-ed.

“At the end of the day,” he continued, “does this sound like what you would want from someone in a position of incredible power—much of which is hidden from the public? Without hesitation, I say no.”

Johnson disputed the president’s premise that those attacking now-defunct interrogation programs that are widely seen as engaging in torture are not tough enough on terrorism.

“We all want to be tough on terrorists and we spend about $80 billion a year in the intelligence agencies alone,” he said. “We’ve been tough on terrorists, but we’re also an ethical nation.”

Those ethics, he added, are what separate the U.S. intelligence community from that of countries like Russia, which was recently accused of poisoning a former spy in Britain.

“We should be proud of our higher ethical standards, and she played her part in staining our reputation around the world,” Johnson said.

Others have a different view of her career. More than 50 former national security officials and lawmakers signed a letter endorsing Haspel last month, citing her record of “integrity, experience, and determination.” The document did not directly address her involvement in the interrogation program.

"Ms. Haspel's qualifications to become CIA Director match or exceed those of most candidates put forward in the Agency's 70-year history," they wrote. "She has spent more than 30 years of her life quietly serving America and the CIA, routinely stepping up to handle some of the most demanding assignments around the globe."

Johnson observed that CIA directors usually come to the agency from the military, politics, or other agencies. There are few examples of CIA staffers rising up to leadership, and many within the agency would prefer that over another political appointee.

“This is rallying around one of their own,” he said.

Some human rights and civil rights groups have spoken out against Haspel’s nomination.

“The CIA wants us to know positive stories about Haspel, hailing her as a trailblazer, consummate professional, dedicated agent, and Johnny Cash fan,” American Civil Liberties Union political researcher Brian Tashman wrote in a recent blog post, blasting the “highly sanitized” pieces of her record declassified and tweeted by the CIA. “At the same time, the agency won’t release full information about the most important and contentious parts of Haspel’s record.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, has said it is unfair to hold Haspel responsible for the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques.

“This idea of making her the fall person for this program that I know is controversial, I think is just a shame,” he told Fox News.

Haspel has reportedly told senators that she would oppose reinstituting banned interrogation methods. That has not allayed her critics’ fears.

“It’s an odd situation because the president said he loves torture,” Johnson said, referring to the president’s many past statements supporting waterboarding, calling for even harsher methods, and asserting that torture works. Given Haspel’s record following orders when told to engage in these practices in the past, he is not confident she would be willing to stand up to Trump if he gave such an order.

Haspel’s supporters have stressed that circumstances were different at the time of her contested actions. The Bush administration had determined these interrogation activities were legal and the nation was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on “Fox & Friends” last week, “If you were not in a position of authority on September 11th, you have no idea the pressures that we faced to try and make sure that this country wasn’t attacked again.”

The White House has brushed aside doubts about Haspel’s character.

“Her nomination will not be derailed by partisan critics who side with the ACLU over the CIA on how to keep the American people safe,” spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement Sunday.

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders alleged on Twitter that those criticizing Haspel are opposed to female empowerment. Johnson rejected that accusation, saying there are many talented female analysts at the CIA who might be better suited for the job.

“We need more women in high office, but that’s not the point This is not about gender,” he said. “This is about ethics and judgment and what her record has been in that category.”

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