Trump's CIA pick attacked over Bush-era program; do gender politics matter?

Gina Haspel doesn't want to be "the next Ronny Jackson."

And that has sparked yet another debate over a presidential pick and the brutal confirmation process, coated by an added layer of gender politics.

The sudden revelation that President Trump's nominee to run the CIA wanted to withdraw before changing her mind has put Haspel under a white-hot spotlight.

The Washington Post scoop in yesterday's paper said Haspel "sought to withdraw her nomination Friday after some White House officials worried that her role in the interrogation of terrorist suspects could prevent her confirmation by the Senate, according to four senior U.S. officials."

The story says Sarah Sanders and top Hill lobbyist Marc Short "rushed to Langley, Va., to meet with Haspel at her office late Friday afternoon. Discussions stretched several hours, officials said, and the White House was not entirely sure she would stick with her nomination until Saturday afternoon." Haspel told White House aides "she did not want her nomination to harm the CIA."

Now here's where it gets even more interesting. There is no dispute about Haspel’s qualifications as a 33-year veteran of the agency and now its deputy director. But she would also have a groundbreaking status.

Sanders took note in tweeting the following: "There is no one more qualified to be the first woman to lead the CIA than 30+ year CIA veteran Gina Haspel. Any Democrat who claims to support women's empowerment and our national security but opposes her nomination is a total hypocrite."

That prompted New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg to slam Sanders on MSNBC for "playing the woman card."

Well, she is to some extent—just like politicians of both parties have regularly played gender and racial cards for decades when it's in their interest.

When Bill Clinton named Janet Reno as first female attorney general and Madeleine Albright as the first female secretary of State, that status was touted, implicitly or otherwise, as an extra reason for supporting her. The same was true when Barack Obama named Eric Holder as the first black attorney general and Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court.

It's not that they weren't qualified, but the politics of opposing them became a little more complicated.

So why shouldn't Sanders include that as part of Haspel's appeal?

Trump was more subtle when he tweeted about the "highly respected" Haspel, saying "we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror."

Too tough on terror is a loaded formulation, since the obstacle to her confirmation is her involvement in the CIA's interrogation program, which included such techniques as waterboarding, which critics view as torture. More specifically, Haspel oversaw a secret CIA detention facility in Thailand in 2002, and later was involved in the agency's destruction of nearly 100 videotapes recording the waterboarding of two suspects there.

It was, of course, the Bush administration that launched the controversial program after 9/11, when terror topped the nation's agenda. Haspel was not a policymaker in those years; she was, in effect, a foot soldier. Unless she did something that went above and beyond George W. Bush's policies, is it fair to penalize her for following her orders well over a decade ago?

Haspel made the comment about Ronny Jackson—who was forced to withdraw as the VA nominee and then lost his job as White House physician—because she doesn't want to be a distraction, according to the Post. She is, by the way, supported by a number of national security officials from the Obama administration.

Her hearing is tomorrow. Senators should ask tough questions of every high-level nominee. But even if her name was Gene instead of Gina, Haspel shouldn't be made a symbolic sacrifice for carrying out another president's policies.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author "Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth." Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.