When I worked as a CIA officer, playing politics wasn’t part of the job – not for me, not for any of my colleagues. But after watching Democratic senators play to the cameras at the confirmation hearing Tuesday on Gina Haspel’s nomination to become CIA director, I was disappointed to see politics was their major focus.
Haspel is a brilliant intelligence officer with 33 years at the CIA. She has devoted most of her adult life to protecting our nation and won awards for her outstanding performance. Like all of us at the CIA, she’s never carried out her responsibilities as a Democrat or a Republican – but as an American patriot.
But if viewers were hoping for an adult discussion at Haspel’s televised confirmation hearing about how to best protect our nation from terrorists and hostile foreign nations, they got something quite different.
Americans watching the hearing were treated to over two hours of bumbling, partisan attacks that left listeners with one clear takeaway: Democrats were focused on the sins of the past, not of the threats of the future. Moreover, they showed no interest in helping fix what is clearly a broken CIA.
Americans watching the Haspel hearing were treated to over two hours of bumbling, partisan attacks that left listeners with one clear takeaway: Democrats were focused on the sins of the past, not of the threats of the future.
In other words, the Democratic senators on the Intelligence Committee who fancy themselves as progressive thinkers ended up looking like a bunch of circus clowns who missed the train ride home. Their inane questions and partisan motivations ended up embarrassing not just themselves but the party and the nation.
Ironically, if Haspel had been nominated by President Obama to head the CIA a few years earlier, Democratic senators would have most likely strongly supported her nomination – hailing her as the first woman to head the CIA.
But because she was instead nominated by President Trump – the Republican who Democratic lawmakers love to hate – Haspel became the target of unceasing Democratic attacks.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., led the fateful charge, focusing his questions on Haspel’s connection to the CIA’s now discredited counter-terrorism programs involving what the CIA called “enhanced interrogation” and what critics have called “torture.”
Haspel made it crystal clear that she would refuse to engage in similar operations if ever requested by President Trump.
“We’re not getting back into that business,” Haspel said. Translation: we made a mistake, we learned our lesson, and it will never happen again.
But that wasn’t good enough for Warner and his Democratic colleagues, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. She cited a book by former CIA lawyer John Rizzo that claimed Haspel was one of the biggest cheerleaders of what has been called the torture program – and was in charge of interrogating Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah herself.
Unfortunately for Feinstein, Rizzo and his book have been proven to be wrong about Haspel’s role. In fact, Rizzo has since backtracked on his assertions. So too have multiple news organizations. When Haspel shared this news, Feinstein looked like a deer frozen in headlights.
Nevertheless, Feinstein quickly pivoted to the concern of Haspel’s role in destroying videotapes that depicted CIA officers interrogating Al Qaeda suspects. The senator claimed that there were countless videos of 92 detainees being tortured, “as I understand it.”
“No,” Haspel shot back. The tapes involved “only one detainee,” not 92.
Feinstein paused. “Oh, alright. Well, thank you for that.”
Haspel went on to remind the bumbling senators that independent auditors had reviewed the destroyed videotapes and compared them to the cables drafted by the officers who conducted the interrogations. Their findings? The cables were “detailed, accurate, and complete” in their representations of the videos, thus making the videos redundant.
And so it went for two hours, with Democratic Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon, Kamala Harris of California, and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico continuing the barrage of questions and angry rhetoric aimed at Haspel.
The most absurd moment belonged to Sen. Heinrich, who peppered Haspel on her moral compass. Heinrich explained that he was “not interested in whether the interrogation programs were legal, but rather (if) they were the right thing to do.”
As Haspel attempted to answer the question, a dissatisfied Heinrich interrupted, complaining she was being too “legalistic.”
“I want to feel… that you have (a) moral compass,” Heinrich said, sounding more like a New Age guru leading a meditation session than a senator inquiring about whether the law was followed.
At that point, the hearing firmly became what Democrats had long intended it to be: a therapy session about their feelings. About torture. About President Trump. About their childhoods. Who knows?
In other words, to hell with facts or the law. Neither need apply during the Haspel debate. Let’s instead turn the United States Senate into a padded safe room where we can talk about feelings.
The only reprieve during the two-hour debacle was a series of questions asked by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on the threats to the U.S. posed by China. Another colleague asked about how the CIA might help stop the flow of opioids and meth streaming into American communities from abroad.
You know, the stuff that actually affects the safety and security of the nation.
Meanwhile, for those Americans who know a bit about the problems facing the intelligence community, there was no mention of how to fix the troubled CIA itself. For instance, consider the massive reorganization launched by now-disgraced former Director John Brennan, a man who once claimed that the CIA “doesn’t steal secrets.”
Brennan’s widely panned effort has led to considerable upheaval at the CIA, with a clear impact on its ability to protect the nation.
Finally, there was zero debate about the little-known crisis involving abusive senior spies pushing out the best and brightest officers from the clandestine service. In other words, there was no discussing Haspel’s strategy for ejecting the operational deadbeats in order to strengthen the CIA’s fighting force.
Apparently, none of this mattered to Senate Democrats. They were much too consumed with other issues from a decade ago. Like 92 detainees who never existed. Or faux outrage over destroyed videotapes. Never mind Iran, North Korea, or Syria. Never mind ISIS, Al Qaeda or the scourge of illegal drugs.
After two hours, I can only imagine the impression these senators left on Haspel. But, if I know how spies think, I suspect she mused, “Oh, alright. Well, thank you for that and now it’s time to get back to work.”