By Jennifer Earl, ,
Published May 17, 2018
President Trump’s pick to head the CIA is a seasoned spymaster who has avoided the limelight during a 32-year career that has included stints running overseas “black sites” where dangerous terrorists were waterboarded.
Gina Haspel, 61, was confirmed by the Senate on May 17, which means she can officially take command of the spy agency from Mike Pompeo, who Trump nominated as Secretary of State after firing Rex Tillerson.
She has won praise from Washington insiders – including Obama Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, but faced tough questions on the Hill about her connection to sites where waterboarding took place. The controversial practice, which simulates drowning, has been likened to torture but supporters say it has helped extract valuable information from hardened terrorists.
During the hearing, Haspel defended her past actions and refused to criticize her colleagues for their tactics at the time. She did, however, say the CIA under her watch would not resume such interrogation techniques.
“After 9/11 … I stepped up. I was not on the sidelines, I was on the frontlines in the Cold War and I was on the frontlines in the fight against Al Qaeda,” she said in response to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
In the end, the Senate approved Haspel with a 54-45 vote.
Haspel previously served as Pompeo’s deputy. In stepping in as the CIA's new chief, she becomes the agency's first-ever female director.
“I am grateful to President Trump for the opportunity, and humbled by his confidence in me,” Haspel said in a statement.
Here are 5 things to know about Trump's pick for CIA director.
Haspel joined the CIA in 1985. She is a career spymaster with "extensive overseas experience," serving as station chief -- a government official in charge of a post in a foreign country -- during most of her assignments, the CIA wrote in post online.
After decades of service, Haspel was sworn in as the CIA's deputy director on Feb. 7, 2017, becoming the first woman to hold the position.
"In this position, she assists the D/CIA in managing intelligence collection, analysis, covert action, counterintelligence, and liaison relationships with foreign services," the CIA explained.
Haspel reportedly ran the CIA's first overseas detention site in Thailand, where imprisoned militants were repeatedly waterboarded, The New York Times reported in February 2017.
Like Pompeo, Trump says torture works and pledged his support for CIA-run "black site" prisons outside the U.S.
"We’re worried about waterboarding as our enemy, ISIS, is beheading people and burning people alive. Time for us to wake up," Trump tweeted in February 2015.
Haspel briefly ran a secret CIA prison where accused terrorists Abu Zubayadah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri were waterboarded in 2002, according to former U.S. intelligence officials.
"Zubayadah alone was waterboarded 83 times in a single month, had his head repeatedly slammed into walls and endured other harsh methods before interrogators decided he had no useful information to provide," The Times reported.
She also helped carry out an order that the CIA destroy its waterboarding videos. That order prompted a lengthy Justice Department investigation that ended without charges.
Trump praised Haspel for being "tough on terror" in a May 8 tweet.
"Gina Haspel, my highly respected nominee to lead the CIA, is being praised for the fact that she has been, and alway (sic) will be, TOUGH ON TERROR! This is a woman who has been a leader wherever she has gone. The CIA wants her to lead them into America’s bright and glorious future!" the president tweeted.
Veteran intelligence officials praised Trump's decision to name Haspel deputy director in February 2017, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
“It speaks well of him for picking a seasoned veteran of the agency who is widely and deeply respected by the workforce as well as those outside the agency,” Clapper said at the time. “She has also been a strong proponent for integration, not only within CIA, but across the intelligence community.”
Michael Morell, who served as CIA acting director twice, called Haspel "widely respected," boasting that "she gets things done." He said he worked closely with Haspel for nearly seven years -- until his retirement from the agency in 2013.
"She provides advice based on facts and analysis of facts ... She is calm under fire. She appreciates the work of all CIA officers – analysts, scientists, and support specialists, as much as she appreciates operations officers," Morell said in an online statement.
Michael Hayden, former CIA director, also called Haspel a "wonderful choice."
"I am sure that she will be for Director Pompeo what Steve Kappes was for me --- a trusted friend, lieutenant and guide to the sometimes opaque corridors of American espionage," Hayden said.
In Washington, Haspel has held several top senior leadership positions, including deputy director of the National Clandestine Service and deputy director of the National Clandestine Service for Foreign Intelligence and Covert Action.
Haspel has received several prestigious awards, including the George H. W. Bush Award for excellence in counterterrorism, the Donovan Award, the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal and the Presidential Rank Award, which recognizes individuals for "exceptional performance over an extended period of time," according to the CIA.
Fox News' Adam Shaw, Frank Miles and The Associated Press contributed to this report.