WASHINGTON – With few details about Gina Haspel's undercover career, debate over President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the CIA descended into verbal spatting between those who praise her experience and others who want her disqualified because of her role in the spy agency's harsh interrogation of terror subjects after 9/11.
Haspel faces a contentious hearing in the Senate intelligence committee next week ahead of what the White House admits will be a close confirmation vote in the full Senate.
Hoping to sway senators his way, Trump tweeted on Wednesday: "Gina Haspel has displayed dedication and leadership throughout her more than three decades of service with the CIA and is the right person to lead the Agency."
That was a few hours after her critics held a conference call in which Chris Anders of the American Civil Liberties Union lamented: "If confirmed, Gina Haspel would be the first and only person confirmed by the Senate — we believe in its entire history — with a known operational role in using torture."
Also on that call was Dan Jones, the lead author of the Senate's report about how the CIA captured and sent terror subjects overseas to black sites where they were harshly interrogated.
"The findings and conclusions of the Senate were that the program was deeply mismanaged, that the CIA had provided misinformation to the president, Department of Justice, Congress and the American people," Jones said.
"Haspel would have been aware of the deficiencies in the program," he said, given her positions with the CIA's counterterrorism center, or CTC, and field operations from 2001 to 2008.
Jones wouldn't say how many times Haspel's name was mentioned in the 7,000-page Senate report that remains classified except for a 500-page executive summary. But he noted that Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Ron Wyden of Oregon, who have had access to the entire report, have said that the more they read the classified version, the more disturbed they are by the actions Haspel has taken during her career.
Haspel, 61, the agency's acting director, joined the CIA in 1985. In a statement, the White House said she has shown an "unparalleled commitment to the mission of the CIA and the rule of law" and has counterterrorism and management experience and strong working relations with administration officials.
To be confirmed she will need at least 50 of the Senate's 100 senators to give her the nod since Vice President Mike Pence can break a tie.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is battling brain cancer and might not make the vote, and even if he does, it's unclear if he'd back Haspel. McCain was instrumental in getting Congress to prohibit harsh interrogation techniques like those used on terror suspects after 9/11 and has said that any CIA nominee must pledge to uphold the ban.
With McCain's absence, Republicans have a 50-49 margin in the Senate. Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director, said he hoped there will be enough Democrats who prioritize Haspel's qualifications, but that he still expects "it will be a close vote."
Haspel has received robust backing from former intelligence, diplomatic, military and national security officials. They recently wrote a letter, saying Haspel is a "proven leader" who can "make tough calls in times of crisis." Among those signing the letter were six former CIA directors — Porter Goss, John Brennan, Leon Panetta, George Tenet, William Webster and Mike Hayden — and three former national intelligence directors — James Clapper, Mike McConnell and John Negroponte.
However, many human rights advocates and groups are urging a "no" vote for Haspel.
Faiz Shakir, the ACLU's national political director, claims that Haspel's nomination is "clearly on the rocks" and that she would fail if the Senate held her confirmation vote today. To drive dissent, the ACLU on Wednesday released a $50,000 digital ad buy targeting Californians and urging Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to vote against her. Shakir said other senators might be targeted before the Senate votes.
Anders, deputy director of the ACLU's legislative office in Washington, said that while the administration has shared tidbits about how Haspel likes country singer Johnny Cash and once met the Roman Catholic nun and missionary Mother Teresa, it has only declassified one document about her career.
Last month, the CIA released a memo showing Haspel was cleared of wrongdoing in the destruction of videotapes showing terror suspects being waterboarded after 9/11. It unclear if the agency will declassify any additional information.
The eight-page memo written in 2011 summarizes a disciplinary review conducted by then-CIA deputy director Mike Morell. He said that while Haspel was one of the two officers "directly involved in the decision to destroy the tapes," he "found no fault" with what she did.
Haspel drafted a cable ordering the destruction of the tapes, but Haspel's boss, Jose Rodriguez, who at the time was chief of the CIA's clandestine service, actually dispatched the order to have 92 videotapes shredded in 2005.
"No senator should agree to even vote on the Haspel nomination until or unless CIA truly opens its books to the American people about her role in the use of torture," Anders said.