This morning, in a surprise announcement, Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replaced him with the current director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo. That surprised many, but even more surprising, at least to some, was who Trump wanted to replace Pompeo at the CIA. To this point, the rumors had said Senator Tom Cotton would get the role, but instead it went to the deputy director, Gina Haspel, the first woman to ever take the job. Or, at least, she might be. Haspel’s history may get in the way of any appointment, as she’s at the center of one of the CIA’s ugliest scandals, one that’s still unfolding and may see her in European courts answering to criminal charges.
- Haspel is, quite literally, Hollywood’s idea of a CIA spook: She joined the agency in 1985 and rose through the ranks of what’s currently called the Directorate of Operations, but in Haspel’s day was called the National Clandestine Service. That’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like; it does, officially, the stuff you see in the movies, recruiting spies and interrogating people. It was that last that earned Haspel some enduring infamy, thanks to the Bush-era policy of waterboarding.
- Haspel ran ‘Cat’s Eye,’ the black site in Thailand where Al-Qaeda members were waterboarded: The Thai prison was investigated by a Senate committee and found one prisoner had been waterboarded 83 times in one month, was kept in a box, subjected to sleep deprivation, had his head rammed into a wall, and lost an eye. The interrogation yielded no useful intelligence, according to the CIA’s own assessment. Waterboarding, if you’re unfamiliar, is the practice of strapping a person to a board on an incline, and then pouring water on them, creating the sensation of drowning.
- Haspel is alleged to have attempted, or at least considered, a coverup: The head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and Haspel’s boss, wrote in his memoir that she drafted a cable ordering video of the black site interrogations be destroyed. It’s unclear if the cable was sent.
- This scandal has haunted Haspel’s career ever since: Despite the scandal, Haspel stayed with the CIA. But her involvement in the waterboarding scandal has cost her several jobs, including running the National Clandestine Service; she was refused the role, permanently, over her involvement. While she was appointed deputy director of the CIA in February 2017, a role that does not have to confirmed by the U.S. Senate, several senators raised objections to Haspel’s presence.
- And Haspel still has questions to answer internationally: In 2014, The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights pressed criminal charges against unspecified CIA agents, and in 2017 demanded that Germany arrest Haspel on human rights charges. Haspel will need to go before the Senate in order to be confirmed, and it’s unlikely she won’t have to discuss the scandal, or the possibility she may be unable to travel lest she be arrested.
In other words, Haspel’s appointment will be deeply controversial. Just two votes need to be swayed in the Senate for her appointment to be derailed, and Haspel will need some good answers to some complicated questions to avoid that.