A former high-level spy who served in top CIA roles during the Obama years says Gina Haspel was long ago cleared of wrongdoing in a case that involved the destruction of videotapes alleged to show American interrogators torturing al Qaeda suspects.
Some Democrats and rights groups expressed outrage Tuesday over President Trump’s pick of Ms. Haspel, a longtime CIA Clandestine Service operative, to replace Mike Pompeo as CIA director, asserting her involvement in the agency’s since shuttered waterboarding and rendition programs make her an unsuitable candidate.
However, Michael Morell, who served as both acting director and deputy director of the CIA under former President Obama, argued in 2017 — when Ms. Haspel was elevated to her current position of deputy director at the CIA — that critics should look past such issues and focus instead on how “widely respected” she is “throughout the agency.”
In an article at the time for the Cipher Brief, a web-based publication focused on intelligence issues, Mr. Morrell defended Ms. Haspel against allegations she once ran a black interrogation site overseas where some of the CIA’s harshest post-9/11 era enhanced interrogation techniques were pioneered.
The most biting allegation centers on a cable Ms. Haspel once wrote instructing a field station to destroy videotapes of CIA interrogations of senior al Qaeda operatives. “She did so at the request of her direct supervisor and believing that it was lawful to do so,” Mr. Morell wrote of the situation in 2017. “I personally led an accountability exercise that cleared Haspel of any wrongdoing in the case.”
Other former spies, with direct experience working with Ms. Haspel at the agency, were quick to come to her defense on Tuesday.
Former CIA Moscow station chief Daniel Hoffman told The Washington Times that she is likely to be embraced and celebrated inside the agency by officials whose careers and views exist in a classified setting, far from public view.
“It means a lot to the work force that one of our own was able to reach the highest ranks of the agency and be promoted to be director,” said Mr. Hoffman. “It’s an incredible statement about how somebody can achieve great things from within and it matters a lot.”
He added that Ms. Haspel “has the highest level of intellectual honest and integrity and commitment to the people of CIA, and that the Trump administration “should be given some credit for choosing someone that they thought was best for the job.”
Others offered similar praise, even as they acknowledged the sensitivity around Ms. Haspel’s past role in controversial programs.
Stephen Slick, a former Clandestine Service officer who heads the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Times that “the nomination of Gina Haspel to replace Pompeo as director is historic on at least two counts.”
“If confirmed, Haspel would be the first female CIA director, sending a powerful signal to the many accomplished female officers at the CIA,” Mr. Slick said. “She would also be the first career agency officer with a background in operations to serve as director in more than four decades.”
With regard to allegations of Ms. Haspel’s involvement in torture or extreme interrogation, Mr. Slick noted that the CIA’s former “rendition, detention and interrogation program remains a source of sharp disagreement even among professional intelligence officers, just as it has been with policy officials and the general public.”
“It is important to remember that this program was authorized by [then-President George W. Bush], confirmed to be lawful by the attorney general, and notified to Congress as required by statute,” he said.
“There should be no bar to future public service by the thousands of CIA officers who worked on or were aware of covert activities like these that were appropriately assigned to the CIA,” Mr. Slick added.
His remarks came after an influential Democrat on Capitol Hill announced Tuesday that he’ll vote against confirming Ms. Haspel, asserting that her background “makes her unsuitable to serve.”
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon didn’t elaborate on that background but watchdog groups claim that Ms. Haspel, who currently serves as deputy CIA director under Mr. Pompeo, once ran a black site facility in Thailand where detainees from the war on terror were sent.
The groups claim al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah, who was detained in 2002, was waterboarded 83 times, slammed against walls, deprived of sleep and locked in a coffin-like box during his interrogation. Zubaydah is currently being held at Guantanamo Bay.
• Stephen Dinan and Dave Boyer contributed to this report.
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