Trump picks Gina Haspel as first female CIA director—her history with torture could hamper her confirmation

Key Points
  • Trump will nominate career CIA officer Gina Haspel to be the agency's first female director.
  • Haspel's Senate confirmation process will be complicated by her role in the CIA's black site program, in which terrorism suspects were extrajudicially detained and tortured.
Trump picks Gina Haspel as first female CIA director-her history with torture could hamper her confirmation

In shaking up his national security team, President Donald Trump said Tuesday he will nominate Gina Haspel to head the CIA, a move that would make her the spy agency's first woman chief.

But first, Haspel must be confirmed by the Senate. The process is expected to be complicated by her role in the CIA's "black site" program, in which terrorism suspects were extrajudicially detained and tortured.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., pledged to oppose Haspel's nomination, saying her background makes her "unsuitable" to lead the CIA. "If Ms. Haspel seeks to serve at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence, the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from her past," he said.

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Launched following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the secret prison network was condemned by human-rights groups, which said the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" methods violated international laws against the use of torture. One of President Barack Obama's first official acts was to end the black site program.

In 2002, Haspel was running a black site prison in Thailand where terrorism suspect Abu Zubaydah was held following his capture in Pakistan. In Thailand, Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, locked in a coffin, slammed against the wall and deprived of sleep, according to a landmark congressional report on the CIA's torture program.

It was only after Zubaydah was tortured for months that CIA agents realized they were mistaken: He was not, in fact, a leader of al-Qaeda. Zubaydah is currently being held at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

From 2003 to 2005, Haspel was chief of staff to the CIA director of clandestine operations, Jose Rodriguez. In his 2013 memoir, "Hard Measures," Rodriguez described how Haspel directed agents to use an industrial strength shredder in 2005 to destroy videotapes of CIA interrogations conducted at black sites.

In February 2017, Trump named Haspel to be the CIA's deputy director, prompting Democratic senators to write a letter protesting her appointment. The public version of the letter from Wyden and Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said only that Haspel's "background makes her unsuitable for the position." Their reasons for saying this were detailed in a separate, classified letter that has not been made public.

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., signaled that she might be open to supporting Haspel's confirmation, despite her work on the black sites.

"It's no secret I've had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this," Feinstein said in a statement. "To the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with her again."

If confirmed, Haspel said in a statement that she looks forward to "providing President Trump the outstanding intelligence support he has grown to expect during his first year in office."

Trump picked Haspel to move up from deputy director to CIA chief on Tuesday when he fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In the announcement, Trump said he has picked CIA director Mike Pompeo to head the State Department.