[This piece first appeared in The New Republic, Feb. 12, 2020]
When President Trump used his State of the Union address to call on Congress to pass legislation allowing crime victims to sue sanctuary cities for offenses committed by undocumented immigrants, CIA director Gina Haspel rose to her feet clapping. It was an unusual display of partisan spirit for the nation’s top intelligence officer, especially as it concerned a domestic law enforcement issue, an area where the agency is forbidden by law from acting.
It was not “right” for the agency’s CIA director to applaud, said General Michael Hayden, who served under President George W. Bush. “It is odd that a DCI [director of central intelligence] who avoids public appearances of any kind would make a public appearance at the most fractious SOTU in our time,” former CIA officer and Brookings analyst Bruce Riedel told me in an email. “The job is being more politicized than it should be.”
Haspel was not required to attend the State of the Union. The CIA director is not even a Cabinet officer, noted ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou. “Why was she even there, much less in a seat of honor, up front?” he said in an interview. “The Joint Chiefs don’t applaud. The Supreme Court justices don’t applaud. The director shouldn’t either.”
Haspel’s appearance raises the unsettling possibility that Trump, for all his denunciations of the supposed “deep state” plot against him, might now have an ally at the top of the CIA. With Attorney General Bill Barr pursuing Trump’s agenda at the Justice Department, a compliant director in Langley would enhance Trump’s power to pursue worse whims—including, potentially, foreign aid to his political and personal fortunes.
The Arc of Her Career
While there’s no way to know what’s in Haspel’s mind, her Trump-supportive public actions provide clues. “Some contend this public stance provides Haspel a better ability to privately influence the president,” Douglas London, a 34-year veteran of CIA’s Directorate of Operations and former Haspel colleague, wrote this week for Just Security. “In practice, however, her actions reflect a continued unwillingness to spend any of her political capital on encouraging the president to be more supportive of the Intelligence Community’s views, priorities or its workforce’s morale.”
Yet, as London also points out, the arc of Haspel’s career shows her State of the Union performance was not that surprising. Despite her reputation as a low-key apolitical director, Haspel could not have made it to the director’s office on the seventh floor of the Langley headquarters without being skilled at cultivating patrons and dodging proverbial bullets. And if Haspel hopes to keep her job in a second Trump administration, she needs to distinguish herself from her former mentors, John Brennan and John McLaughlin, who have become harsh critics of the president. (If a Democrat is elected in November, Haspel is surely out of a job given her torture resume.)
Haspel’s very reputation in the press as “apolitical” shows a certain mastery of spin. Her leading role in the waterboarding of suspected terrorists (and the destruction of video evidence) was so political that it inspired President Obama to cancel the program on his first day in office. Passionate opposition in the Senate to the torture program early derailed her nomination. Indeed, it was her deeply political embrace of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that secured Trump’s admiration.
When Haspel was first considered for the top job at the CIA, Don McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel, was so disturbed by her resume that he suggested Trump withdraw her nomination. Trump not only disagreed but “actually liked this aspect of Haspel’s resume,” according to Axios. Her support for torture “was an asset, not a liability” with the president. When Trump reportedly asked Haspel whether waterboarding “works,” she replied she was “100 percent sure” that it did.
Don’t forget too that Haspel first appeared publicly as CIA director in September 2018 in Kentucky at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, named for the Senate majority leader. McConnell introduced her to a friendly crowd. If Haspel was angling from the start to keep her job in Trump’s Washington, cultivating McConnell was a good start.
To be sure, Haspel is not a toady, unlike so many in the administration. Early in her tenure, she bucked White House pressure in her assessment of the Saudi role in the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. After a trip to Turkey, Haspel endorsed the agency’s conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible. Unlike National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Haspel did not tailor her findings to please the boss.
Trump seemed offended by her independence. In January 2019, when the U.S. intelligence chiefs gave congressional briefings on North Korea and Iran that Trump did not like, he denounced their views. “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” he tweeted, but did not mention Haspel or any other chief by name.
“The question for me is, at what point do these intelligence chiefs quit,” John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA, told Voice of America. “It is one thing for the president to have differing views. It is another thing altogether to openly attack or belittle the IC [intelligence community].”
A Dubious Compliment
Haspel seems to have learned a different lesson, namely if she wanted to keep her job, flattering the boss might be a good idea. When ABC News reported last May that Trump’s daily intelligence briefers had decided to focus on economic issues to keep his attention, the CIA director and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, put out a rare public statement.
“Speculation, including that from former and unnamed intelligence officers, about what occurs in our Oval Office briefings is wrong,” according to a joint statement from Coats and Haspel. “Simply put, these anonymous sources are not there as we deliver timely, unbiased intelligence and work alongside an engaged and knowledgeable President on the most complex national security issues.”
This factually dubious compliment was not enough to save Coats’ job. He was soon forced out by Trump and resigned on July 28, while Haspel remained in the director’s chair.
When Trump blocked military assistance to Ukraine over the summer as part of his effort to extract the announcement of a corruption investigation involving rival Joe Biden’s son, Haspel argued for lifting the hold. But this was no profile in courage, as Defense Secretary Mark Esper and National Security Adviser John Bolton were saying the same thing.
“She’s keeping her head down and doing the job,” more than one former CIA hand has told me during Haspel’s tenure. But the agency’s first female director took the concept of low profile to a new low in December when Politico reported the leaders of the intelligence community (no names mentioned) indicated to Congress that they would prefer not to give the usual unclassified intelligence briefings that provoked Trump’s ire a year ago. Whether Congress will capitulate is unclear, but the spy chiefs’ inclination to avoid displeasing Trump seems clear.
Paul Pillar, former CIA senior analyst for the Middle East, said Haspel’s predicament is how to do the job without losing the job. “You know what the White House wants to get across to Congress,” he said in an interview. “If that does not square with what your agency is saying in a briefing, you’re in a very dicey situation.” In other words, she could lose her job, as Coats did.
Yet when it came to the question of whether to kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Haspel raised her head and offered a policy opinion. According to the New York Times, she “advised Mr. Trump that the threat the Iranian general presented was greater than the threat of Iran’s response if he was killed, according to current and former American officials. Indeed, Ms. Haspel had predicted the most likely response would be a missile strike from Iran to bases where American troops were deployed,” which is exactly what happened. Esper told CNN that Haspel had summed up the stakes for the president by saying, “the risk of inaction is greater than [the] risk of action.”
“If she said that, that would be going beyond the ‘stick to your knitting’ approach to evidence that I think is more appropriate for a director,” Pillar said. “If I was on her staff, I would have advised her to stay away from such judgments.”
As with torture, she gave Trump the answer that buttressed his instincts, and he ordered the drone attack. A month later, she took her seat at the State of the Union and stood up for the impeached commander in chief who declared he’d done no wrong and merely pursued America’s greatness.
“Whether it was intentional or simply an oversight, her appearance was a sad symbol of the politicization of the intelligence service,” Kent Harrington, former CIA officer and spokesman, told me. “If she had asked me, I would have told her to stay at home and rearrange her sock drawer.”
Instead, Haspel signaled to her boss that she wants to be identified with the Trump team.
[See also The Gina Haspel Story: The Girl Who Became Spymaster.]