I supervised Gina Haspel when I worked at the Central Intelligence Agency. I found her to be smart, tough and effective. Foreign liaison services who’ve worked with her uniformly walked away impressed. Out of all of the chaos coming out of the White House these days, the one bit of promising news is the nomination of Haspel as the new CIA director.
Confessing to a certain bias, Haspel’s long tenure overseas I hope will give the Trump administration an experienced, pragmatic view of the world it increasingly thinks it can do without. Locating, say, Kandahar, Afghanistan, on a map may sound like a low bar, but these days it’s enough to qualify you as an expert.
Equally important, with all the rampant partisanship in Washington, D.C., Haspel’s political neutrality and fact-based intellect will, I hope, put a brake on President Trump’s worst impulses. Not having the time for conspiracy theories and alt-right drivel may be another low bar, but there you have it.
In the interest of the CIA Haspel is a fortunate choice because, for too long, the CIA has been run by amateurs and political operatives who spend their time figuring out how the agency works. With Haspel’s 33 years in the CIA, both in the field and back at Langley, there’s going to be no catch-up ball. Nor are the bureaucratic rank and file going to pull the wool over her eyes.
Another thing Haspel’s nomination has going for it is that she gets along with Trump. I’ve worked under directors who the president didn’t trust, and even some who weren’t welcome at the White House. Both cases were demoralizing for agency employees.
Secondly, Haspel also clearly gets along with Pompeo. A good working relationship with the secretary of state is vital for the success of a CIA director.
With every silver cloud, of course, there’s the inevitable lead lining. For Haspel, it’s her involvement with the CIA rendition, detention and interrogation program. I do not know what Haspel truly thought or thinks about torture today, or even whether she, like me, believes it doesn’t work. She will be asked these questions when she testifies before Congress. But what her critics and Congress must accept is that the CIA operates under American law. “Enhanced interrogations” were not a rogue CIA program.
What the far left and right can’t absorb is that the CIA follows political direction from the White House and the Hill. But more to the point concerning “enhanced interrogation,” the CIA takes its legal guidance from the courts, the Department of Justice and Congress. Like the police, an individual CIA officer does not get to decide what is legal and what isn’t, let alone come up with a personal interpretation of whether an interrogation violates the United Nations Convention against Torture or not.
Haspel was not the architect of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogations.” This program was parachuted onto the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, made all the more ambiguous because it occurred in the panic of the opening days of the “war on terror.” Agreed, Haspel could have resigned and found an avenue of protest. But it seems to me that the real protesting should have been done in the halls of Congress and the Department of Justice. In any event, her experience in intelligence and ability to moderate the president’s worst instincts outweigh these failures.
It very well may be too late, but my hope is that Haspel will talk Trump out of potential foreign policy disasters. And, trust me, the list is too long to cover it here. But let me start with what keeps me up at night.
Both Trump and his pick for secretary of state, Pompeo, have called for the Iran nuclear deal to be ripped up. They don’t seem to understand that pulling out of that agreement, and confronting Iran militarily as some hawks propose, would more than likely lead to a war more catastrophic than our disastrous invasion of Iraq. Maybe Haspel will be able to convince the president that a general war in the Middle East would look more like the plague than a war.
Then there’s Russia. With the attempt on the life of a former Russian intelligence officer in Britain and President Vladimir Putin’s recent crowing about new missile technology, it is impossible not to grasp that we are in a new Cold War, which promises to make its predecessor look calm. I hope Haspel will overcome Trump’s belief he can make a deal with Putin over a hamburger and a Coke.
As for the Gulf, Haspel knows the region well — and knows what a mare’s nest of squabbling tribes and families it is. Taking sides with Saudi Arabia over Qatar is like — to put it in California street gang parlance — siding with the Crips over the Bloods. Letting the Trump family traipse through the Gulf making business deals with sheikhs will get this county into entanglements we’ll never get out of.
Last but not least, there’s North Korea. A pre-emptive strike is the druthers of the alt-right, and especially former UN Ambassador John Bolton. If, as widely speculated, Bolton replaces current national security adviser H.R. McMaster, will Haspel be able to overcome Bolton’s advice? I can only hope so.
It takes a rare CIA director who can sway a president who’s already made up his own mind about foreign policy. I know this is all starting to sound Pollyannaish, but we should all hope Haspel becomes a Trump whisper. Who knows, she may talk him out of going back down the path of “enhanced interrogation.”
Robert Baer served as a CIA case officer mostly in the Middle East. He currently is an author and CNN contributor.