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How Gina Haspel's tough approach to terrorism prepared her to become America's top spy

Updated 11:25 AM ET, Thu May 17, 2018

Washington (CNN) - Gina Haspel is all but guaranteed to become the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency after she gained the approval of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday and the approval of Democratic Senators Mark Warner and Heidi Heitkamp on Tuesday afternoon.

Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, announced he'd support her, in part because of what he sees as her defiance under pressure. "I believe she is someone who can and will stand up to the President," he said in a statement.

Warner's sentiment is echoed by former and current colleagues who told CNN that with Haspel what you see is what you get. Even after she went further than in her confirmation hearing to concede she believes CIA should not have been in charge of the Bush-era enhanced interrogation program after 9/11, writing to Warner on Tuesday stating the program "ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world," she refused to say the program or its participants were "immoral" or that valuable, reliable intelligence was not gained, despite Senators' conclusions to the contrary—proclamations that have earned her admiration from her loyal kin at the agency and ire from activists and detractors hoping for a stronger denouncement.

Her responses to questions from senators at her confirmation hearing last week, carefully studied and balanced but quietly defiant and tough, mirror her interactions with President Donald Trump, sources familiar with those interactions tell CNN.

"That's how she deals with the President, I've been in the room," one former colleague told CNN after watching her confirmation hearing. "I can't imagine the President pushing her around," a second former colleague said.

Trump, for his part, has praised Haspel for being "tough on terror ... a woman who has been a leader wherever she has gone."

While Haspel promised to never return to a time when CIA conducts enhanced interrogations, even if Trump ordered it, her entire career has been built on the fight against terrorism.

During a heated debate with a senior colleague at the Central Intelligence Agency's Russian Operations Group, or "Russia House" almost a decade before the September 11 attacks, Gina Haspel stood right up and declared she believed terrorism rather than the Kremlin was the most dangerous, existential threat facing the American homeland.

"There's something called terrorism, and there's this group called al Qaeda. We need to pay attention, we need to get in on this thing early," she said, according to a colleague who remembered the exchange.

Haspel, known for her hair-trigger instincts and skills in recruiting local spies, quickly gained a reputation for being "tough." Her colleagues call her "unflappable," the opposite of "breathless."

That toughness grew out of a career in covert operations during a time when terrorism was one of the biggest monsters under the bed, and fighting it was your ticket to promotion at the CIA. What Haspel didn't know back then is that a couple of specific jobs she held and activities she was involved in -- enhanced interrogations and supporting the destruction of evidence of those interrogations -- would later become key obstacles to securing the nomination for the top job at the agency.

Over 30 Years Undercover

Haspel is the first operations officer to be nominated to be director of the CIA since the early days of the Cold War and Richard Helms and William Colby. Because of that, it's difficult to know just what her 33 years in the agency were like, because most information on her career is classified.

A close examination of the publicly available details, tied together with interviews with those who served with Haspel, reveal more about her repeated brushes with terrorism.

Some former and current colleagues, including former direct supervisors and overseers, preferred to speak anonymously to discuss sensitive assignments, including some work that remains classified, and because Haspel, many told CNN, is a very private person. Several of those interviewed rarely speak to the press. In those instances, available public records helped confirm specific details.

During Haspel's first overseas assignment between 1987 and 1989, she worked in Africa. Public records indicate she lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Then, she worked in Europe and Eurasia, including a spell in Azerbaijan, where the agency successfully captured two terrorists and dismantled a local terrorist cell, according to Haspel's address to Congress and CIA records, as well as Turkey and Russia.

By 2001, she was on her way back home. According to a source familiar with her career, she had already set her sights on a role at the Counterterrorism Center, knowing that al Qaeda posed a massive threat. Just days later, the September 11th attacks took place and she immediately joined the CTC as a deputy group chief working for the head of the center.

Sometime in 2002, she left for Thailand to become chief of base at one of the agency's first black sites and was likely present for at least one enhanced interrogation session. She returned to Langley to continue working at the CTC, though she quickly switched jobs to become Director of the National Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez's chief of staff.

Though she left the CTC in the mid-2000s, her time working on terrorism wasn't over. Haspel served two terms as chief of base in London, according to sources familiar with her career -- a station that was deeply devoted to the fight against terrorism, particularly after the July 2005 London terror attacks.

Haspel also served as station chief in New York at the United Nations, former colleagues tell CNN, serving at the tail end of a time when CIA was helping the NYPD track potential terrorists in the US, a controversial program involving surveilling mosques and other locations where officials were concerned about potential radicalization.

In a rare personal anecdote during her confirmation hearing, Haspel recalled working with a young mother whom she described as the agency's "number one al Qaeda expert" who went to Afghanistan and was ultimately killed in a suicide bombing. Though she did not name her, the description fits Jennifer Matthews, a chief of base in Khost, Afghanistan who was killed by a Jordanian doctor who turned out to be an al Qaeda informant, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, in 2009.

"She was way ahead of the curve when it comes to realizing how dangerous al Qaeda would be," one former colleague told CNN. "She became one of the agency's leading experts on terrorism, both substantively and operationally." Other colleagues recalled the years during Haspel's early career when the former Mujahideen were returning from Afghanistan, terrorists were operating throughout Africa, and the USS Cole was bombed -- and Soviet influence was beginning to wane.

"Terrorism came to her stations," said John Moseman, the former chief of Staff to CIA director George Tenet. "It was the agency's focus in the 90's ... it was very high on our list all the time." That focused narrowed following 9/11.

While Haspel is familiar with broad regional and tactical threats beyond terrorism, including Russia where she served, her focus on terror propelled her forward.

Even now, much of senior leadership at CIA comes from the Counterterrorism Center, in both the operational and analytic sides of the agency -- a system of rewards that benefits Middle Eastern experts rather than those on the "Swiss desk" -- the example Haspel used as an example of an easier job at the agency of the type she turned down. "That has long been a problem for those of us who didn't [work terrorism]," one former CIA official told CNN.

A Distraction

Regardless, that toughness on terror, clearly a point of pride for Haspel and her supporters, has also become a public distraction and a political football, stoked by President Donald Trump's own tweets — which many have interpreted as an eagerness to return to the days of torture, a reversal Haspel has promised will not happen on her watch.

Instead of asking questions about Haspel's vision for the agency, her thoughts about diversity in recruitment, Russian aggression, or cybersecurity, the interrogation program has been the main focus as senators have weighed whether or not to support her.

Despite the fact Haspel will almost certainly get the votes she needs to be confirmed as director, the controversy over her appointment is a difficult way to be introduced to the American people.

During her confirmation hearing Senators demanded to know more about Haspel's involvement in the Bush-era interrogation programs, and whether or not she supported deleting evidence of nearly 100 tapes of CIA officers waterboarding at least one detainee. Senators wanted Haspel to come forward the way former leaders did and admit that mistakes were made.

Haspel said she respects how the US now holds itself to a higher moral standard but did not explicitly say the actions her colleagues took following 9/11 were immoral, despite repeated pressing from Sens. Kamala Harris, Martin Heinrich, and Jack Reed and others.

Haspel also staunchly defended her support for the destruction of the videotapes of the waterboarding sessions to Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "Senator, I absolutely was an advocate ... confirming to US law ... to eliminate the security risk posed to our officers by those tapes," she said.

Officials interviewed by CNN who worked with her were also supportive of that decision, and argued that the cable traffic, memos, and memories of officers who traveled to the black sites served as enough of a public record. Haspel argued there was a risk of someone leaking the tapes to the press -- but admitted she did not know if editing the tapes to black out the faces of the CIA officials, in case of a leak or an official release, was ever considered.

Even after writing an additional letter to Sen. Warner saying CIA should never have led the interrogation program, admitting it was damaging to the international standing of the US, Haspel has remained committed to the idea that valuable intelligence was gained and has refused to elaborate publicly on whether or not she questioned the program at the time.

But others, including the former General Counsel of the Navy, Alberto Mora, who served when the enhanced interrogation techniques were legally approved, condemned torture then and now.

"When I first saw the authorization from Donald Rumsfeld, it took me probably no more than ten minutes to conclude that the individual interrogation techniques in combination could amount to torture," he told reporters on a press call arranged before the hearing.

Additionally, numerous studies including one from the CIA Inspector General have indicated that the enhanced interrogation techniques did not lead to additional, meaningful intelligence that prevented imminent attacks. According to Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who first interrogated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, all valuable intelligence was obtained before he was subject to the new, extreme techniques.

And even some current colleagues, according to one former CIA official who discussed the matter with current employees, said they were disappointed Haspel didn't condemn the torture program. "They wanted her to answer Kamala Harris's questions," the former official said.

Correction: This article has been updated to state Haspel helped apprehend two terrorists in Azerbaijan rather than Africa.


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