Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Making the Right Choice for CIA Director

Making the Right Choice for CIA Director

Early in my career as a CIA case officer, a grizzled Chief of Station once cautioned that my job required an unusual blend of social dexterity to navigate receptions and dinner parties and the steel spine necessary to call in a B-52 strike when needed. It was ultimately a matter of making the right choices in varied, often stressful, high stakes situations with limited, often contradictory, information, while under uncertain, often pressing, time constraints.  Few have this skill and fewer still have demonstrated it time and again over decades while retaining their honor, integrity, and respect of their peers. Gina Haspel is such a person–she has consistently made the right choices under trying circumstances throughout her 33 years of service and she is the right choice for CIA Director. 

I worked with Gina for more than twenty years at the Agency.  Others might opine from the outside with the benefit of hindsight and through the lens of partisan politics, but I would like to offer the perspective of a colleague who was with her in the trenches during a number of challenging times. Unlike many of the recent directors, Gina is a seasoned veteran in the arcane world of the Directorate of Operations, the DO. Not since William Colby has there been a nominee for Director with more experience in clandestine overseas operations. Like Colby, Gina has deep experience in overseas espionage operations, the quintessential–and most risky–element of the CIA’s mission. Foreign espionage is the heart and soul of the CIA and it is these clandestine operations that produce the critical intelligence that our President and senior policymakers rely upon to make sound foreign policy decisions. It is also these very foreign clandestine operations that have been the source of much controversy surrounding the CIA since its creation in 1947.

Ms. Haspel’s nomination has raised important questions about whether a CIA officer, who rose through the ranks, carried out and led operations overseas, and knows firsthand the potential legal and ethical dilemmas inherent in foreign espionage operations, can ever be approved by our increasingly polarized Senate. It is ironic that many of the Senators who will be passing judgment on Ms. Haspel were briefed on the interrogation program and posed no objections in the aftermath of 9/11. Ms. Haspel, because of her intimate knowledge of one of the CIA’s most controversial, yet legal at the time, programs, understands more than most the need for caution in making risk versus gain choices in situations that test conventional notions of legality and ethics. A student of history would also note that many of the directors who have led the CIA into some of its most controversial operations have not been career CIA officers, but rather outsiders who lacked the perspective and caution of a career officer. Given her experience and expertise, it is much more likely that Gina will make better choices, particularly in important cases, than someone who has never been through the wars and might be beholden to a particular political base.

The controversy over Ms. Haspel’s nomination also raises questions about the responsibility and culpability of our civil servants who carry out legally authorized programs that may at some future point be deemed unlawful or inconsistent with mainstream views. Ms. Haspel was not an architect of the interrogation program, but rather a mid-level civil servant carrying out policies designed by others and approved by the lawyers in the Justice Department. At the time, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and well-grounded fears of a second wave of attacks, public sentiment supported the War on Terror and policymakers at the time looked to the CIA to use every tool at its disposal to prevent another calamity. Few would defend this program today, but I suggest that it is unfair for civil servants, such as Ms. Haspel, to be judged ex post facto for carrying out what were lawful orders at a time of national emergency. (I further suggest the Gina is as responsible as anyone in government for ensuring that another 9/11-like attack did not occur.) 

On a personal note, I have known Gina for a long time. She is the perfect blend about which my grizzled Chief of Station mused–socially adept while being smart, tough and honorable–and fully capable of calling in the B-52s if necessary, but savvy and humane enough to avoid such a choice if at all possible. She also commands both the respect and affection of those in the Agency and throughout the Intelligence Community.  At a recent conference with a large number of CIA officers in attendance, the mention of Ms. Haspel’s name by one of the speakers prompted spontaneous cheers from the audience (the only name to do so). 

Much has also been made of Ms. Haspel’s gender, a fact that would be irrelevant were it not for the fact that she is the first woman nominated to lead the CIA. As a fellow female during that time, I can attest to the fact that her star rose within the CIA because she was the best, not only because of her intellect, consummate professionalism, and hard work, but because of her personal warmth, integrity, and leadership skills. 

In short, Gina is the right choice to be the CIA Director.