Washington • To the White House, Gina Haspel is the best person to head the CIA at a challenging time in the world.
To more than 100 retired military leaders, she’s quite possibly the worst.
Haspel, who is acting director of the CIA pending Senate confirmation, has faced a groundswell of opposition since President Donald Trump tapped her to head America’s premier intelligence agency.
David Irvine, a Utahn and retired Army brigadier general, is one of those former top military leaders raising concerns about Haspel, whose 30 years in the CIA’s clandestine service included involvement in a controversial program that employed enhanced interrogation techniques, which some have labeled torture.
Haspel also oversaw a “black site” operation in Thailand in 2002 where detainees were subjected to waterboarding.
“It sends exactly the wrong signal,” says Irvine, a Republican, attorney and former state lawmaker, of Haspel’s nomination. “It says to the good people who are at the agency that it’s OK to break the law; it’s OK to torture; it’s OK to engage in conduct that is understood by, I think, most civilized people to be abhorrent and immoral. And if you do so, we’ll cover it up for you. It says to the rest of the world that we’re no different than any of the despotic nations that we criticize for this kind of conduct.”
Irvine joined more than 100 retired generals and admirals in writing a letter to the Senate about their “profound concern” with Haspel’s nomination.
“We are deeply troubled by the prospect of someone who appears to have been intimately involved in torture being elevated to one of the most important positions of leadership in the intelligence community,” the retired military leaders wrote.
Haspel may have earned kudos from some former senior intelligence officials, the military leaders add, but that does not “excuse her actions relating to torture and other unlawful abuse of detainees by offering that she was ‘just following orders.’ … We did not accept the ‘just following orders’ justification after World War II, and we should not accept it now.”
While Sen. Mike Lee’s office says he doesn’t have a public position on Haspel’s nomination, Sen. Orrin Hatch said Thursday that he supports her.
“The president could not have found a more qualified candidate than Gina Haspel to lead the Central Intelligence Agency,” Hatch said in a statement. “With decades of experience in the organization, Haspel has the respect of the men and women of the CIA and will lead it admirably as its first female director.”
Haspel is expected to face a hearing later this month before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Neither Utah senator is a member of that panel.
Haspel has pledged to senators she’s met with ahead of confirmation votes that she would “never let the CIA restart an interrogation and detention program,” according to CBS News.
The White House this week went on a full-court press to urge Haspel’s confirmation, arguing that at the time of her involvement in the interrogation program in the early 2000s she was adhering to an established legal framework sanctioned by President George W. Bush and the attorneys general who served at the time.
In a lengthy news release this week, the White House offered up laudatory comments from senior officials in President Barack Obama’s administration about Haspel.
“I’m glad it’s Gina because frankly she is someone who really knows the CIA inside out,” said Leon Panetta, former CIA director and secretary of defense during the Obama administration.
John Brennan, another former CIA director under Obama, said Haspel has the “experience, the breadth and depth on intelligence issues.”
Former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden (George W. Bush administration) called Haspel a “great choice” who is “highly regarded.”
Irvine, who is still a registered Republican, said that Haspel’s tenure at the CIA may be be respected but her lapse of judgment during a critical time in U.S. history is too damaging to confirm her to the new post.
“It’s not a question of whether she’s competent,” Irvine said. “It’s a question of judgment. It’s a question of fitness for a cabinet rank.”
Gen. Charles Krulak, a former commandant of the Marine Corps, said in an interview this week that Haspel has proven that when confronted with a highly critical moral choice, she didn’t show a “modicum of courage” to do the right thing.
“She failed,” Krulak said.
Haspel may have apologized in part for her role in the interrogation techniques used during the Bush era but that doesn’t change what happened, Krulak said.
“I guess it matters to a degree but the reality is we’re saying is she is the best person we have – that she’s the best person for the job,” Krulak said. “She is someone who violated the law, was involved in destroying evidence, was involved in torture. ... She’s a flawed candidate and the nation has a lot better.”