WASHINGTON – Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to become the next CIA director, sought to withdraw her nomination Friday after some White House officials worried that her role in the interrogation of terrorist suspects could prevent her confirmation by the Senate, according to four senior U.S. officials.
Haspel told the White House she was interested in stepping aside if it avoided the spectacle of a brutal confirmation hearing on Wednesday and potential damage to the CIA’s reputation and her own, the officials said. She was summoned to the White House on Friday for a meeting on her history in the CIA’s controversial interrogation program – which employed techniques such as waterboarding that are widely seen as torture – and signaled that she was going to withdraw her nomination. She then returned to CIA headquarters, the officials said.
Taken aback at her stance, senior White House aides, including legislative affairs head Marc Short and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, rushed to Langley, Virginia, to meet with Haspel at her office late Friday afternoon. Discussions stretched several hours, officials said, and the White House was not entirely sure she would stick with her nomination until Saturday afternoon, according to the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Trump learned of the drama Friday, calling officials from his trip to Dallas. He decided to push for Haspel to remain as the nominee after initially signaling he would support whatever decision was taken, administration officials said.
Haspel, who serves as the CIA’s deputy director and has spent 33 years in the agency, most of it undercover, faces some opposition in Congress because of her connection to the interrogation program, which was set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In late 2002, Haspel oversaw a secret CIA detention facility in Thailand, where one al-Qaida suspect was waterboarded. Another detainee also was waterboarded before Haspel’s arrival.
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Three years later, Haspel was involved in the CIA’s destruction of nearly 100 videotapes that recorded the men’s interrogations, touching off an investigation by a special prosecutor who ultimately decided not to bring charges against those involved.
“There has been a fascinating phenomenon over the last few weeks. Those who know the true Gina Haspel – who worked with her, who served with her, who helped her confront terrorism, Russia and countless other threats to our nation – they almost uniformly support her,” said Ryan Trapani, a CIA spokesman. “That is true for people who disagree about nearly everything else. There is a reason for that. When the American people finally have a chance to see the true Gina Haspel on Wednesday, they will understand why she is so admired and why she is and will be a great leader for this agency.”
Sanders declined to comment on Haspel’s offer to withdraw or internal White House discussions, but she stressed that Haspel is a dedicated public servant qualified for the role and that she has the full support of the president.
“She is the best of the best,” Sanders said of Haspel, describing her as a “patriot.”
An administration official said the nomination remains on track. “There is a hearing prep session today, courtesy calls with senators Monday and Tuesday, and classified materials will be delivered to Senate security so senators can read the real record instead of relying on gossip and unfounded smears,” the official said.
But Haspel’s nomination to become the first woman to lead the CIA came close to being scuttled Friday ahead of any hearings – and largely at her own hand, the U.S. officials said. The problem came to a head Friday afternoon when she was summoned to the White House for some urgent questions, particularly on her role in the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques.
She had been in a meeting with her staff at CIA headquarters in Langley, fielding mock questions to prepare for her confirmation hearing, when the summons arrived.
Some White House officials were concerned by material being raised in questions from Congress, information they were just learning about, according to the U.S. officials. Those officials said the material was not new, but the White House wanted to hear Haspel’s explanation of it.
Some records from the interrogation program, including documents that haven’t been made public, show that Haspel was an enthusiastic supporter of what the CIA was doing, according to officials familiar with the matter. But others have disputed any characterization of Haspel as some kind of cheerleader of the harsh treatment of detainees and noted that the program was authorized by the president, deemed legal by administration lawyers and briefed to members of Congress.
Haspel’s chances of winning Senate confirmation are considered uncertain, in part because of the 51-to-49 party split and the prolonged absence of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is undergoing treatment for a rare form of brain cancer. Members of Congress, particularly Democrats, have been resistant to Haspel’s nomination without more information about her role in the program. The nomination has sparked trepidation inside the White House, with some Trump advisers telling the president in recent weeks she was unlikely to be confirmed.
Lawmakers had been pushing last month for more access to a handful of cables and other CIA material that might shed more light on Haspel’s work. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the more material she reads about Haspel’s role in the interrogation program, including the destruction of tapes, the more unsettled she has become.
Last month, the CIA declassified an internal disciplinary review that “found no fault with the performance” of Haspel in the destruction of the videotapes. Haspel drafted a cable approving the destruction that her boss ultimately sent to field officers, who fed the tapes into a shredding machine. But she believed that he would first get the approval of senior CIA leaders before sending it, according to people with knowledge of the episode.
The release of the disciplinary review may persuade some lawmakers who had been undecided to support Haspel, said congressional officials tracking the nomination process.
Amid the questioning in the West Wing on Friday afternoon, Haspel told White House aides she did not want her nomination to harm the CIA. She also feared unfair attacks on her own reputation, saying that she didn’t want to be “the next Ronny Jackson,” one official said. Jackson, Trump’s White House doctor, withdrew his nomination to become Veterans Affairs secretary following questions regarding alleged misconduct earlier in his career.
Short, the White House legislative affairs director, told Haspel she could still be confirmed despite the information that had recently come to attention of the White House – and the administration expected some Democrats to support her, officials said.
Short declined to comment.
By Saturday, the officials said, Haspel had agreed to continue with her nomination.
Sanders issued a tweet in support of Haspel and rebuking her detractors on Capitol Hill late Saturday afternoon.
“There is no one more qualified to be the first woman to lead the CIA than 30+ year CIA veteran Gina Haspel,” she tweeted. “Any Democrat who claims to support women’s empowerment and our national security but opposes her nomination is a total hypocrite.”