The CIA’s unprecedented PR push to make Gina Haspel its director

May 21, 2018
The CIA seal. Photo: CIA Flickr.

As of Monday morning, Gina Haspel is director of the CIA, replacing Mike Pompeo, despite her history of participation in the agency’s torture program. It’s hard to imagine such a smooth path through the nomination process without the unusual and full-throated support of the agency—which, since Pompeo’s move to the State Department in April, Haspel herself has run as acting director.

The New York Times’ Adam Goldman and Matthew Rosenberg compared Haspel’s institutional promotion to one of the covert agency’s many efforts to put its thumb on the scales in foreign politics, and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple observed that the sudden preponderance of former CIA employees on television repudiating years-old reporting and clarifying sections of various memoirs was, to say the least, not especially timely except where Haspel’s nomination was concerned. On March 22, The Wall Street Journal’s Nancy A. Youssef, who reported the CIA’s initial, minimal disclosures about Haspel, noted with palpable frustration that because Haspel has been scrupulous about leaving no trace of her life in the CIA’s clandestine service, “it falls to the agency to share something about her and her interests.”

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It also fell to the agency to push back strategically on unflattering stories about Haspel, to provide unfiltered hagiography of its director-to-be on Twitter, and to recast the nomination of someone a former CIA lawyer described as central to the agency’s program of kidnapping and needless brutalization—which she also likely pushed to reauthorize, and subsequently helped to cover up—as an upbeat story of girl-powered stick-to-itiveness.

Haspel’s nomination was announced by President Trump on Twitter on March 13; the day after, Haspel received a helping hand from James Mitchell, the Air Force veteran and psychologist who, with colleague Bruce Jessen, received $81 million from the CIA to design the CIA torture program. “I think she’s a great choice for the president,” Mitchell told Fox Business Network’s Elizabeth McDonald. More substantively, he told McDonald that Haspel was “not the [chief of base] that I was talking about” in his book Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying To Destroy America, in a passage where he describes an unnamed CIA leader apparently enjoying the torture of detainee Abu Zubaydah, who was mistreated beyond even the guidelines set forth in the notorious “torture memos.”

That passage had been key to a blockbuster ProPublica story about Haspel; the outlet published a correction to the nearly 13-month-old article the following day. The CIA had given a statement of blanket pushback to the piece when it was first written—which ProPublica reported—but they had not identified any specific errors, a tactic beloved of publicists responding to a critical story that is materially true. Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief, who penned the laudably thorough and introspective correction, emphasizes to CJR that he preferred the story right rather than wrong, but also says that “in terms of the timing,” he was struck by how many people came forward to support the Haspel nomination. “There was an upwelling of opinion on her that was positive. People who are not that easy to get to seemed to be on cable television.”

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Haspel was effective at the “clandestine” part of clandestine service: When the strategic declassification of information about Haspel made its way from the House of Representatives to Youssef’s piece, the most colorful takeaway from a 33-year career that includes work at and eventual oversight of a secret “black site” prison in Thailand where two prisoners were tortured is that Haspel has a life-size cutout of Johnny Cash in her office.

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The day after Youssef’s story ran, the agency tweetstormed more breathless tidbits: While working in a library on an Army base in Massachusetts, Haspel “came to understand that CIA was a place where women could serve doing clandestine work around the world.” In her words, the CIA delivered “an overseas adventure where I could put my love of foreign languages to use.” During that adventure, Haspel says she felt “the initial shock of witnessing grinding poverty & the excitement of carrying out a clandestine mission amid billboards plastered with Marxist-Leninist slogans,” according to the agency’s PR feed. The contrast with the agency’s response to Mike Pompeo’s nomination is striking: the @CIA account first mentions his name on February 2, 2017, noting that Trump has named Haspel the agency’s deputy director and linking to a press release filled with praise for the her.

‘People who are not that easy to get to seemed to be on cable television.’
—Stephen Engelberg

In her confirmation hearing, Haspel herself pushed back on an April 18 story about her role “in charge of” the torture program. That story, by the Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman, used as one source the book Company Man by former CIA lawyer John Rizzo, who affirmed the book’s truthfulness in an email before Ackerman published. Rizzo only emailed Ackerman to retract the claim in his four-year-old memoir a day after the Beast story ran. (Disclosure: Ackerman and I worked closely together at the Guardian and I consider him a good friend. He is also one of the least wrong reporters I have ever met.)

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Haspel said Rizzo had “issued a correction,” an odd turn of phrase to describe the words of a source, rather than a reporter, and it might easily have been misheard to mean something entirely different. Similarly, she referred the senator questioning her about it, Dianne Feinstein, to a story by The Washington Post’s Wemple about the Beast’s refusal to retract or correct the story; Wemple published an annoyed follow-up slamming the director for misrepresenting his column.

The pro-Haspel campaign was not limited to former CIA agents or contractors who might have simply decided to all wish her well at once: The agency declassified a report by its internal watchdog clearing her “in” the destruction of the tapes of the agency’s victims being tortured, broken by CBS on April 20. As with Haspel’s misleading construction in her confirmation hearing, close reading is necessary: The report did not clear her “of” the tapes’ destruction; there is no debate over whether or not Haspel wrote the cable ordering the tapes destroyed. The report only observes that she herself was just following orders, and that is good enough for the CIA. It does not address whether she edited herself out of the tapes in 2002, a question raised by independent national security writer Marcy Wheeler.

“I find it really conspicuous that they went so hard to adjust what has been written about Haspel, however circuitously, over a matter of years, in a matter convivial to her nomination,” Ackerman tells CJR. “It’s something that doesn’t occur outside of a basic fact, which is that the CIA has exclusive control over the historical record here.”

And the CIA has been controlled by Haspel during much of this unusual exercise of that control. Feinstein asked Haspel twice whether she would recuse herself from oversight of declassification of her own record—in written responses, she refused to say that she would do so. So if further information makes its way to the press about Haspel from official channels the CIA, it will—again—be through Haspel herself.

The Cipher Brief, an agency-friendly intelligence news site, wrote in its Friday newsletter that longtime CIA spokesman Dean Boyd would leave the CIA for the National Counterintelligence Security Center. The reporter “tried to pry a little more intel out of the Office of Public Affairs, but they were all busy celebrating news that Gina Haspel had been confirmed as CIA Director.”

The CIA did not respond to questions submitted through its website by press time.

This article has been corrected to clarify the date Haspel’s tenure as CIA director began

Sam Thielman is the former Tow editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, and a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, and Variety, among others.