Skip to content

CIA Nominees Often Feel Like a ‘Dancing Bear’ in Capitol Circus

Senators confirmed Gina Haspel to become CIA director before finishing work for the week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senators confirmed Gina Haspel to become CIA director before finishing work for the week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

One of President Bill Clinton’s nominees for CIA director, after months of repeated hearings and delays by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, dropped out, saying that he felt like a “dancing bear in a political circus.”

Another one of Clinton’s CIA nominees, a retired Air Force general, Michael P. C. Carnes, withdrew because of a scandal involving a Filipino servant he had brought to the United States.

Another nominee for the top spy job, Robert M. Gates, nominated by President Ronald Reagan, withdrew after being raked over the coals in a hearing as questions mounted over his role in the illegal Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal of the 1980s. Yet Gates, under President George H.W. Bush was later renominated and got the CIA job and still later became a Defense secretary under two presidents.

And all of those CIA confirmation hearings had a partisan tinge.

Wednesday’s confirmation hearing for Gina Haspel to become the next director of the CIA will be the latest episode in a decades-long saga of lawmakers attempting to shine a light on the work of spooks and others chosen to lead an agency whose work largely remains shrouded in darkness. Although the Senate Intelligence Committee has posed tough questions and prolonged the confirmation process for many prospective agency chiefs, it has never outright rejected a nominee.

In Haspel’s case, at the center of the committee’s inquiry is her record during a four-year period following the 9/11 attacks when al-Qaida members, as well as innocent people suspected of belonging to the group, were captured by CIA operatives and subjected to “enhanced interrogation” techniques at foreign “rendition” centers. Those interrogations many experts regard as torture. Some lawmakers and many civil liberties groups oppose her nomination for both her role in enabling torture but also for helping destroy videotapes that showed evidence of such interrogations.

But her supporters, including several former CIA directors and spies, argue that Haspel wasn’t the architect of such interrogations but only carried out the wishes of President George W. Bush’s administration, which had briefed lawmakers on what the spy agency was doing in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Johnny Cash poster

The White House and the CIA have mounted a charm offensive to introduce Haspel to the “American people,” as the spy agency put it, including offering a colorful portrait of her life but leaving out many details of her professional work. Born in Kentucky and growing up all over the world as a military brat, Haspel as a teen had expressed a desire to eventually attend West Point and join the Army, except that back in the 1970s the U.S. Military Academy didn’t accept women.

Haspel, now 61, is the acting director of the CIA after Mike Pompeo left in late April to become Secretary of State. In her office, Haspel keeps a five-foot-tall poster of the iconic singer Johnny Cash, symbolizing American individualism, the CIA said.

Haspel graduated from the University of Kentucky, studied languages and majored in journalism before going to work as a contractor with the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group in Fort Devens, Mass., according to the agency. It was there that a few soldiers, including Mike Vickers — then a young Special Forces soldier who went on to join the CIA and helped arm the Taliban to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan — suggested that Haspel should try the spy agency, according to the CIA record. Vickers later became U.S. undersecretary of defense for intelligence in the Obama administration.

After joining the CIA in 1985, Haspel was first posted to a country in Africa, according to the agency. The Washington Post has reported that she was in Ethiopia. She “learned to recruit and handle agents, and survived a coup d’etat along the way,” according to the CIA.

After learning Turkish in the late 1980s, Haspel was posted to the Europe Division, according to the CIA, and that apparently refers to a position in Ankara, Turkey, according to media reports. She watched the Soviet Union collapse and later “ran a small station in an exotic and tumultuous capital,” according to the CIA. The Washington Post has said it was a posting in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the late 1990s.

During her tenure there Haspel was instrumental, according to the agency, in the capture of two terror suspects linked to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200 people.

Secret prisons

After that Haspel sought a transfer to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and started her first day of work there on Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA said. She went on to serve as the chief of staff to the deputy director of operations and station chief in London, before being named as the Deputy Director in 2017 after President Donald Trump took office.

It is Haspel’s work during the years after 9/11 that are under intense scrutiny and about which the CIA has released few details.

A group of Democratic lawmakers including Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have repeatedly (five times) asked the CIA to declassify information regarding Haspel’s role at the agency at the time, but without luck.

The lawmakers are seeking to make public what news reports say is a key role that Haspel played not only in torturing captured al-Qaida prisoners but destroying the videotapes containing evidence of such interrogations. The CIA captured suspects and sent them to secret prisons around the world.

The New York Times reported that Haspel supervised one such prison in Thailand in the years following the 9/11 attacks, where al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah, captured in 2002 in Pakistan, was held and waterboarded as many as 83 times. He’s still held at the U.S. military-run Guantanamo Bay prison.

Haspel this week met with key lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence committee and the CIA is said to have provided additional classified information to senators ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.

When Haspel was nominated to head the CIA, Feinstein, the lead author of the Senate Intelligence committee’s 2014 report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, said that after the panel released a 525-page unclassified summary that slammed the agency, she had met and dined with Haspel and found her to be a consummate professional.  

But Feinstein, who’s seeking re-election to a sixth term, is under pressure from human rights groups that have objected to her initial embrace of Haspel’s nomination. The American Civil Liberties Union has run a multi-million dollar ad campaign in California, urging Feinstein to take a tougher stand against Haspel.

The only Republican who has said he would oppose Haspel’s nomination is Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who also similarly opposed Pompeo’s nomination to be the top U.S. diplomat but relented after facing pressure from Trump.

The Republican National Committee, which is backing Haspel’s nomination, has questioned Democratic opposition on the issue of torture.

The RNC has pointed out that Democrats voted in favor of former CIA Director John Brennan, who held the position during the Obama administration, even though he was the No. 4 official in the CIA when prisoners were held and interrogated, post 9/11.


Previous CIA director nominees have been felled for reasons large and small.

In 1987, then CIA deputy director Robert Gates faced tough questions about his role in the Iran-Contra affair in which the Reagan administration shipped weapons to Iran in violation of an arms embargo, and attempted to use the cash from the sales to fund right-wing militias opposed to the leftist government in Nicaragua while also attempting to free hostages held in Lebanon by a group aligned with Tehran.

In his testimony, Gates said Reagan had ordered in 1986 that Congress not be told of the secret arms-hostage trade arrangement and agreed that the CIA had made an error “in not pressing to reverse the directive” once the operation was underway. Gates said he thought the entire operation was a “diplomatic initiative” adding that while it “was a risky operation, there was no reason to quarrel with it.”

As senators questioned whether he could be trusted to clean up the Iran-Contra scandal, Gates withdrew. Four years later, in 1991, he was re-nominated by President George H.W. Bush and served as CIA director until 1993 when Clinton took office. Gates became secretary of Defense in 2006 and served under both President George W. Bush and President Barrack Obama.

Fast forward four years, after Clinton won a second term, his CIA nominee Anthony Lake faced a more personal scrutiny in 1997 as lawmakers questioned his politics and finances. As the Senate Intelligence Committee, then led by Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., planned to postpone a confirmation vote until April, Lake withdrew, saying he felt like a “dancing bear,” and that “Washington has gone haywire.”

Recent Stories

House gets gears moving for four fiscal 2024 spending bills

ARPA-H announces first two regional hubs

Bipartisan stopgap funds bill unveiled in Senate

Shutdown would mean fewer visitors at Capitol complex, and fewer open doors

Booker joins chorus, calls Menendez’s refusal to resign ‘a mistake’

Biden, Trump visit Michigan in battle for union vote