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If Not Gina Haspel, Then Who?

Opposition to career officer comes with risk of less palatable alternative

CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel has her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel has her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

If not Gina Haspel, then who would be behind door No. 2?

Senate Democrats have concerns about Haspel, the CIA director nominee, ahead of her Wednesday confirmation hearing before the Intelligence Committee, but they might want to consider the potential alternatives.

If Haspel, the 33-year career intelligence officer currently serving as acting director in Langley were to be defeated or otherwise forced to withdraw, the next person up might prove even less palpable.

Nate Jones, a former National Security Council counterterrorism director under President Barack Obama, said that should be a legitimate consideration.

“The risk that blocking Haspel’s confirmation could result in the appointment of a comparatively inexperienced, deeply partisan alternative like Senator [Tom] Cotton is absolutely something Democrats should keep in the back of their mind. It would be the worst possible outcome — bad for the Agency and bad for American security,” Jones, now in the private sector as a founder of Culper Partners, said in a statement.

Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, was floated as a potential CIA director before President Donald Trump settled on nominating Haspel to succeed Mike Pompeo, now the secretary of State. And Cotton’s name came up Tuesday when asking Democrats about possible alternatives.

“They should press Gina Haspel for a commitment that she will stand up for what is right and refuse to return the CIA to that dark past,” Jones said. “Assuming she provides those assurances, they should work to confirm her and conduct rigorous oversight to ensure she fulfills that commitment.”

Watch: Haspel’s Confirmation Hearing Felt Like Deja Vu to 2014 Interrogation Debate

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Partisan divide

But several members of the Senate Democratic Conference, both on and off the Intelligence Committee, said there was risk in speculating on other possibilities rather than just reviewing Haspel’s record, including the scope of her involvement in the CIA’s use of torture tactics during the George W. Bush years.

Those holding that view include Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

“I think that down that line of thinking, down that road, lies an abdication of the role to provide advice and consent,” Schatz said. “Given this administration, it’s a safe bet that the next person up is going to be objectionable too, but that doesn’t obviate our need to do oversight.”

Republicans have been touting Haspel’s particular qualifications for the director role, particularly at a time when Russia is in center stage from an intelligence perspective. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn focused part of a floor speech Tuesday on the fact Haspel received language training in both Turkish and Russian.

The Texas Republican also sought to lay the groundwork for Democratic questions at Wednesday’s hearing about torture being an effort to relitigate settled legal issues, given that Haspel was found to have no liability for the tactics used under the “enhanced interrogation” program.

Watch: Haspel Faced Protesters, Questions on Interrogation

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“The thing that you will see tomorrow that will distinguish our approach from that of some of our colleagues across the aisle is they’re going to be living in the past and try to relitigate issues that have long been resolved, while we’re going to be asking about the present threats to the country,” Cornyn told reporters Tuesday. “What the American people really care about is making sure that the CIA is in the most competent hands possible and is doing everything they can within the law to keep us safe.”

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, another member of Republican leadership who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, highlighted the backing of intelligence experts, including retired Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and the National Security Agency.

John O. Brennan, who was CIA director under President Barack Obama, and James R. Clapper Jr., Obama’s director of national intelligence, have also backed Haspel. Notably, all three men have been vocal and pointed critics of Trump. 

“Regarding Gina Haspel, she is the most qualified person to ever be nominated to run the CIA. She has the best background, the best preparation. I think she’s exactly the right person, at exactly the right time, which is why she has this broad base of bipartisan support from individuals who have dealt with the CIA over the three decades she has been here,” Blunt said Tuesday.

Pushing back

Sen. Ron Wyden has been among the most critical of the process by which information about Haspel’s record has been somewhat selectively made public ahead of the confirmation hearing.

The Oregon Democrat said Tuesday he was more focused on rebutting a different argument being made for Haspel’s confirmation.

“What’s really being offered up is that anybody who is  not for Haspel is not for women in America. There are ads running, and that kind of thing,” Wyden said. “There are scores of qualified women in America. Qualified national security officials who are women, and I find this argument that’s  being given a lot of air time, money and the like … just insulting to American women.”

As for Cotton himself? He isn’t expecting to see Haspel rejected when her nomination comes up for a committee vote likely next week, or subsequently on the floor.

“I stand by my prediction that Gina will be recommended by the Senate Intelligence Committee with a bipartisan vote, and she will be confirmed on a bipartisan basis by the full Senate,” Cotton said Tuesday on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show.

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