White House Defends CIA Nominee, Calling Her ‘Tough on Terror’

WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump on Monday defended Gina Haspel, his nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, dismissing debate over her involvement in a harsh interrogation program and arguing Democrats want her out because she “is too tough on terror.”

Trump said on Twitter that Haspel has “come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists.” He added that “in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!”

Haspel offered to withdraw her nomination over the weekend over repeated, strong criticism of her role overseeing a CIA black site prison after the September 11th terrorist attacks.

But the president on Monday insisted that Haspel is a “highly respected nominee” who has unfairly “come under fire  because she was too tough on terrorists.

“Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!” Trump tweeted.

Haspel’s confirmation hearing with the Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled for Wednesday.

Last week, the 33-year CIA veteran reportedly expressed exasperation with the process to several senior White House officials.

According to the Washington Post, Haspel raised her concerns during a meeting with official at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia Friday. The newspaper, citing anonymous sources, said among other things, she worried that her nomination would focus attention on a controversial time in the agency’s history and tarnish both its reputation and her own.

But the White House has encouraged her to press on and has prepared a 27-page compendium, of talking points for her supporters. The memo suggests criticism of Haspel be met with responses focused on her qualifications and awards for service plus her positive relationship with former CIA director Mike Pompeo, who last week succeeded Rex Tillerson as secretary of states.

At present, the Senate Intelligence Committee appears to be split along party lines on her nomination, and it seems unlikely that Haspel will sway anyone currently against her nomination to switch their vote. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, for one, has said the more she reads about Haspel, the less inclined she is to confirm her.

Haspel oversaw a black site detention facility in Thailand in 2002. At least one suspected terrorist, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded there. In 2011, an internal CIA memo absolved Haspel of any responsibility for the harsh interrogation techniques employed there and destruction of videos of the waterboarding sessions.

“My guess is she may be more concerned about her own reputation than the agency. After all, at this point, the CIA’s reputation is already tarnished when it comes to torture while she has emerged sufficiently unscathed to allow her rise to the deputy’s spot,” former CIA analyst Gail Helt told Courthouse News Monday. “She’s the only one with something to lose here.”

Haspel’s nomination has unsettled Helt, who currently coordinates the security and intelligence studies program at King University in Tennessee.

Helt testified in a sworn declaration on May 1 that not all of the tapes the CIA has depicting al Nashiri and others, were destroyed.

Her testimony was included in a motion filed by attorney Joe Margulies to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on behalf of  his client and suspected terrorist Abu Zubadayah.

Like al Nashiri, Zubadayah was waterboarded in 2002. Margulies contends his client appears on the tapes the spy agency claims are destroyed.

Helt’s testimony is not firsthand, she admits, but her belief comes from a conversation had with a colleague at the CIA who says the tapes still exist.

Helt said she believes there’s still a chance the acting deputy director’s past may be too shadowy to vault her into the directorship.

“There is a stigma, at least in my view, that comes from being forced to withdraw that is almost as negative as being rejected by the Senate … this would be the second time her past was detrimental to her career. Pressure from some senators reportedly led to her being denied the permanent spot as director of National Security Council in 2013,” Helt said Monday. “What concerns me now is given everything that is already known about Haspel and this program, what else could possibly be out there bad enough to make her consider withdrawing. And will the American public ever know? That should concern us all.”

Retired Colonel Morris Davis, who served as the third chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo military commissions, had a simple response for Haspel’s supporters on Twitter Monday, including the one who nominated her.

“Perhaps someone should explain to [Donald Trump] that what he glibly refer to as ‘tough on terror’ is actually torture, which is a war crime with no statute of limitations and universal jurisdiction for arrest and prosecution,” Colonel Davis wrote.

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