CIA Nominee Haspel’s History of “Taking the Tough Jobs”

| Doug Wise
Doug Wise
Former Deputy Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

To the distinguished ladies and gentlemen on Capitol Hill:

You are poised to make one of the most critical decisions this term by voting on the president’s nominee to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. At no other time in history has our nation been under assault at such a massive scale in every domain, not the least of which are withering attacks, using weaponized information, targeted at the heart of our democratic processes.

The woman you are considering to lead the CIA has been tested by some of the toughest battles this nation has seen, and she is up to the task.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not objective on the subject of Gina Haspel. Throughout my nearly three decades of service in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, she and I worked on some of the most difficult tasks given to the agency. By the end of my career with CIA, she was an experienced and highly accomplished CIA deputy director while I was her counterpart in the Defense Intelligence Agency.

As long as I’ve known her, she’s taken the tough jobs. After 9/11, she was asked to take a key role in CIA’s response to the terrorist attacks. She could have stayed where she was at the CIA, but as she has at so many junctures in her career, she chose, as the West Point Cadet Prayer says, “to choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong.”

She has done that again, saying yes to a nomination for a job that will put her in the spotlight – and in the line of fire, given the poisonous, spiteful and sharply critical environment of today’s Washington. Ms. Haspel has chosen to look beyond what’s personally uncomfortable and unappealing and put duty ahead self by accepting the president’s nomination, just as she did after 9/11.

Our nation is facing similar dangers now – existential threats from multiple malign actors. I would ask the Senate what  kind of leaders we need at this point in our history? Don’t we need leaders with experience, exceptional expertise, who will willingly shoulder their subordinate’s burdens, and accept the gift of leadership given, not by the president, but by the officers they lead?

Ms. Haspel’s career clearly shows an officer with exceptional talent from the beginning, with an extraordinary blend of experience in the field as a practitioner, and time in the field in command of one of the most important and critical field stations in the agency. She understands our business and our culture from a perspective that no outsider could possess.

For many of us during our careers, Ms. Haspel represented a role model who possessed the rare ability to make the right decision – every time. Perhaps more importantly she has, and can continue to, serve as an inspiration for future generations of female officers working in an agency which, in spite of much progress, is still struggling to eradicate the last vestiges of institutional gender discrimination.

She is also known as a team player when working with those outside the agency. Ms. Haspel understands that CIA is not an “island unto itself” but is just one thread in a complex national security tapestry. It is worth noting that Ms. Haspel’s close relationship with current CIA Director Mike Pompeo will be indispensable shall he become the next Secretary of State.

As the Senate knows better than any institution in our government, being the CIA director doesn’t just have to manage a large, global enterprise. The director has to have the courage to share hard truths with president, policymakers and Congress, even an unpleasant truth. No attribute for a CIA Director is more important than this, today. The truth is often bitter but with Gina’s gracious and respectful style, with her voice of experience, and with her reputation on the Hill and in the Oval Office, the truth is likely to have less bite.

That ugly truth for Ms. Haspel will include publicly explaining – within the bounds of classification – her role in the post-9/11 CIA rendition program.

I would like to remind the Senate that in the aftermath of 9/11, we became the nation we had to be, not the nation we wanted to be. The CIA was the same – becoming the agency it needed to be when the president tasked it with responding to 9/11, not the CIA we wished it to be.

With new legal authorities and the support of the intelligence oversight committees (some of whose members are still serving in Congress), we had what we needed: leadership, encouragement, acceptance, concurrence and the resources to decisively strike at what all of us at the time considered to be an existential threat.

It is no surprise that for Ms. Haspel, and the rest of us, this fight would become intensely personal. The fires were still burning in New York and the Pentagon, and the soil was still smoking from the impact of Flight 93 when hundreds and ultimately thousands of CIA officers committed themselves to the nation’s demanding task. Each disrupted their hopes and dreams, set aside families and some of them unfortunately sacrificed their lives.

Ms. Haspel was among the many who heeded the call to counterterrorism duty in those early days and “CT” (as we called it then and now) was a professional theme that would define all of our careers. From her time as the chief of staff for CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to her service as the chief of staff to CIA’s director of operations, her dedication was steadfast, and her commitment never wavered.

It is well documented that in the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush legally established the detention program as part of our war on terror. I personally don’t know the details of Gina’s role in the program nor her perspectives then or now; the Senate can elicit those when she appears for her confirmation testimony.

However, what I do know is this was not Ms. Haspel’s program. It was not CIA’s program. It was America’s program, by virtue of its legality under American law, and with concurrence by way of appropriate processes of the U.S. Congress.

If the Senate is seeking some sort of assurance that the new CIA director would oppose a similar program in the future, who would be better to have at the helm of CIA: an inexperienced political appointee for whom this was all theoretical? Or, a director who faced this ugly program on a very personal level, out of solemn duty, not out of a thirst for adventure, and who subsequently experienced the crushing consequences not just on the agency and its officers, but on the country and its citizens?

I would humbly ask the Senate to keep in mind the climate at the time and not just assess the history by today’s context, but with equal energy and clarity, assess the character and selflessness of the leaders who made that history. I would submit that when the next horrible burden is placed upon the leaders and followers of CIA, the nation will want a CIA director who understands not just actions, but the consequences of those actions on individuals, the agency and the nation.

As you have heard from far more senior officials than the author of this letter, she will bring wisdom, maturity, insight and a critical continuity and stability to the institution of the office of the Director and it bears highlighting that she would be only the second career officer to hold that position.

I acknowledge this will not be an easy decision for some in the Senate. However, some hard decisions become better decisions due to the democratic processes of our system of government. It is easy to forget that it is only because of the dedication of extraordinary officers like Ms. Haspel – and the sacrifices of countless women and men serving in critical national security roles –  that the Senate may exist and have the honor of confirming her.

I am confident that your questions will be answered in due course and I am equally confident that your vote to confirm Ms. Gina Haspel as CIA director will be a vote for the future of the United States.

The Author is Doug Wise

Douglas H. Wise served as Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from August 2014 until August 2016. Following 20 years of active duty in the Army where he served as an infantry and special operations officer, he spent the remainder of his career at CIA. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point with a Bachelor of Science degree, and also graduated from the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Wise earned Master's... Read More

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2 Replies to “CIA Nominee Haspel’s History of “Taking the Tough Jobs””
  1. Well said, Doug. Nice article. It would be a travesty if the United States Senate didn’t confirm Gina Haspel and instead voted to effectively blackball an entire generation of CIA leadership that stepped up and did this Nation’s bidding when asked to after 9/11.

  2. To appoint Ms. Gina Haspel, it does not matter what she personally did. In her position, commitment to the law, US interests and professionalism is important. “White and fluffy” spies do not happen. Moral criteria for their work can not be applied from a common human position. Spies have their own professional ethics and their priorities. Otherwise, it will not be the CIA, but the scout organization of fans of conspiracy. If it effectively defends the national interests of the United States, then Gina Haspel, corresponds to its purpose. To control the work there are committees of the Congress and the US Senate and other state institutions. Otherwise, there is no logic in the discussion. As deputy director of the CIA Gina Haspel works great, but as a CIA Director this is a bad job. Gina Haspel is an officer and fulfills the commands given by civil politicians. We can not condemn it until we see it in the real process of protecting US interests. Let Ms. Gina Haspel try her hand at the new position!