Donald Trump’s elevation of Gina Haspel to director of the CIA is historic: She will be the first woman to lead the agency. While the announcement comes amid the chaos of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s firing and the move of present CIA Director Mike Pompeo to run the State Department, it’s important to note that in a nation focused on women’s equality, payments to porn stars and a Trump administration that is far behind its predecessors in the promotion of women to top posts, Haspel has broken a glass ceiling.
But it’s also worth remembering that the purpose of elevating women is so they would be judged on their own merits, and not some antiquated notions of what a woman can and cannot do. Haspel spent most of her career in clandestine services, and she has succeeded in a scary, violent world. But her gender shouldn’t give her a pass on two major issues that will now be hers to explain and defend.
First, Haspel has a history, one that violates the core tenets of American values. As widely reported, she oversaw the torture of two terrorism suspects in 2002 and took part in 2005 in efforts to destroy videotapes of those interrogations that occurred in Thailand. These events took place with the backing of the Department of Justice, and there is no reason to believe Haspel still holds the same positions about extraordinary rendition and torture. But she must forcefully condemn her past conduct to ensure that the CIA focuses its efforts on professional, effective and legal interrogation tactics, regardless of what Trump may say he wants. Haspel surely knows that how we treat detainees is how foreign countries will treat our detainees; she was one of them. Haspel needs to set the standards of our conduct forcefully, and Congress should demand she account for her actions publicly for the first time.
Second, Haspel must be firm about the Russian threat. Early news reports suggest Tillerson doesn’t know why he was fired, today of all days, and it comes a day after he directly called out Russia for its suspected involvement, announced as “highly likely” by British Prime Minister Theresa May, in the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal with a nerve agent. The White House refused to support May in directly naming Russia (although Trump suggested otherwise in his comments Tuesday on the South Lawn); Tillerson had no such apprehensions.
If Haspel is to protect American spies and even citizens abroad, she needs to be as clear-eyed as Tillerson about the Russian threat. In her upcoming confirmation hearing, she must share her assessment of the Skripal poisoning and how to temper Russian aggression in light of President Vladimir Putin’s conduct. She will represent all of the agents at the CIA; she must stand up for them.
For now, bravo for Haspel. For many of us women in national security, the first female director of the CIA is a model for younger women and so many of us in the field. But her gender is not a shield. I welcome her being treated and questioned with the same vigor we would expect of a male nominee.