Lifetime in the shadows: A profile of Gina Haspel, CIA's first female director

She is the Kentucky-born daughter of a former member of the US Air Force, and was raised on military bases.

Published: 18th May 2018 07:18 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th May 2018 07:30 AM   |  A+A-

Gina Haspel (Photo | AP)


WASHINGTON: On the morning of September 11, 2001, Gina Haspel had just reported to the Central Intelligence Agency's Virginia headquarters for a new job, after returning days earlier from an undercover posting abroad.

The attack changed her career.

"I knew in my gut when I saw the video of the first plane hitting the tower in Manhattan that it was Bin Laden," she recalled.

"I got up from my desk and, like many others, walked over to the Counterterrorism Center and volunteered to help. I didn't leave for three years."

It is that steely commitment over a 33 year career that has elevated Haspel to become the first woman to ever head the CIA, the premier US espionage agency.

On Thursday the 61-year-old veteran of the agency's clandestine services was approved by the Senate, and was expected to be quickly sworn in at the White House. 

The approval came after a political battle that highlighted one of the darkest episodes of the CIA's history and her own career: the 2002-2005 interrogation program that subjected a number of Al-Qaeda suspects to torture, including beatings and waterboarding.

Pressed in her confirmation hearings, Haspel refused to divulge any details of her post-9/11 role overseeing the CIA's secret prison in Thailand, where Al-Qaeda suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri were waterboarded. 

But she did say that she does not believe torture works, and pledged, as CIA director, that she would not allow it to happen again.

"Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program," she told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

- Life in the shadows -
Until recently, almost nothing was known about Haspel, even after she rose to the top of the clandestine service in 2013 and then became deputy CIA director last year.

She is the Kentucky-born daughter of a former member of the US Air Force, and was raised on military bases. The oldest of five children, she graduated from the University of Louisville, studying journalism and languages -- Spanish and French.

She joined the CIA in 1985, and quickly found a love for the cloak-and-dagger life.

"From my first days in training, I had a knack for the nuts and bolts of my profession," she told the Senate panel.

"I excelled in finding and acquiring secret information that I obtained in brush passes, dead drops, or in meetings in dusty back allies of third world capitals."

"I recall my first foreign agent meeting was on a dark, moonless night with an agent I'd never met before. When I picked him up, he passed me the intelligence and I passed him extra money for the men he led. It was the beginning of an adventure I had only dreamed of."

Learning Russian and Turkish, in the 1990s, she became a Russia specialist, working in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

As she rose up the ranks, she said she experienced some resistance from the male-heavy ranks of the spy corps. She credited "a very tough, old school leader" for naming her station chief over male rivals in "a small but important frontier post."

The posting, believed to be Azerbaijan, resulted in an agency award for leading an operation to capture two wanted terrorists tied to the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

- 'After 9/11, I stepped up' -
The September 11 attacks put her into the middle of the now heavily criticized interrogation program, much of which, if launched today, would be illegal under US law. 

Referring to Nashiri, the National Security Archive at George Washington University said Haspel "personally supervised the torture of a CIA detainee in 2002, leading to at least three waterboard sessions."

Haspel, who later helped in the destruction of tapes of waterboarding, proudly defended her role in the program -- even if she says she would not allow it again.

"After 9/11, I didn't look to go sit on the Swiss desk. I stepped up. I was not on the sidelines. I was on the front lines in the Cold War, and I was on the front lines in the fight against Al-Qaeda," she told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"Like all of us who were in the counter terrorism center and working at CIA and those years after 9/11, we all believed in our work," she said. 

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