Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect details that emerged after the retraction of a ProPublica story about Gina Haspel's CIA career.
Donald Trump concluded his tweet firing of Rex Tillerson on a self-congratulatory note. In appointing CIA director Mike Pompeo to Tillerson’s soon-to-be-former job, he moved the career intelligence officer Gina Haspel into the top spot at the CIA. She was, he noted, “the first woman so chosen” to lead the spy agency, sounding another historic note on a day already destined to live in infamy or triumph, depending on your perspective.
But there may be less to the “first woman CIA director” story than meets the eye. The woman issue serves as a smokescreen to give the president a good news women's story while Stormy is storming. When the headline questions are “exactly how many porn actresses were involved with you, Mr. President, and who actually paid Stormy the hush money?” changing the topic is a good idea.
I wish we’d all calm down about the “first woman” CIA director. Gina Haspel's ovaries don't give her any different perspective about CIA black sites or the destruction of evidence showing what the CIA was doing there than her old boss, Jose Rodriguez.
Haspel is an award-winning career intelligence officer in the clandestine service (the operations side of the house), joining the agency in 1985 and spending most of her career undercover. After 9/11, she played a central role in one of the agency's darkest and most controversial chapters—the use of extreme interrogation methods on terror suspects held at CIA black sites around the world. Haspel was on the front lines, not the sidelines. She ran the CIA's first black site overseas, in Thailand, where the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri took place. (In 2018, ProPublica retracted an earlier report that said she had overseen the site when Zubaydah was tortured; ProPublica now says she did not take over the site until later the same year.) Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in one month. Internal CIA emails described Zubaydah as “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” Haspel's name was also on the internal CIA cable ordering the destruction of nearly 100 videotapes of black site interrogations just as several investigations about the agency’s detention and interrogation program were heating up.
Haspel’s role has drawn strong praise and criticism, with some seeing her as a loyal professional carrying out methods that were reviewed and deemed legal after the nation's worst terrorist attack in history, and others viewing her as part of the agency's reckless descent after 9/11 into inhumane and ineffective intelligence gathering methods.
Here's what else matters more than the woman issue:
Does the president trust her?
Does she have a strong moral compass to resist what are undoubtedly going to be strong pressures from the White House to go over the line and head the agency too far into the dark arts?
Can she protect the building so CIA can stay focused on the mission?
Will she play it straight with Congress?
The stakes here are high, but the good news is that Trump is so obviously disloyal to his appointees, Gina Haspel should have no illusions that she and her agency will be hung out to dry if she goes back into the waterboarding business or follows the president's wishes straight into scandal.