Haspel, a career intelligence officer who joined the agency in 1985, served as CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s deputy for just over a year before Pompeo was nominated by Trump to replace Tillerson as secretary of state. The dramatic cabinet shakeup was widely anticipated. Trump publicly criticized Tillerson last year over his desire to pursue peace talks with North Korea, and Tillerson has broken with the official White House line more than once on key diplomatic issues ranging from the Iran nuclear deal to Russia’s election interference. Pompeo, meanwhile, has frequently defended Trump on issues ranging from North Korea and Charlottesville to his tweets and mental fitness.
In many ways, both Pompeo and Tillerson were the prototypical Trump appointees. Pompeo is considered a loyalist who has almost unfailingly supported and defended the president’s policies, whereas Tillerson is an outsider with no prior experience in politics or diplomacy. It’s notable, then, that a career official like Haspel has been tapped for the job. John Sipher, a former officer in the CIA’s clandestine service, said he found it funny that the White House supported her nomination. “She’s an insider, a part of the deep state,” he joked. Inside the agency, Sipher said, Haspel has always been seen “as a normal professional who you’d expect to provide unbiased and reliable information.”
While that reputation could help Haspel in her confirmation hearings, it may also create tension as she tries to establish clout with a president who values loyalty and tailored intelligence briefings. Haspel’s nomination was not inevitable—reports surfaced earlier this year that the most likely replacement for Pompeo in the event of a big cabinet shakeup would be Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a vocal Trump defender whose potential nomination sparked panic among CIA veterans. “She is so, so much better than Tom Cotton,” said Sipher.
Two former CIA officers who knew Haspel noted on Tuesday that she had experience working in Russia, whose intelligence services were accused by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies last year of interfering in the 2016 election. “Over the course of her long and broad career she had a number of opportunities to see how Russian intelligence services operate,” said Steve Hall, a former CIA chief of Russian operations who retired in 2015. “She’ll go in with a very open eye with regard to the Russians.” Sipher, who replaced Haspel as deputy director of the CIA’s Russia Group, described their role as overseeing the agency’s worldwide efforts to recruit Russian intelligence assets. “She knows very well what the Russians are up to and how their espionage agencies work,” he said.
Not all of Haspel’s former colleagues remember her fondly. Glenn Carle, a former undercover CIA operative who was involved in the interrogation of a suspected al-Qaeda detainee and has been highly critical of the agency’s torture program, described her as “one of the architects, designers, implementers and one of the top two managers of the [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques program] and a true believer, by all accounts, in the ‘Global War in Terror’ paradigm.”