Is CIA’s Gina Haspel Going Full MAGA?

Gina Haspel CIA director speaks
Trump and Haspel
Gina Haspel’s swearing in ceremony (Credit: Evan Vucci/AP)TH

[This piece first appeared in The New Republic, Feb. 12, 2020]

When President Trump used his State of the Union address to call on Congress to pass legislation allowing crime victims to sue sanctuary cities for offenses committed by undocumented immigrants, CIA director Gina Haspel rose to her feet clapping. It was an unusual display of partisan spirit for the nation’s top intelligence officer, especially as it concerned a domestic law enforcement issue, an area where the agency is forbidden by law from acting.

It was not “right” for the agency’s CIA director to applaud, said General Michael Hayden, who served under President George W. Bush. “It is odd that a DCI [director of central intelligence] who avoids public appearances of any kind would make a public appearance at the most fractious SOTU in our time,” former CIA officer and Brookings analyst Bruce Riedel told me in an email. “The job is being more politicized than it should be.”

Haspel was not required to attend the State of the Union. The CIA director is not even a Cabinet officer, noted ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou. “Why was she even there, much less in a seat of honor, up front?” he said in an interview. “The Joint Chiefs don’t applaud. The Supreme Court justices don’t applaud. The director shouldn’t either.”

Haspel’s appearance raises the unsettling possibility that Trump, for all his denunciations of the supposed “deep state” plot against him, might now have an ally at the top of the CIA. With Attorney General Bill Barr pursuing Trump’s agenda at the Justice Department, a compliant director in Langley would enhance Trump’s power to pursue worse whims—including, potentially, foreign aid to his political and personal fortunes.

The Arc of Her Career

While there’s no way to know what’s in Haspel’s mind, her Trump-supportive public actions provide clues. “Some contend this public stance provides Haspel a better ability to privately influence the president,” Douglas London, a 34-year veteran of CIA’s Directorate of Operations and former Haspel colleague, wrote this week for Just Security. “In practice, however, her actions reflect a continued unwillingness to spend any of her political capital on encouraging the president to be more supportive of the Intelligence Community’s views, priorities or its workforce’s morale.”

Yet, as London also points out,  the arc of Haspel’s career shows her State of the Union performance was not that surprising. Despite her reputation as a low-key apolitical director, Haspel could not have made it to the director’s office on the seventh floor of the Langley headquarters without being skilled at cultivating patrons and dodging proverbial bullets. And if Haspel hopes to keep her job in a second Trump administration, she needs to distinguish herself from her former mentors, John Brennan and John McLaughlin, who have become harsh critics of the president. (If a Democrat is elected in November, Haspel is surely out of a job given her torture resume.)

Haspel’s very reputation in the press as “apolitical” shows a certain mastery of spin. Her leading role in the waterboarding of suspected terrorists (and the destruction of video evidence) was so political that it inspired President Obama to cancel the program on his first day in office. Passionate opposition in the Senate to the torture program early derailed her nomination. Indeed, it was her deeply political embrace of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that secured Trump’s admiration.

When Haspel was first considered for the top job at the CIA, Don McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel, was so disturbed by her resume that he suggested Trump withdraw her nomination. Trump not only disagreed but “actually liked this aspect of Haspel’s resume,” according to Axios. Her support for torture “was an asset, not a liability” with the president. When Trump reportedly asked Haspel whether waterboarding “works,” she replied she was “100 percent sure” that it did.

Don’t forget too that Haspel first appeared publicly as CIA director in September 2018 in Kentucky at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, named for the Senate majority leader. McConnell introduced her to a friendly crowd. If Haspel was angling from the start to keep her job in Trump’s Washington, cultivating McConnell was a good start.

To be sure, Haspel is not a toady, unlike so many in the administration. Early in her tenure, she bucked White House pressure in her assessment of the Saudi role in the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. After a trip to Turkey, Haspel endorsed the agency’s conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible. Unlike National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Haspel did not tailor her findings to please the boss.

Trump seemed offended by her independence. In January 2019, when the U.S. intelligence chiefs gave congressional briefings on North Korea and Iran that Trump did not like, he denounced their views. “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” he tweeted, but did not mention Haspel or any other chief by name.

“The question for me is, at what point do these intelligence chiefs quit,” John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA, told Voice of America. “It is one thing for the president to have differing views. It is another thing altogether to openly attack or belittle the IC [intelligence community].”

A Dubious Compliment

Haspel seems to have learned a different lesson, namely if she wanted to keep her job, flattering the boss might be a good idea. When ABC News reported last May that Trump’s daily intelligence briefers had decided to focus on economic issues to keep his attention, the CIA director and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, put out a rare public statement.

“Speculation, including that from former and unnamed intelligence officers, about what occurs in our Oval Office briefings is wrong,” according to a joint statement from Coats and Haspel. “Simply put, these anonymous sources are not there as we deliver timely, unbiased intelligence and work alongside an engaged and knowledgeable President on the most complex national security issues.”

This factually dubious compliment was not enough to save Coats’ job. He was soon forced out by Trump and resigned on July 28, while Haspel remained in the director’s chair.

When Trump blocked military assistance to Ukraine over the summer as part of his effort to extract the announcement of a corruption investigation involving rival Joe Biden’s son, Haspel argued for lifting the hold. But this was no profile in courage, as Defense Secretary Mark Esper and National Security Adviser John Bolton were saying the same thing.

“She’s keeping her head down and doing the job,” more than one former CIA hand has told me during Haspel’s tenure. But the agency’s first female director took the concept of low profile to a new low in December when Politico reported the leaders of the intelligence community (no names mentioned) indicated to Congress that they would prefer not to give the usual unclassified intelligence briefings that provoked Trump’s ire a year ago. Whether Congress will capitulate is unclear, but the spy chiefs’ inclination to avoid displeasing Trump seems clear.

Paul Pillar, former CIA senior analyst for the Middle East, said Haspel’s predicament is how to do the job without losing the job. “You know what the White House wants to get across to Congress,” he said in an interview. “If that does not square with what your agency is saying in a briefing, you’re in a very dicey situation.” In other words, she could lose her job, as Coats did.

Yet when it came to the question of whether to kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Haspel raised her head and offered a policy opinion. According to the New York Times, she “advised Mr. Trump that the threat the Iranian general presented was greater than the threat of Iran’s response if he was killed, according to current and former American officials. Indeed, Ms. Haspel had predicted the most likely response would be a missile strike from Iran to bases where American troops were deployed,” which is exactly what happened. Esper told CNN that Haspel had summed up the stakes for the president by saying, “the risk of inaction is greater than [the] risk of action.

“If she said that, that would be going beyond the ‘stick to your knitting’ approach to evidence that I think is more appropriate for a director,” Pillar said. “If I was on her staff, I would have advised her to stay away from such judgments.”

As with torture, she gave Trump the answer that buttressed his instincts, and he ordered the drone attack. A month later, she took her seat at the State of the Union and stood up for the impeached commander in chief who declared he’d done no wrong and merely pursued America’s greatness.

“Whether it was intentional or simply an oversight, her appearance was a sad symbol of the politicization of the intelligence service,” Kent Harrington, former CIA officer and spokesman, told me. “If she had asked me, I would have told her to stay at home and rearrange her sock drawer.”

Instead, Haspel signaled to her boss that she wants to be identified with the Trump team.

[See also The Gina Haspel Story: The Girl Who Became Spymaster.]

Michigan Man Arrested for Threatening Whistleblower’s Attorney Mark Zaid 

Mark Zaid
Mark Zaid
Mark Zaid, co-counsel for the Ukraine whistleblower (Credit:

The ugliness of President Trump’s attacks on the whistleblower who first exposed his scheme to extract political favors from the Ukraine government has reached its logical culmination.

Mark Zaid, the whistleblower’s attorney, received a death threat last year that has resulted in the arrest of a supporter of the president.

The email came from Brittan J. Atkinson, said Michigan federal prosecutors, who was indicted on charges of making death threats against Zaid. The newly unsealed court filing was first reported by Politico and noted by Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. Atkinson sent the menacing message from Gladwin County, in northern Michigan, the indictment said. He is charged with violating federal interstate communication laws, which prohibit “any threat to injure the person of another.” The felony offense is punishable by up to five years in prison.”

At campaign rally in Louisiana lat year Trump called Zaid “a sleazeball.” He ended his digression by saying: “These people are bad people, and it’s so bad what they do to our country. They rip the guts out of our country.”

“Keep looking over your shoulder,” Atkinson is alleged to have written. “We know who you are, where you live and who you associate with. We are all strangers in a crowd to you.”

“I hope this indictment sends a message to others that such behavior will not be tolerated by a civil society that is governed by law,” Zaid said in a statement.

Source: Trump whistleblower’s attorney Mark Zaid sent email threatening ‘We will hunt you down’ – The Washington Post

Trump’s Intelligence Purge Rattles National Security Establishment

John Brennan
John Brennan
John Brennan’s crisis (Credit: Jefferson Morley)

Former CIA director John Brennan calls it a “full blown national security crisis.”

Soon to be ex-acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire says Congress that Russia is seeking to influence in the 2020 presidential election on behalf of President Trump.

Trump is replacing Maguire with Richard Grenell, a former spokesman for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Grenell, now serving as U.S. ambassador to Germany, has no intelligence experience. In Germany, he mostly ingratiated himself with Germany’s far-right Afd party.

Other major changes at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are coming, according to the Daily Beast.

According to several sources, including one former high-ranking intelligence official, ODNI Principal Executive Andrew Hallman is departing, as is ODNI General Counsel Jason Klitenic. Klitenic’s last day is March 2, a DNI spokesperson said.

Klitenic offended the White House last September when he favored sending the complaint of a CIA whistleblower about Trump’s Ukraine policy to Congress. Bill Barr’s Justice Department sought to block the complaint, a decision denounced by dozens of inspectors general in the federal government.

The DNI, created in 2004, is not an intelligence agency itself but it oversees the work of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, whose collective budgets amount to $75 billion annually.

With CIA director Gina Haspel cheering his State of the Union address, Trump seems closer to gaining control of the U.S. intelligence community that he was a month ago.

The problem facing Brennan and other critics from the intelligence community is that Trump has weaponized official secrecy and policy failures to demonize them in the eyes of his supporters. Conservative Republicans who long supported the CIA and other secret agencies now fear them as a “deep state cabal” out to get the president.

Brennan charges “Trump is abetting a Russian covert operation to keep him in office for Moscow’s interests, not America’s.” There’s evidence this is true but the key pieces of CIA’s reporting remains secret, making it difficult to confirm the allegation. The latest Senate intelligence Committee report still redacts the details of the 2016 finding that led to the investigation of Trump, Mueller’s probe, and impeachment.

Brennan, personally, has credibility problems. His role in the CIA’s breaking into the offices of the Senate Intelligence Committee during its investigation of the CIA’s torture regime rankled Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the intelligence committee at the time. (The story of the burglary and Brennan’s role in it is accurately dramatized in the movie, “The Report,” starring Annette Bening as Feinstein.).

Brennan’s bullying still bothers Democrats uncomfortable with a former spy intervening in presidential politics. If Brennan and friends savage Trump, what will they do to President Bernie Sanders or President Elizabeth Warren who promise to break with 70 years of national security dogma?

As a cable news pundit, Brennan overstated the case for Trump’s collusion with Russian state actors, which Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller concluded did not involve a criminal conspiracy. Brennan’s criticisms of Trump’s ignorance and mendacity were accurate enough (and his shoutout to Colin Kaepernick showed his wokeness). But he never proved “treason.”

The larger problem for Brennan and Co. is that “national security” has lost its power to mobilize public opinion. The national security arguments driving the House passed articles of impeachment were the weakest link in a case that persuaded only one Republican senator to vote for Trump’s removal.

In the era of endless war, the public has become skeptical of national security claims–from Iraq’s non-existent WMD, to the notion that torture “works,” to “progress” in Afghanistan, to the supreme importance of Ukraine–because they have so often turned out to be more self-serving than true.

The prospect of a Trump gaining control of the U.S. intelligence community is scary. The awesome power of the CIA in the hands of an authoritarian executive with foreign patrons is a frightening prospect. The ongoing, unacknowledged failures of U.S. national security doctrine are paving his way.

U.K. Approves Limited Huawei Technology–and U.S. Signals Approval

Huawei, Chinese telecom

In Western intelligence agencies there is no issue more divisive than Huawei, the Chinese telecom sells sophisticated communications technology. The U.S. intelligence community argues that any reliance on Huawei technology is an inherent security risk, given the firm’s connections to the Chinese government. President Trump has forbidden U.S. firms from buying Huawei products, while the chief  of MI5, the U.K..’s equivalent of the FBI, has asserted that the risk posed by Huawei is manageable. 

Now the the U.K. has decided to limit–but not ban–the use of Huawei products in the country’s 5G networks

The UK’s national security council (NSC) – a meeting of senior ministers, intelligence and service chiefs chaired by Johnson – decided on Tuesday morning that Huawei could supply 5G equipment, but that it would be subject to what the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said was “one of the strongest regimes for telecoms security in the world”. The company’s share of the new market will be capped at 35% for each of Britain’s four mobile phone operators, and it will be banned from core parts of the telecoms net

Unnamed sources told the Guardian that the United States is prepared to go along.

The Trump administration had given a series of strongly worded warnings about the security risks in the run-up to the decision, but was preparing to soften its stance after a phone call between the British prime minister and the US president on Tuesday afternoon.

Sources said that while the US remained disappointed with the decision to allow “an untrusted vendor” into the UK market, the security and economic relationship between the two countries was too important to jeopardise in a row over mobile phone technology.

If true, that would mark a climbdown from the U.S. position articulated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year.

“If a country adopts this and puts it in some of their critical information systems, we won’t be able to share information with them, we won’t be able to work alongside them,” Pompeo said. “We’re not going to put American information at risk,

Source: UK Huawei decision appears to avert row with US | Technology | The Guardian

The Three Victories that Sealed Soleimani’s Fate

Qassem Soleimani
Qassem Soleimani
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, slain by a U.S. drone on Jan. 3.

If you study the military record of the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani, you’ll see both why U.S military and political leaders feared him, yet did not wish him dead. 

The embodiment of America’s stance was President George W. Bush. In January 2008, Bush was informed he had a real-time opportunity to kill Soleimani as he attended a meeting in Syria. Soleimani was known to U.S. intelligence as the commander of Iran’s Al-Quds force, a special operations command with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, akin to the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operation Command. Soleimani was known to have played a leading role in nurturing the anti-American insurgency that bled U.S. forces in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.

Bush was not soft on terrorism or Iran. He knew that upwards of 600 U.S. soldiers had been killed by Iraqi militias sponsored by Soleimani. But the 43rd president also had bruising experience with geopolitical reality: the fiasco of his Iraq invasion. Bush knew better than anyone that, just as eliminating Saddam Hussein unleashed a whirlwind of chaos and terrorism that the United States could not control, so “taking out” Soleimani might have unforeseen bloody consequences for U.S. interests. 

Oft-accused of being dim, Bush had actually learned a hard lesson by the end of his failed presidency that Trump may yet absorb: violently removing an enemy can create far larger problems than it solves. Twelve years ago, Bush prudently passed on killing Soleimani.

Last week, Trump did not. The president chose to do what the Israel’s Mossad and its sophisticated assassination apparatus, had considered and rejected on multiple occasions. With little deliberation, Trump pulled the trigger.

Was Soleimani assassinated, that is to say, killed for arbitrary political reasons? Or was he the victim of a “targeted killing,” meaning he was a legitimate target of war?

The Defense Department said he was “actively developing plans” to attack Americans. An anonymous source, probably a senior CIA official, told the New York Times the evidence for that claim was “razor-thin.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told NBC’s Chuck Todd that Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack on American targets when he was killed. When CNN’s Jake Tapper pressed him on how imminent, Pompeo said “this is not something that’s relevant.” 

Washington chatter aside, Soleimani was a guest of the Iraqi government, which is a military ally of the U.S. government. Iraqi government documents leaked by an anonymous source to The Intercept show that Soleimani wielded wide influence in Iraqi affairs, often with top officials who were also on good terms with the United States. In other words, he was not unwelcome.

Iraqi Prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi told parliament on Sunday that Soleimani came to Iraq to respond to a diplomatic note from Saudi Arabia. While bitter enemies, the Saudi monarchy and the Islamic Republic, were privately negotiating steps to pacify the region, which has been roiled by anti-Iranian and anti-American demonstrations.

“I was supposed to meet Soleimani in the morning the day he was killed,” Mahdi said, according to news reports. “He came to deliver me a message from Iran responding to the message we delivered from Saudi to Iran.”

The Iraqi parliament proceeded to unanimously disinvite the 5,000 U.S. troops now stationed in the country. The parliament did not set a deadline for their departure, and scores of non-Shia parliamentarians did not vote.

Ayatollah Khamenei, center, and Gen. Qasem_Soleimani, right.

Why Kill Soleimani?

Soleimani was not feared by U.S. (and Israeli and Saudi) policymakers because primarily he was a terrorist (though he sometimes used terror tactics). Mostly the U.S. and allies feared him because he successful.  According to journalist Yossi Mellman, Israeli intelligence assessed him as “a daring and talented commander, despite the considerable number of mistakes in his assessments and failed operations in the course of his career.”

Whether you think Soleimani was “a deadly puppet master” or an “Islamic martyr,”  there’s no disputing he helped the Islamic Republic achieve three significant goals in the 21st century.

First, Soleimani played a key role in driving U.S. occupation forces out of Iraq. As Al-Quds commander he presided over the creation of anti-American militias in 2003 that mounted deadly attacks on the U.S. forces seeking to establish a pro-American government. 

One Iraqi militia leader, Qais al-Khazali, who debriefed U.S. intelligence officers in 2008, said he had “a few meetings” with Soleimani and other Iranian officials of similar rank. According to Khazali, Soleimani did not take part in the operational activities–providing  weapons, training or cash. He left those tasks to deputies or intermediaries.

Under Iranian tutelage, these militias specialized in using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to kill upwards of 600 soldiers in the U.S. occupation forces, according to general David Petraeus. Soleimani’s attacks–along with the manifest failure of U.S. goals to reduce terrorism and spread democracy–contributed to President Obama’s politically popular decision to withdraw most U.S. troops in 2011.

Forcing the U.S. military out of Iraq was a priority for the government in Tehran, and Soleimani helped achieve it.

Nemesis of ISIS

Qassem Soleimani
The late Gen. Qassem Soleimani

Second, Soleimani played a key role in driving ISIS out of Iraq–a victory in which the United States ironically helped boost his reputation. 

In this battle, Soleimani took advantage of U.S. vulnerability, not hubris. When ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed an Islamic State in western Iraq six years ago, Tehran was just as alarmed as Washington. The Sunni fundamentalists of ISIS regard the Shia Muslims of Iran and Iraq as infidels, almost as contemptible as Christians and Jews.

After the regular Iraqi armed forces collapsed, Iraqi Ayotollah Ali Sistani blessed the creation of Shia militias to save the country. Sistani’s fatwa empowered Iran to mobilize and expanded Soleimani’s existing militia network. The Iranian-sponsored fighters, along with the Kurdish pesh merga, proceeded to do most of the bloody street fighting that drove ISIS out of Mosul, Kirkuk and other Iraqi cities.  

As Soleimani moved about openly in Iraq, U.S. commanders did not attack him because he did not attack them. Sometimes, pro-American and pro-Iranian soldiers even fought side by side. Thanks to this tacit U.S.-Iranian cooperation that neither country cared to publicly acknowledge, ISIS was expelled from Iraq into Syria by 2017.

In Iran, Soleimani emerged as a hero in the fight against the deadliest religious fanatics on the planet, especially after ISIS had carried out a terror attack in Tehran on June 2017 that killed 12 people. 

In Iraq, the rout of ISIS enhanced the prestige of Soleimani and the Iranian-backed militias. Some of their leaders entered politics and business, drawing complaints about–and demonstrations against—heavy-handed Iranian influence. Many Iraqis grew unhappy about Iran’s new influence, but success made Soleimani an indispensable security partner for the embattled government in Baghdad. That’s why he visited Iraq last week.

Besting the CIA

Third, Soleimani helped defeat ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria’s civil war. In 2015, President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces were losing ground to Sunni fundamentalist forces funded by the CIA and the Persian Gulf oil monarchies. The CIA wanted to overthrow Assad. Iran feared losing its ally in Damascus to a hostile anti-Shia regime controlled by al-Qaeda.  Obama feared another Iraq and refused to commit U.S. forces.

Mike Pompeo
Former CIA director Mike Pompeo failed in Syria where Soleimani succeeded. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Soleimani brought in Iranian advisers and fighters from Hezbollah, the Shia militia of Lebanon which Iran has supported since the 1980s. With help from merciless Russian bombing and Syrian chemical attacks, the Iranian-trained ground forces helped Syria turn the tide on the jihadists. The CIA, under directors Leon Panetta, John Brennan and Mike Pompeo, spent $1 billion dollars to overthrow Assad. They had less influence on the outcome than Soleimani.

The net effect of Soleimani’s three victories—abetted by U.S. crimes and blunders—was, for better or worse, to bolster Iranian influence across the region. From Afghanistan in the east to the Mediterranean in the West, Iran gained political ground, thanks to Soleimani. He perfected the art of asymmetric warfare, using local proxies, political alliances, deniable attacks, and selective terrorism to achieve the government’s political goals.

(Soleimani, it is worth noting, had no record of attacking non-uniformed Americans. While Pompeo said that Soleimani “had inflicted so much suffering on Americans,” it is a fact that not a single American civilian was killed in an Iranian-backed terror attack between 2001 to 2019.)

Iran’s cumulative successes provoked dismay Washington (and Tel Aviv and Riyadh). In the course of the 21st century, Iran overcome international isolation and to actually gain, not lose, advantage to its regional rivals. He also became a media personality in the regime using selfies from the battlefield to promote an image of an accessible general who liked to rub shoulders with his men. 

Along the way, Iran maintained a terrible record on human rights at home, persecuting journalists, bloggers, and women who spurn the hijab. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security didn’t kill Americans but it did take a number of hostages, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. Across the region, Iran’s ambitions stirred up widespread opposition from secular, feminist, and nationalist movements that reject the theory and practice of Iranian theocracy. 

These non-violent movements, however, never advocated that the United States attack their country. They are not welcoming Soleimani’s death, and they are unlikely to support the U.S. (or Israeli) attacks in the coming conflict. Quite the contrary.  The anti-Iranian demonstrations in Iran and Iraq are over for the foreseeable future. Iranians and Iraqis who publicly supported the United States and opposed the mullahs, have been silenced.  In death as in life, Soleimani had diminished the U.S. influence in the Middle East.