WASHINGTON – It was one of the Clinton administration's biggest counterterrorism successes. Just weeks after al-Qaida terrorists trained by Iran blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Gina Haspel's phone rang in the middle of the night.
She was in her final weeks as station chief in what the CIA describes as an "exotic and tumultuous capital" in central Eurasia, and intelligence had just emerged that two senior al-Qaida associates linked to the embassy bombings were on their way to the country where she was stationed.
Haspel swung into action, devising an operation to capture the terrorists. She worked around the clock, sleeping on the floor of her office, as agents tracked the terrorists to a local hotel, where the men were apprehended after a firefight. According to the CIA, "The successful operation not only led to the terrorists' arrest and subsequent imprisonment, but to the seizure of computers that contained details of a terrorist plot."
For her efforts during the operation, which ultimately disrupted a terrorist cell, Haspel in 1999 received the George H.W. Bush Award for Excellence in Counterterrorism.
This is as much as the CIA has revealed, but according to press accounts, several senior al-Qaida associates were captured in Baku, Azerbaijan, just weeks after the embassy bombings. They included Ihab Saqr, a top lieutenant of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Essam Marzouk, who also worked for Zawahiri and had trained two of the embassy bombers. Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency, had reportedly intercepted signals indicating that Saqr was headed to Baku to meet an Iranian intelligence operative.
We should be thrilled that the woman behind this major counterterrorism success has been nominated to become the first female director of the CIA – and only the second person ever to rise to the agency's top post after spending her entire career in clandestine operations. But instead of being grateful that a seasoned, experienced intelligence operative has been chosen, Senate Democrats are threatening to kill her nomination.
This is insane. Gina Haspel is quite possibly the most qualified person ever nominated to lead the CIA. She has experience in virtually every agency discipline, from counterterrorism to counterintelligence and offensive intelligence operations – including personally recruiting spies and directing covert operations.
"She has served in some really tough places, high-risk hardship posts, and has performed some extraordinary operations," said former CIA official Henry "Hank" Crumpton, who was Haspel's boss in the agency's National Resources Division.
According to a source familiar with her career, Haspel was once deployed in a conflict zone, when military officials from a hostile nation arrived without warning at an event she was attending. As she left, they fired at her vehicle, blowing out a tire. She still keeps the bullet as a reminder of the risks CIA officers take each day to protect the country. She knows their sacrifices firsthand. For her, some of the stars on the CIA's Memorial Wall represent the names and faces of friends she has lost in the line of duty.
"She's truly a spymaster," said one retired senior intelligence official who knows Haspel well. "She's managed intelligence operations against the hardest targets, Russia in particular. She has earned great respect from intelligence leaders around the world; even people like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin would have to respect her operational savvy." Yet despite her many accomplishments, colleagues say, she is a paragon of humility with zero political ambition. "She's never lobbied for a job," one of her former CIA bosses told me. "The jobs searched for her."
Little wonder that so many senior Obama-era intelligence officials – including Leon Panetta, John Brennan, Michael Morell, James R. Clapper Jr. and Jeremy Bash – have urged the Senate to confirm her. To vote down someone so obviously qualified as political retribution for the CIA's now-defunct interrogation program would be a travesty.
President Barack Obama's Justice Department concluded that no crimes had been committed. Moreover, as CIA veterans point out, Brennan was himself deeply involved in the interrogation program, and was confirmed 63-34 as Obama's CIA director, with only two Democrats and one independent voting against him. Why the double standard for the first woman nominated to lead the agency?
Democrats complain that President Trump has repeatedly attacked our intelligence community. But derailing Haspel's nomination would be a greater attack on our intelligence professionals than anything Trump has done. Haspel is beloved by the CIA's rank and file because she is one of them. Were the Senate to reject her, the nominee's former colleague said, "it would send a really chilling, devastating message."
Haspel, and the men and women of the CIA, deserve better.