WASHINGTON — Central Intelligence Agency operatives have long run covert influence campaigns overseas. Now, the agency is mounting an unusually active, not very secret campaign in Washington.
The C.I.A. is trying to ensure its deputy director, Gina Haspel, a career spy, is confirmed as its next director. Almost every detail of her life and work is classified; what little is known stems from her role overseeing the brutal interrogation of a terrorism suspect at a secret prison in Thailand and conveying orders to destroy videos documenting torture.
To promote a more positive view of Ms. Haspel, the agency has declassified secrets about her life as a globe-trotting spy and encouraged former clandestine officers — typically expected to remain quiet even in retirement — to grant interviews. It sought to generate favorable news coverage by providing selective biographical details about Ms. Haspel to reporters, then sent a news release to highlight the resulting stories.
The campaign to secure Ms. Haspel’s confirmation reflects the view of many officials inside the C.I.A., who see her as the agency’s best chance to keep a political partisan from being installed as director.
But C.I.A. officials have failed to declassify any meaningful information about Ms. Haspel’s career, according to Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who complained to the agency that they have asked five times for more details but have yet to receive a response.
“They are basically running a full-on propaganda campaign but withholding the information that the American people need to be able to make an informed decision about this nominee’s fitness for the job,” said Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico on the committee. He said he has yet to decide whether he will support Ms. Haspel’s confirmation.
The openly political nature of the current director, Mike Pompeo, who is awaiting confirmation as secretary of state, frustrated some within the agency. And before Ms. Haspel’s nomination, other conservative Republicans, like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, were floated as possible choices for Mr. Trump.
Ms. Haspel, by contrast, is a known quantity inside the C.I.A. She is a longtime clandestine officer who has done tours overseas, knows how to run intelligence operations and has no widely known political views. As for her role of running the prison when a suspect was waterboarded, Ms. Haspel is seen inside the C.I.A. as having loyally followed lawful orders.
“If she’s not confirmed, who knows who the president would turn to as an alternative?” said John Bennett, a respected former chief of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service who retired in 2013.
Mr. Bennett, himself among those retired agents who rarely do interviews, described Ms. Haspel, his former deputy, as an “extraordinary officer.”
Ryan Trapani, a spokesman for the agency, insisted that it was entirely proper and “consistent with the rules” for the C.I.A. to publicly promote the nominee to lead the agency. But, he acknowledged, the agency was pushing harder than usual for Ms. Haspel’s confirmation as director.
“If it appears C.I.A. is being more robust than normal in supporting this nomination, that’s because we are,” he said. His office, one of the more sophisticated press shops in Washington, relies on the experience of savvy analysts who worked on sensitive intelligence programs.
To be sure, activists and civil liberties groups lining up to oppose Ms. Haspel’s nomination, including Codepink and PEN America, are running their own publicity campaign. Some of the groups brought on a public relations firm, Precision Strategies, and released a letter this week urging senators to reject Ms. Haspel because of her role overseeing torture.
The C.I.A. appears unlikely to stave off a fresh public airing of the brutal — and now banned — interrogation methods it used in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks in the fight against Al Qaeda. A number of senators have signaled they plan to ask Ms. Haspel, whose confirmation hearing is scheduled for May 9, about her role in Thailand, and why she helped destroy videos despite an order by the White House and the agency’s top lawyer to preserve them. She is also likely to be asked about her role in the C.I.A.’s rendition, detention and interrogation program after she finished her short stint in Thailand and returned to the agency’s counterterrorism center.
Some senators said they simply want to know more about Ms. Haspel. They are pressing the agency to declassify far more information about her career so the public can see it, and have suggested that the C.I.A., in its zeal to promote Ms. Haspel, runs the risk of seeing its campaign backfire.
Last week, Mr. Heinrich and two other Democrats on the intelligence committee, Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Dianne Feinstein of California, wrote a letter that decried “the absence of any meaningful declassification of her career.” The plea for more information about Ms. Haspel was their fifth, they wrote, noting that they had yet to receive a response.
Instead, the agency has “issued a news release that included a superficial narrative about Ms. Haspel without providing the public any meaningful information about her 33-year career at the C.I.A.,” the letter said.
“Indeed, the more we review the classified facts,” the letter continued, “the more disturbed we are, both by the actions she has taken during her career and by the C.I.A.’s refusal to allow the public an opportunity to consider them.”
Opposition to Ms. Haspel’s nomination is growing elsewhere. More than 100 retired generals and admirals plan to release a letter on Monday saying they believe she is unfit to lead the C.I.A. because of her role in the interrogation program and destroying the videos. The letter was organized by retired Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the former Marine Corps commandant.
“We do not accept efforts to excuse her actions relating to torture and other unlawful abuse of detainees by offering that she was ‘just following orders,’ ” they wrote.
“We did not accept the ‘just following orders’ justification after World War II, and we should not accept it now,” they added, referring to the defense used unsuccessfully by some Nazi leaders at the postwar Nuremberg trials.
Shortly after Mr. Trump said Ms. Haspel was his choice to be director, the spy agency kicked off its robust media campaign on Twitter. Attempting to round out her public biography, the C.I.A. said she was born in Ashland, Ky., the oldest of five children and that, at the agency, she had to put up with male colleagues who were unaccustomed to seeing a woman take charge in dangerous corners of the world.
The C.I.A. also made clear she was an experienced clandestine officer who had served in dangerous places, and helped battle communism in the waning days of the Cold War.
The agency said she joined its counterterrorism center on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, but there was no mention of her role in Thailand, where a pair of psychologists working for the C.I.A. waterboarded at least two Qaeda suspects. One, Abu Zubaydah, was waterboarded 83 times before Ms. Haspel’s arrival. Under her leadership, the other, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded three times.
At the same time, the agency touted the careers of former female spies who paved the way for women like Ms. Haspel, who would be the C.I.A.’s first female director if she is confirmed.
The C.I.A. has also sent out news releases touting Ms. Haspel, starting with her appointment as deputy director. In one instance, the agency took testimonials from former intelligence officials noting she was “fair” and “objective.” The agency took the opportunity to remind readers that she was “committed to the rule of law.”
Another time, the C.I.A. provided information to The Wall Street Journal and other major news outlets, and then promoted the stories in a news release: “I.C.Y.M.I.: C.I.A. Introduces Gina Haspel to the American People.”
The C.I.A. has relied on former agency officers such as Mr. Bennett to get the word out that Ms. Haspel would make an excellent director. Frank Archibald, who replaced Mr. Bennett as the chief of the clandestine service, said he consulted with the C.I.A. before chatting with a reporter but the choice was his to talk. Mr. Archibald, a respected veteran of many clandestine operations, said he “was making an exception for Gina” to convey to the public that she would make a superb director.
This month, former American officials wrote a letter to the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, urging them to support Ms. Haspel’s nomination. The letter was published in The Cipher Brief, a news site on intelligence seen as friendly to the C.I.A. The agency tweeted the story.
Not every former agency official has embraced the campaign. John Sipher, who once ran covert operations against the Russians and retired from the agency in 2014, said he thought highly of Ms. Haspel but was uncomfortable with the C.I.A.’s overt messaging.
It was, he said, “kinda creepy.”
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