Fourteen months into his term, President Donald Trump is reshaping America’s two largest intelligence agencies, both of them facing internal troubles and a cascade of global threats.
Trump on Tuesday tapped CIA Director Mike Pompeo to become secretary of state, and elevated Pompeo’s deputy, Gina Haspel, to become the agency’s first-ever female director. Later this spring, the top-secret National Security Agency will also get a new director.
Both agencies have been, at times, vilified by Trump, and faced a series of leaks and disclosures in recent years that have battered morale. Yet for all of Trump’s complaints, he has chosen insiders rather than bomb-throwers to take their helms, signaling a muscular — but not disruptive — approach to intelligence gathering.
The transitions come as Trump relies on vital input from both agencies as he faces his biggest foreign challenge: A one-on-one summit, perhaps in May, with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, a saber-rattling nuclear-armed adversary.
In some ways, Trump sent a reassuring message to the CIA with the pick of Haspel, a 32-year veteran of the agency who served twice as station chief in London, a key CIA post. Haspel has played a role in some of the agency’s most heavily criticized practices this century and is likely to defend the agency from wholesale change.
But on the issue of Russia, another major challenge for the Trump administration, Haspel’s views are known to differ from those of Trump, who has only reluctantly accepted the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and will meddle again in November’s mid-term elections.
She knows the real story.
John Sipher, veteran former CIA operative
“That’s the huge schism. And the one thing I do know about her is that she’s well aware of Russian espionage and disinformation and propaganda. … She knows the real story,” said John Sipher, who retired from the CIA in 2014 after a 28-year career.
How Trump may seek to change the CIA and NSA is far less clear than his past antipathy to the U.S. intelligence establishment, which he has decried as a haven for “Deep State” antagonists and likened to creating an atmosphere akin to “Nazi Germany.”
Haspel is “not seen as partisan or political” and will face challenges in keeping the CIA’s door at the White House wide open as did Pompeo, who was overtly partisan, Sipher said.
For some, Haspel’s Achilles heel is her role following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. In 2002, Haspel was sent to northern Thailand as CIA chief of a secret detention facility, known as Cat’s Eye, where terror subjects were imprisoned and subject to newly approved use of torture techniques.
One Saudi subject, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, was waterboarded 83 times in a 19-day period in August 2002. Another suspect was also tortured. Haspel is suspected of knowing about the destruction of videotaped interrogations during and following her stint in Thailand, according to parts of a Senate intelligence committee report on the CIA’s use of torture that were released in late 2014.
A German group, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, demanded last June that the European Union carry out Haspel’s arrest if she sets foot on the continent.
Haspel was simply following orders, Sipher said. “It isn’t as if she had chosen to do that because she believed in torture,” he said.
Because she is a seasoned veteran of the agency, Haspel’s nomination is a “heartening development” for the agency, a former acting CIA director, John McLaughlin, said in an email.
Haspel must obtain approval by the Senate for her appointment to take effect, and two key Democratic legislators voiced some hesitation.
“It’s no secret I’ve had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said in a statement. Feinstein added that Haspel “has been a good deputy director” but will face further questioning.
Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House intelligence committee, said: “Given the enthusiasm the president has evinced for the use of torture during the campaign, it will be vital that Deputy Director Haspel answer specific questions about her views and whether she would comply with an order to restart the agency’s enhanced interrogation program.”
Both the CIA and the sprawling NSA have been hit by a handful of cases of devastating leaks, and in the NSA’s case the repeated arrest of insiders who divulged or spirited away secret documents.
The White House announced in February that Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the Army’s current cyber chief, would take the reins of the NSA with the imminent departure of Adm. Mike Rogers. Nakasone will have his hands full at an agency reeling from arrests, leaks and rising threats around the globe.
Morale is at an all-time low. People are leaving.
Former NSA employee
“Morale is at an all-time low. People are leaving,” said one veteran who left the agency two years ago after more than a decade, and who insisted on anonymity. “The next person is going to face turning that around.”
Adm. Rogers had a rough run at the NSA, which he took over in 2014 in the aftermath of the devastating leaks by Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who divulged numerous top-secret programs of direct monitoring of foreign leaders and extensive domestic surveillance. Snowden lives in exile in Moscow.
Snowden’s disclosures were shattering — and other blows followed.
In 2016, and again in 2017, the FBI arrested three contractors or former employees of the NSA for stealing classified material. And in the summer of 2016, a mysterious group, the Shadow Brokers, obtained top-secret exploits and cyber tools developed by the NSA, and began releasing them to the public. A few tools were used by cyber criminals in global attacks.
Security has grown more rigorous in the wake of the scandals at the NSA, which is nestled in the confines of suburban Fort Meade, Maryland. The agency is the nation’s premier agency for surveillance as well as for designing cyber weapons to penetrate and cripple U.S. adversaries.
“At some point, it becomes to feel like entering and exiting a prison more than a workplace,” said one former NSA cyber warrior, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said he doubted the relentless bag checks would catch the next insider threat. “If you want to smuggle things in and out, you’re going to be able to do it,” he said.
The CIA, too, has been hit by leaks of secret documents and tools. A year ago, the radical transparency group WikiLeaks, which Pompeo later described as a hostile non-state intelligence agency, began releasing internal files on CIA cyber programs. It dubbed the leaks Vault 7.
Neither the CIA nor the NSA has publicly acknowledged making headway on finding those responsible for the thefts of the files and cyber tools from their respective agencies.
McClatchy’s Emily Cadei contributed to this report.