Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel is a rarity in the Trump administration’s national security apparatus: a career professional who has beaten the odds and survived repeated personnel purges. The president is on his fourth director of national intelligence and sixth national security adviser, including all the “acting” officials to hold those positions. But while he traffics in conspiracy theories about the so-called deep state and often says the U.S. intelligence community is out to get him, Trump has never fired a CIA director.
Still, Haspel’s hold on her job now appears tenuous. Until recently, in fact, several current and former government officials suggested that Trump was likely to fire her sometime before the election, adding that Haspel privately shared those fears. Earlier this summer, Haspel confided to a former colleague that she wouldn’t be surprised if Trump replaced her by September, according to the person who spoke with her.
Haspel has apparently angered Trump by being unwilling to publicly dispute reports about intelligence and national security matters that have made him look bad, including refusing to deny reports that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, the current and former officials said. She has also upset the president by failing to publicly discredit intelligence reports showing that Russia has interfered in the U.S. electoral system to help him win reelection in 2020, a repeat of Moscow’s 2016 intervention.
Haspel has no significant support among Democrats either, because of her involvement in the CIA’s torture program during the George W. Bush administration. Sen. Kamala Harris was one of her biggest critics during her 2018 confirmation hearings, and if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Harris, now his vice presidential running mate, win the election, Haspel will certainly be out.
As a result, Haspel is a CIA director without any base of political support, and she must walk a tightrope every day.
Haspel, 63, has led the CIA since May 2018, a century in Trump time. But her inability to sufficiently placate the president fueled discussions at the White House as recently as mid-July about whether Trump should replace Haspel or FBI Director Christopher Wray, according to a former intelligence official familiar with the matter.
Despite the questions swirling in the national security community about her status, Haspel now appears likely to remain in her job at least until the November election. One former senior intelligence official said that may be thanks to the intervention of key Republican senators, who, apparently worried that the president was about to fire both Haspel and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, have urged Trump not to oust either one before the election. Esper angered Trump in June by resisting the deployment of the military across the country during racial justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police.
The senators advised Trump that getting rid of two top officials in such sensitive posts so close to the election would damage him politically, noting that the Senate would be unlikely to confirm replacements before November, said the former senior intelligence official, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss confidential conversations.
“Haspel was anxious [that she was about to lose her job] for like two months,” the former official said. “Now she thinks she has dodged the bullet, but she is still laying low. I think she is probably in there until the election.”
The president is, of course, volatile and unpredictable when it comes to personnel matters. “With Trump, you never know, he could change his mind again,” the former senior official said.
Wray, for example, was once again in the hot seat last week, when Trump publicly criticized him for failing to be sufficiently cooperative with federal prosecutor John Durham’s inquiry into the FBI’s investigation of alleged Russian involvement in Trump’s 2016 campaign. And last weekend, Trump publicly mocked Esper in response to reports that he plans to fire him after the election, adding that he “considers firing everybody.”
“[Haspel] thinks she has dodged the bullet, but she is still laying low.”
If Trump wins in November, Haspel, like Esper, is likely to be removed, the current and former officials said. Once she is gone, Trump will be free to place a partisan loyalist in charge of the CIA.
“There’s so much wrong with this story, I don’t even know where to begin,” said Nicole de Haay, a CIA spokesperson, who declined further comment. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump has already elevated a political supporter to be director of national intelligence, installing John Ratcliffe, a former Republican congressman from Texas. The president initially tried to give Ratcliffe the DNI job last year but backed off because even some Senate Republicans thought Ratcliffe — who misrepresented his role in an anti-terrorism case that he cited among his credentials — lacked experience and would politicize intelligence. In February, Trump tried again, and the Senate finally gave in and confirmed Ratcliffe in May by a vote of 49 to 44, the narrowest margin in a confirmation vote for any DNI since the post was created.
Haspel is only the Trump administration’s second CIA director; the first, Mike Pompeo, was promoted to secretary of state.
At first, she seemed like the perfect choice to lead the agency under Trump. Before he tapped her for the job, she was best known for her connections to the CIA’s torture regime, when she briefly oversaw a secret CIA prison in Thailand. During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly expressed support for the use of torture against terrorism suspects, and after he won, there was widespread concern that he planned to revive the long-shuttered CIA torture program. While he stopped short of that, his decision to name Haspel deputy CIA director in 2017 was seen as a rebuke to Democrats and human rights advocates who had opposed the use of torture.
When Pompeo was named secretary of state in 2018, Trump’s nomination of Haspel to succeed him stirred such an outcry that she considered withdrawing until White House officials persuaded her to stick with the confirmation process. Her nomination ultimately made it through the Republican-controlled Senate, but she had to endure an intense grilling from Harris, which helped raise Harris’s national profile and establish her as one of the most effective interrogators of Trump administration officials in Congress.
Throughout her tenure, Haspel has faced conflicting objectives: convincing Trump that she is a team player, while at the same time trying to insulate the CIA from the potential for excessive politicization.
Interviews with several former CIA officials reveal that Haspel has relied on Pompeo — one of the only people in the national security arena who has the president’s trust — to help her try to ingratiate herself with Trump and stay out of his erratic line of fire.
“Pompeo taught Gina how to interact with Trump. He taught her how not to antagonize the president, how not to ruffle Trump’s feathers.”
“Pompeo taught Gina how to interact with Trump,” said Douglas London, a former senior CIA officer who retired last year. “He taught her how not to antagonize the president, how not to ruffle Trump’s feathers. Gina adopted Pompeo’s style of messaging to the White House, which focuses on not upsetting the president and making this better for the CIA, rather than worse. That has become her litmus test in dealing with the president.”
Early in Haspel’s tenure as director, Pompeo introduced her to Sean Hannity, the Fox News pundit and ardent Trump supporter, according to a former Trump White House official and a current White House adviser. Hannity has been viewed by Trump administration officials as something of a shadow chief of staff to the president: in frequent contact with him and host of a nightly show that serves as a feedback loop for Trump and Republican talking points. A spokesperson for Hannity confirmed that he and Haspel met, but described it as a chance encounter.
But Haspel’s efforts to appease Trump while shielding the CIA have come at a high cost. Critics say that the agency, like the rest of the U.S. intelligence community, has become increasingly risk-averse and reluctant to disseminate intelligence that might be viewed as politically dangerous and likely to anger Trump and the White House.
Despite Trump’s public hectoring, the CIA has continued to collect useful intelligence about Russia’s efforts to intervene in the 2020 election, according to the former senior intelligence official. But the political danger begins once those findings are shared with the White House and the rest of the Trump administration.
“Nobody has been told to stand down,” said a former senior intelligence official, referring to CIA officers in the field working on sensitive targets like Russia. “But nobody is really all that eager to go up the chain of command with it.”
Haspel’s efforts to appease Trump while shielding the CIA have come at a high cost.
The CIA’s caution and bureaucratic inertia under Haspel’s leadership have at times irritated other officials in the intelligence community. Last year, a senior intelligence official in the Defense Department expressed frustration that the CIA had not acted on several proposals from the Pentagon, according to another former senior intelligence official who discussed the matter with him.
The Covid-19 pandemic has added another layer of complexity for the CIA. At headquarters, CIA personnel have altered their work schedules to reduce the spread of the virus, while the agency’s strict procedures for dealing with classified information make it difficult for CIA employees to work from home.
In some cases, the agency’s intelligence work overseas has also been disrupted. One active-duty intelligence officer recently told a former colleague that he had returned from his overseas assignment because of the pandemic.
Despite Haspel’s attempts to placate Trump, she has nonetheless angered him because she has been unwilling to cross certain lines. She has sought to maintain her credibility inside the CIA by largely avoiding public statements that actively support Trump’s lies.
One glaring example has been Haspel’s handling of the fallout from the June 26 New York Times story disclosing that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. Facing intense criticism for having failed to do anything to protect American troops, Trump falsely claimed both that he was never briefed on the matter and that the story was “fake news” and a “hoax.”
Senior U.S. intelligence officials were soon under pressure to support Trump’s falsehoods, while congressional Democrats demanded classified briefings to force those same officials to tell them the truth.
There was a subtle but noticeable difference between the way Haspel and Ratcliffe, the pro-Trump DNI, handled these competing demands.
Within days of the Russian bounties story, Ratcliffe reportedly arranged for a memo to be generated by the National Intelligence Council, which reports to him. The memo, which claimed that the intelligence about the bounties wasn’t conclusive, was not made public but still seemed designed to placate Trump by raising doubts about the story.
Haspel, by contrast, issued a vague statement in late June that complained about leaks of classified information but did not deny the bounty story. “Hostile states’ use of proxies in war zones to inflict damage on U.S. interests and troops is a constant, longstanding concern,” Haspel said in the statement. “CIA will continue to pursue every lead; analyze the information we collect with critical, objective eyes; and brief reliable intelligence to protect U.S. forces deployed around the world.” Meanwhile, Haspel privately confirmed that the intelligence was shared with the White House, according to a person who spoke with her about the bounties.
Haspel’s refusal to raise doubts about the Russian bounty story may have angered Trump, but the current and former officials say her public statement represented a search for some elusive middle ground. “She would have a lot of unhappy people in her building if she said that was a hoax,” a former senior intelligence official said.
In recent weeks, U.S. intelligence officials have also given a series of classified briefings to Congress about Russian election meddling that have angered congressional Democrats with their vagueness and for failing to emphasize that Russia is interfering with the specific aim of helping Trump win.
Democratic congressional leaders have also been frustrated that top intelligence officials, including Haspel, have said little in public to raise the alarm about threats to the upcoming election from Russia and other adversaries. During a classified briefing on July 31, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats accused William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, of failing to adequately warn the American public, Politico reported.
Under pressure, Evanina responded on August 7 with a public statement about foreign election interference that once again appeared to downplay evidence that Russia is trying to help Trump win. The statement also repeated anti-Biden disinformation from pro-Russian figures in Ukraine without making it clear that the information was false or that the disinformation campaign had its roots in the Trump camp.
Evanina’s statement further sought to muddy the waters by adding passages devoted to election meddling by China and Iran. The statement said that China wants Trump to lose but acknowledged that China’s efforts were “largely rhetorical,” and that Beijing has not engaged in intensive election intervention like Russia. Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff immediately blasted Evanina’s latest statement, saying that it “treats three actors of differing intent and capability as equal threats to our democratic elections.”
For now, Haspel seems to be trying to let Evanina and Ratcliffe take the lead in public statements on Russian election interference. But as the presidential campaign enters its closing days, it will be increasingly difficult for the CIA director to maintain her silence.