I have a great deal of respect for Gina Haspel, Comrade Trump’s controversial nominee to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. I respect the fact that she’s done field work — and by ‘field work’ I mean the serious, no shit, secret, risky work of actual spy tradecraft — and she’s done it in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. We don’t know exactly what she’s done, of course, but she apparently did it well enough to rise through the ranks to become a big hat in the clandestine service. That’s a tough gig, by any measure.
But now she’s being touted to run the entire CIA, and that’s a whole nother gig entirely. So it’s necessary to remember this: good operatives don’t necessarily make good administrators. Being good in the field — any field — requires more than a skill set; it requires a very different attitude toward the work. People who do dangerous work and do it well generally share a belief that they can bend or break the rules, whatever those rules are. They believe they can do stuff ordinary folks can’t or won’t — and they’re usually right. The ones who aren’t right don’t last. That’s true of spies, of soldiers, of firefighters, of just about any gig that involves taking calculated risks.
Here’s an example. In 1998 a Marine aviator was contour flying in an EA-6B Prowler out of the Aviano air base in the Italian Alps. He was flying at 550 mph at a height of around 260 feet through the mountains and valleys when his wing clipped the cable supporting an aerial tramway for tourists. The cable snapped and a gondola carrying twenty people fell. All of them died.
The pilot and copilot were both charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, and eventually the pilot served a prison sentence. But — and this is a horribly ugly truth — that pilot was displaying exactly the sort of attitude you want in a combat aviator. You want combat pilots who are confident enough and skilled enough to be aggressive risk-takers. Well, you want pilots who are successful aggressive risk-takers. Again, the ones who aren’t successful don’t last.
That’s the thing. People who are good in the field aren’t necessarily good citizens. They’re not necessarily good people. The very qualities that make a person effective in the field generally disqualify them from running things. Gina Haspel has lasted for thirty years, most of which was in the clandestine service. That’s a testament to her skill as a spy and her willingness to do whatever she needed to do to get the job done. Every intelligence agency in the world relies on people like Gina Haspel.
And that’s exactly why she should NOT be the DCIA. She’s been the sort of agent who personifies the reasons field agents need oversight. Somebody has to be around to keep a collar on these folks, because they are all about getting results. I’m not surprised Gina Haspel ran a black site at which torture took place. I’m not surprised she destroyed video recordings of those torture sessions. I’m certainly not surprised that she claimed the torture produced actionable intelligence, or that she refused to categorically state torture was immoral. Nor am I surprised that she told Senators she wouldn’t resume the practice of ‘enhanced interrogation’.
You don’t last thirty years in the CIA without the ability to lie convincingly.