Editor's note on March 16: During this report, we say that Gina Haspel ran a black site prison in Thailand where al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded. She did run that site for a time after the Sept. 11 attacks, but as ProPublica has now acknowledged in a retraction of its reporting, she was not there when Zubaydah was waterboarded.
President Trump has nominated Gina Haspel, a 33-year veteran of the CIA, to lead the agency. Before she can begin that role, she must first be approved by the Senate.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
President Trump's firing of his secretary of state has set off some dominoes in the administration. He's nominated Mike Pompeo, currently the director of the CIA, to step in at State, which means Trump needs a new CIA chief. And for that, he's tapped Gina Haspel. Gina Haspel is currently the deputy director of the CIA. If the Senate confirms her, she would be the first woman to take the agency's top job.
Our colleague Mary Louise Kelly has done some reporting about her, and so I have her on the line with me from Russia, where she's on a reporting trip. Hello, Mary Louise.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah, greetings from Moscow.
MCCAMMON: So tell us more about Gina Haspel.
KELLY: Well, the main thing to know about Gina Haspel is she is a spy's spy. She spent three-plus decades on the clandestine side of operations for the CIA, multiple tours as chief of station. We know that she's in her early 60s. And beyond that, there's a lot we don't know. She has almost no public profile. This is a woman who only had her cover lifted last year to take on that No. 2 job at the agency. She was undercover the entire time under that.
She does not give interviews. I know because I have asked repeatedly for one. So it will be interesting if she is confirmed to see - I mean, she's not a political player in Washington. And that becomes relevant in terms of how much influence she would exert outside the CIA. You know, will she have pull with the White House the way that her predecessor, Mike Pompeo, has?
MCCAMMON: Well, Mary Louise, one thing we do know from your reporting - I understand she had some involvement in a pretty dark chapter of the CIA's history. What can you tell us about that?
KELLY: Yes. I mean, you're referring to the CIA's interrogation and detention program that was set up after 9/11. And Gina Haspel - she helped lead it. She ran the black site prison in Thailand where al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded. He was waterboarded 83 times. That is obviously controversial in and of itself. And then there's this layer of controversy because those sessions were videotaped. The waterboarding was videotaped. And those tapes were destroyed in 2005. And the person who wrote the cable ordering that those tapes be destroyed was Gina Haspel.
This has raised huge questions among Senate and House Intelligence Committee members. I have interviewed a bunch of people who raised those questions, also people who defend Haspel, say she was following orders - lawful orders from her boss, from CIA lawyers. One of her key defenders is John Bennett, who was the former head of the CIA Clandestine Service. And he gave me his first on-the-record interview to defend Haspel and her actions. Here's a taste of what he told me.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JOHN BENNETT: I don't know anybody who joins CIA to run an interrogation program. But in the aftermath of 9/11, Gina Haspel and other colleagues stepped up to do what is frankly a dirty job because they were repeatedly assured that it was not only legal but necessary for the safety of the country. And they did it, and Gina did it because they felt it was their duty.
KELLY: So John Bennett speaking there last year when Gina Haspel was up for deputy director of the CIA. But that is a view that you will hear from a lot of CIA veterans defending her as saying she was doing her job.
MCCAMMON: Mary Louise, as you know, director of the CIA is a position that requires Senate confirmation. What are the odds that Gina Haspel will be confirmed?
KELLY: Oh, well, it's going to be one heck of a confirmation hearing because Gina Haspel has never been publicly questioned about any of this. The deputy director job doesn't need Senate confirmation, so we never heard her questioned publicly about this.
MCCAMMON: And what about inside the agency? Would she be a popular choice for CIA director?
KELLY: Oh, they will be cheering inside the agency. This is one of their own, somebody who knows the espionage business inside out. And that was the resounding chorus you heard when she was nominated for the No. 2 job - was, this is someone who will get the CIA back to their core business of spying and who knows how to do that.
MCCAMMON: That's our colleague Mary Louise Kelly speaking to us from Russia. Thank you.
KELLY: You're very welcome. Thanks, Sarah.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this report,we say that Gina Haspel ran a black site prison in Thailand where al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded. She did run that site for a time after the Sept. 11 attacks, but as ProPublica has now acknowledged in a retraction of its reporting, she was not there when Zubaydah was waterboarded.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.