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The nominee to replace Mike Pompeo is his deputy, Gina Haspel. She worked undercover for three decades in some of the CIA's most challenging jobs, but critics are focused on her role in the CIA's waterboarding campaign. In response, the CIA is waging a rare public relations campaign ahead of what's looking like a tough Senate confirmation hearing. Here's NPR's Greg Myre.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Gina Haspel has a 5-foot-tall poster of Johnny Cash in her office. She's a college basketball fan. She majored in journalism. All these tidbits come from the CIA as it provides a personal portrait of Haspel. The aim is to counter critics, including key senators, who question whether her links to waterboarding should disqualify her from the top job.
MICHAEL VICKERS: She is a consummate professional. She's been doing this for 30 years in a lot of tough assignments.
MYRE: Michael Vickers is a former CIA officer and Pentagon official. In the early 1980s, he was an Army Green Beret when he met Haspel. She was just out of college and working at the library on a military base.
VICKERS: As I was checking out some field manuals to study, we had a conversation about, you know, her background. And I was interested in going into the CIA down the road, and I suggested it. And lo and behold, that's what she did.
MYRE: Fast forward 30 years, and they work together in senior national security positions - Haspel at CIA, Vickers at the Pentagon. Haspel, the first woman nominated to lead the CIA, has a mostly blank public record due to her clandestine career. One period getting intense scrutiny is her time at a CIA black site prison in Thailand where al-Qaida suspects were waterboarded in 2002. The CIA won't discuss it - classified, they say. But some senators are demanding to know more in advance of her confirmation hearing on May 9.
PAUL PILLAR: If I were a senator, of course the torture issue, the enhanced interrogation issue will have to be the focus of those hearings.
MYRE: Paul Pillar spent nearly three decades at the CIA. Would he vote for Haspel?
PILLAR: I think this is one of these cases where the confirmation hearings will be very important, especially with regard to the issue of interrogations. And we should wait to hear what she says.
MYRE: Over the past decade, the government has addressed torture in several ways. President Barack Obama outlawed it by executive order. Congress passed a law banning it. The Army Field Manual, which lists permissible forms of interrogation, does not include waterboarding. Yet CIA critic John Prados of the National Security Archive, which advocates for open government, says there needs to be a public reckoning.
JOHN PRADOS: If this is handled on the basis of the CIA trying to evade the issue by claiming the torture didn't happen, it didn't exist, then it will just make things worse.
MYRE: For now, the CIA is focused on promoting Haspel's story. Her father was Air Force. She grew up on military bases abroad, high school in Britain, graduated from the University of Louisville. At the CIA, her first foreign assignment was in Africa. Haspel described her work as right out of a spy novel; it really didn't get any better than that.
MARY MARGARET GRAHAM: She's out there to recruit spies to steal secrets on behalf of the United States. She did that job well.
MYRE: Mary Margaret Graham was a longtime colleague. She's now retired from the CIA. As Haspel rose through the ranks, she asked to be posted to the agency's counterterrorism center. Her first day on that job - September 11, 2001. Four years later, amid controversy surrounding the treatment of prisoners, Haspel wrote a cable. It called for the destruction of videotapes that showed al-Qaida suspects being waterboarded. The tapes were destroyed, and some in Congress were furious. An internal CIA review later cleared Haspel of any wrongdoing. Now her biggest challenge is winning over skeptics in the Senate. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.
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