WASHINGTON - The woman tapped to be the United States' first female spymaster is proving to be a lightning rod, earning praise from many from across the intelligence community and suspicion from lawmakers and others who question her role in the use of tactics that some say amounted to torture.
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his choice of Gina Haspel to run the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency on Tuesday, taking over for outgoing CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has been nominated to lead the State Department.
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
"She's an outstanding person who I've gotten to know very well," Trump later told reporters outside the White House, as he prepared for a trip to California.
Haspel, who until now has been serving as the CIA's deputy director, is a 30-year veteran of the agency with extensive experience, both as a CIA station chief, in places like London, as well as with the agency's clandestine services.
"I am grateful to President Trump for the opportunity, and humbled by his confidence in me," Haspel said in a statement released Tuesday by the White House. "If confirmed, I look forward to providing President Trump the outstanding intelligence support he has grown to expect."?
'?Exemplary intelligence officer'?
Pompeo lavished Haspel with praise when he selected her as his number two at the agency.
"Gina is an exemplary intelligence officer," Pompeo said at the time. "She is also a proven leader with an uncanny ability to get things done and to inspire those around her."
Haspel's nomination to head the CIA was further bolstered late Wednesday, when U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued a statement calling her a "strong choice."
Current and former officials have also been quick to praise Haspel some saying she will be an improvement over Pompeo, who while respected, was viewed as too political.
"The CIA will be better off now with an intelligence professional as its director," according to Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer now with Georgetown University.
Other former officials say Haspel is a perfect choice as both the spy agency and the Trump administration weather the tumult created by the sudden changes.
"If you want to end the turbulence as quickly as possible, you elevate a beloved and respected deputy, experienced in the agency," former CIA Director General Michael Hayden told The Cipher Brief, a website focused on intelligence and security issues. "I think the CIA is going to be pretty calm about this."
Former colleagues also point to her experience both with Russia during the end of the Cold War, and with the agency's counterterrorism efforts following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Some key lawmakers have also come out in favor of Haspel's nomination.
"I know Gina personally," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said in a statement. "I'm proud of her work."
"She has the right skill set, experience, and judgment to lead one of our nation's most critical agencies," Burr said.
CIA 'black sites' and torture
Yet others have been far more critical, pointing specifically to her time running a CIA prison in Thailand, one of several so-called "black sites" which held and interrogated terror suspects, subjecting them at times to harsh interrogation techniques.
There has also been criticism of Haspel's alleged involvement in the destruction of video evidence documenting some of the interrogations.
"The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain said in a statement Tuesday.
"Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA's interrogation program during the confirmation process," said McCain, a Republican who himself was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "Current U.S. law is clear in banning enhanced interrogation techniques. Any nominee for director of the CIA must pledge without reservation to uphold this prohibition."
Democrat Senator Ron Wyden, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, went even further.
"Ms. Haspel's background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director," Wyden said in a statement. "Her nomination must include total transparency about this background, which I called for more than a year ago when she was appointed deputy director."
Already, there has been an outcry from human rights groups.
"No one who had a hand in torturing individuals deserve to ever hold public office again, let alone lead an agency," said Raha Wala with Human Rights First. "To allow someone who had a direct hand in this illegal, immoral and counterproductive program is to willingly forget our nation's dark history with torture."
At least one group, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, has even sought Haspel's arrest, providing German prosecutors with a brief that alleges she oversaw the daily torture of two detainees and, as the official in charge, had the authority to end it.
"She alone had the responsibility to end this torture but failed to do so," the ECCHR General Secretary Wolfgang Kaleck argued in June 2017. "The next step would be the issuance of an arrest warrant for her."
There are also questions about what Haspel's reputation for being tough on terrorism will mean if she is confirmed.
"Under the Trump administration, we're seeing an uptick in CIA-led missions and operations," said Rachel Stohl, managing director of the Stimson Center and director of its Conventional Defense Program.
"There has been an increase of utilization of CIA for drone strikes," Stohl said. "Given Gina Haspel's background and her operational expertise and experience, we will probably see that trend continue."