National Security Confirmations: Politics Beyond the Water’s Edge
Katina Slavkova | April 4, 2018
March 2018 marked a curious milestone for national security that may portend some unexpected clashes ahead for President Trump and congressional overseers. New personnel selections have dredged up divisive political memories; while the choice of Mr. Bolton (for National Security Advisor) may draw more commentary, Gina Haspel (for CIA Director) will draw the oversight that comes with Senate confirmation, the norms of which have shifted over time to today’s challenging environment.
A major (and long hinted-at) personnel shake-up, involving the Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Council (NSC), occurred over the space of a week. Yet it’s the replacements, not the unusual turnover, that have garnered the most attention. Mr. Bolton’s and Ms. Haspel’s selections have reopened political wounds from President George W. Bush’s time in office, particularly the CIA’s controversial detention and interrogation program and the Iraq war with its attendant accusations of politicized intelligence.
Of the two, legislators may be grateful that Mr. Bolton’s appointment does not require Senate confirmation. Mr. Bolton, the former UN Ambassador, has a more publicly divisive past. His contentious 2005 confirmation included a seven-hour hearing ordeal; he was only able to take the post through a recess appointment.
Ms. Haspel’s nomination for CIA Director does require Senate confirmation, which promises to be dramatic due to her role in some controversial policies of the Bush 43 administration. Specifically, her involvement in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program includes revelations that she played some part (if disputed) in the destruction of tapes of brutal interrogation sessions. These issues may very well complicate her record of over 30 years of service to the agency, where she was, by most accounts, a highly respected career intelligence officer.
The norms of Senate confirmations for national security positions, especially senior intelligence posts, have shifted considerably over time. These hearings are no rubber stamp or pro forma session: they have become far more involved, personal, and partisan. This trend appeared in the 1980s and has been exacerbated since, with some variation. Gone are the days when CIA Director nominees were confirmed by voice vote and without a formal hearing, as was President Truman’s nominee, Admiral Hillenkoetter.
More recent history has seen some choppy waters for confirming other nominees with ties to the CIA’s interrogation program. In 2007, John Rizzo, the former acting CIA general counsel, withdrew his nomination to be the Agency’s top lawyer (formally, not as acting) over objections to his role in interrogations and despite a 32-year distinguished career. John Brennan’s path to CIA Director succeeded in 2013 only after he was passed over in 2008. A New York Times editorial at the time reluctantly endorsed Brennan. But today’s political atmosphere appears, if anything, even more contentious on these issues than in 2013, both for the Times and for the general public.
Ms. Haspel’s confirmation will likely require a lot of advance meetings to assuage concerns of members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), which is responsible for reporting her nomination, with their recommendations, to the full Senate for a vote. Signaling political difficulties, the SSCI has not announced a date for her hearing. By contrast, Mr. Pompeo’s nomination timeline for Secretary of State was declared almost immediately by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The current political climate creates additional minefields for her confirmation. Most Members of Congress are not eager to revisit Bush-era controversies, particularly in an election year. The tumultuous intelligence oversight process that unfolded last year only adds to the sensitivities. There are a few individual Senators to watch, as well. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) released a strongly critical report of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program in 2014 when she chaired the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, and is currently facing a tough reelection with pressure from the left. Her initial comments on Ms. Haspel have already given way to more critical ones. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is already vocal in his opposition; in a Senate with only 51 Republicans his position could sink her nomination.
For the spy who came in from the cold, her Senate confirmation hearing might prove to be her most treacherous assignment yet.