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CIA director nominee Gina Haspel gets sudden full-court media press from WH

Morell on "Intelligence Matters" podcast

Exactly a week before President Trump's nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, appears for her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the White House on Wednesday engaged in sudden bout of advocacy, issuing a flurry of testimonials and holding a press briefing in support of her candidacy.

Little more was revealed than had already been disclosed about Haspel – who spent most of her 33-year career in the CIA's clandestine service. The administration did acknowledge that she faces a "close vote" in the Senate, and that it considers one of her greatest professional assets to be that she worked well and closely with her former boss, newly confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

"Unfortunately, in this environment, we expect that every vote is close with a more or less 50-49 margin with [Sen. John] McCain's absence," said White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short in an afternoon press call with reporters. "At the end of the day, it will be a close vote."

Earlier on Wednesday, at ceremonial swearing-in at the State Department, Pompeo and Mr. Trump exchanged mutually effusive remarks about the work that each had done and the numerous opportunities for success the administration and the State Department saw ahead.

The president also used the occasion to offer a glancing endorsement of Haspel. "For the last 15 months, Mike … served our nation as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency where, I can tell you, they have such respect for him. It's unbelievable," Mr. Trump said. Adding that CIA employees "may be the only people that are not very happy right now," the president said, "They'll be happy with our Gina, who's here today."

In its releases and during the press briefing, the White House cited the favorable appraisals of former CIA heads including John Brennan, Michael Hayden, Michael Morell and James Clapper – some of whom had served Democrat presidents, all of whom have been critical of Mr. Trump, and two of whom -- Clapper and Brennan -- have been directly accused by the president of leaking classified information. 

Short said the administration was looking beyond one-sided endorsements to ensure it was getting the support of "a broader network of intelligence officials."

Though Haspel enjoys bipartisan support from high-ranking former officials within the intelligence community, endorsements for her candidacy are sparser and less sanguine in Congress. In a "What They Are Saying" press blast Wednesday, the White House highlighted the supportive comments of eight senators, including one Democrat, Bill Nelson, of Florida, who was quoted as saying, "I think the fact that she is a 30 year professional is a good sign."

Until Wednesday, the CIA itself had been waging a similar – if uncommon, given the agency's typically apolitical and unspeaking stance – public campaign to generate support for Haspel, whose involvement with the agency's post-9/11 enhanced interrogation program has generated significant controversy and opposition to her candidacy.

Indeed, on the same day the White House began rolling out its messaging for Haspel, the American Civil Liberties Union held its own press call featuring the former chief investigator for the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dan Jones, who was lead author of the committee's nearly 7,000-page report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program. Jones said senators who have access to the entire report, the majority of which remains classified, have reason to be concerned about Haspel's candidacy. "The more they read it," Jones said, "the more disturbed they are."   

The White House, meanwhile, highlighted portions of a story about Haspel published in The Wall Street Journal, whose headline read, "From Mother Teresa to Counterterrorism." The story described an encounter between Haspel and the later-beatified nun that resulted in a phone call between Mother Teresa and President Reagan, as well as a subsequent invitation for Haspel to visit a local orphanage. Short called the details in the story "an example of declassifying additional documents," adding that the administration would "look to try to declassify" more.

"We are trying to be as cooperative as possible with all inquiries into her background," Short said.

He also noted that the president had had "a couple conversations" with lawmakers and that "probably more of that will happen after her hearing and as we get closer to the actual vote."

Short emphasized the "rave reviews" Haspel won while serving as Pompeo's deputy.  

"There are many concerns at the national security level," Short said. "She would make a great partner with the new secretary of state."

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