Anyone who hurls the term “deep state” as offhandedly as President Donald Trump has might have a hard time convincing people that Gina Haspel, his insider nominee for CIA director, does not belong to it.
From Trump, who rarely if ever defines his terms, the phrase seems to crop up only when the goal is to rally opinion against someone in the executive branch he perceives to be a problem.
His use of the term is similar to his manipulation of the word “swamp,” which refers to a Washington where people aren’t on his side, or of the phrase “fake news,” which means a story that does not flatter him.
One example: In a Twitter rant against Hillary Clinton early this year, Trump fumed, “Jail! Deep State Justice Dept must finally act?”
A plausible translation is that the department’s independence threatens him as it pokes around Russia’s role in his business dealings and campaign. Thus, the conspiratorial-sounding deep-state label.
Before he took office, the now-famous Christopher Steele dossier was leaked. The president-to-be blamed intelligence agencies and called it “one last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
His relations with the CIA were clearly strained from the start, which makes the Haspel nomination especially interesting.
She was involved after 9/11 in the use of “enhanced interrogation,” a euphemism for torture.
While campaigning, Trump expressed support for using tactics worse than waterboarding. Facing confirmation, though, Haspel said, “I don’t believe that torture works.”
But Haspel also said in written testimony: “In my view, a view shared by all nine former directors and acting directors, the CIA was able to collect valuable intelligence that contributed to the prevention of further terrorist attacks.”
To call her a “deep stater” sounds pejorative. But it is sometimes used as shorthand for a rational perception: that big players in agencies and the military can shape, mold and control a president’s choices, for better or worse.
Ideally, this is for the better if those players are supplying expertise and analysis in good faith. It is for the worse if they are bucking the interests of the electorate.
Some just call it bureaucratic politics.
How does Haspel, 61, fit in? Unlike her predecessor, Mike Pompeo, now secretary of state, who came out of Congress, she would become the first career CIA officer to rise to director since William Colby, who stepped down from the post in 1976. She’d also be the first female director.
Shortly after Trump’s election, it was reported that the CIA had concluded that Russia intervened in the election to help him. He said: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
In fact, Trump’s current national security adviser, John Bolton, was openly promoting that erroneous claim while in the Bush administration.
And Trump seems now to view esteem in the ranks of the CIA as a good thing, tweeting this week: “The CIA wants her to lead them into America’s bright and glorious future!”
Between 2001 and 2003, Haspel was listed as “deputy group chief, counterrorism center.” During that period, she oversaw a secret CIA prison in Thailand where “enhanced interrogation” took place.
Only if she somehow frustrates a Trump fiat is he likely to call her a “deep stater” — a status that remains subject to debate and in the eye of the beholder.