National security officials and some Republicans are preparing contingency plans in case President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, falters amid questions about her past role in the George W. Bush-era extreme interrogation program and destruction of videotapes of waterboarding, five sources familiar with the matter tell CNN.
The drama surrounding Haspel's nomination escalated Friday when she offered to withdraw her nomination, according to several sources familiar with the matter. She backed down after Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director, and press secretary Sarah Sanders later talked to her, two of the sources said. The tension eventually seemed to ease and, as of now her nomination stands, the sources said. The Washington Post first reported her offer to withdraw.
Trump nominated Haspel to become the first woman to lead the CIA in March and the pick has been controversial from the start. According to one White House official, there has always been some level of concern that Haspel was in trouble, based on her past work for the agency and the public controversy it's inspired. However, that official said they still believe she will be confirmed.
Trump sought to whip up support in a Monday tweet for Haspel ahead of this week's confirmation hearing, calling her "highly respected" and said she had "come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists."
Haspel's 33-year CIA career is controversial for several reasons. She oversaw a CIA black site in Thailand in 2002 where harsh interrogations were conducted, although she was not at the site when al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times. She was also chief of staff to the director of the National Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez, in 2005 when the CIA tapes of interrogations were destroyed. Rodriguez wrote in his memoir that he asked Haspel to prepare a cable granting permission to destroy the tapes, though he made the decision.
National security officials say they still believe she can survive a Senate confirmation hearing -- but some say there contingency plans if she doesn't.
"The reason you're seeing contingency planning isn't a lack of confidence in Gina, but because they're seeing the Democrats band together ... they're worried they're not going to have the votes," said one former national security source familiar with conversations on Capitol Hill.
Many believe Haspel's confirmation will depend on Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia along with GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul switched at the last minute this month and voted for Mike Pompeo to become Secretary of State, but it's unclear whether he will do the same for Haspel. Collins, Manchin and Warner haven't formally said how they'd vote on Haspel.
One of the contingency plans being discussed involves preparing Susan Gordon, the deputy director of national intelligence, to potentially take Haspel's place in case Republican senators or Trump balk, two intelligence sources familiar with the matter said. Two additional sources who spoke with Republican strategists and lawmakers were also aware of general contingency planning. It's unclear how formal these conversations are, but two of the sources said Gordon was in varying stages of being prepared.
"Director Coats and PPDNI Sue Gordon believe that Gina is a great choice for CIA director and are fully supportive of her nomination. Both believe she is the right leader at the right time," Brian Hale, spokesperson for ODNI told CNN, not directly commenting on whether or not Gordon's name had surfaced as a potential replacement
Dean Boyd, a CIA spokesman, told CNN the agency had "no comment on this speculation."
When asked for comment, the White House referred CNN to a statement put out on Sunday by Principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah: "Acting Director Haspel is a highly qualified nominee who has dedicated over three decades of service to her country. Her nomination will not be derailed by partisan critics who side with the ACLU over the CIA on how to keep the American people safe."
Gordon herself has heavily praised Haspel, and would have no personal interest in usurping her. She has called her a dear friend on multiple occasions. "She is so solid, so true, and so not breathless that she will be an amazing leader of the CIA," Gordon said in April at a national security conference in Sea Island, Georgia.
Another intelligence source insisted that talk of Gordon replacing Haspel, despite Gordon's many years of service in the CIA and the agency's love for her, was simply gossip.
"This is stupid political game-playing and it's crazy to think they are doing it with a national security nomination," a US intelligence official said. "I can tell you there are two people who will not play these games: Haspel and Gordon."
Gordon, a former three-time captain of the Duke women's basketball team, shares a close connection with Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
She is well liked across party lines, and, like Haspel, spent multiple decades working her way up through the CIA ranks. She started off analyzing Soviet weapon systems and satellites, later developing advanced leadership and operational skills in cyber operations and science and technology. She was the brains behind In-Q-Tel, an investment arm of the CIA to support innovative technology for the intelligence community. She was second in command at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, who analyze and map the globe using radar, sensors, satellites, and more. Now, she plays a big role in uniting the intelligence community as a whole, including helping to manage the budget for all spies.
For her part, Haspel will continue to prepare aggressively for her confirmation hearing slated for Wednesday, with meetings and "murder board" sessions scheduled down to the wire.
Key stakeholders, including the CIA, the White House, lawmakers, civil liberties groups, and the rest of the intelligence community are working both in public and behind the scenes to get a better sense of where Haspel stands.
When news outlets started raising questions about why the White House wasn't getting behind Haspel the same way they did for Pompeo, the White House issued three press releases and held an on the record call to support Haspel, one national security source told CNN.
Even so, Trump has been relatively silent about Haspel in recent weeks, beyond saying the agency would be happy with "Our Gina" at Pompeo's swearing in ceremony at the State Department.
The CIA has been pursuing an aggressive public relations campaign, tweeting regularly about Haspel and her upbringing in Kentucky and the many accolades she's received from former and current colleagues-declassifying pieces of her record bit by bit, including information about her meeting with Mother Teresa.
Critics have accused the agency of being too involved in the nomination, and opting for selective declassification, revealing only flattering details about her career. But failing to publish any details will lead to accusations of withholding, putting the public affairs shop in a tough position. Within the agency, there's a strict prohibition on employees talking about the appointment, two sources familiar with the orders told CNN.
Regardless, two congressional staffers told CNN, Haspel could stay on as acting director of the CIA if she doesn't get the votes. It's unclear how Trump would proceed if that were the case.