Out of the shadows: CIA pick Gina Haspel

Nominee to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Gina Haspel arrives for meetings with Senators on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 7, 2018.

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The CIA wants you to know that Ms Gina Haspel helped Mother Teresa when the famous missionary sought US help to find food for starving people in the 1980s.

What they would prefer you didn't is that in 2002, Ms Haspel was in Thailand overseeing the brutal interrogation of a top Al-Qaeda suspect, which involved waterboarding and other techniques branded torture.

Between those two facts, not much is known about the life of Ms Haspel, 61, who spent nearly all of a 33-year Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) career deep in the shadows.

She now faces intense public scrutiny as President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the spy agency.

If confirmed, she will be the CIA's first-ever female director, responsible for keeping Mr Trump briefed on the world's danger spots and for murky espionage and paramilitary operations around the world.

After a lifetime spent in the clandestine service, almost nothing was known about Ms Haspel, even what she looked like, until a sketchy official biography and a few photographs were released last month.

The photographs, showing a slender-built, middle-aged woman distinguished by a mane of thick auburn hair and simple glasses, are far from the action-movie stereotype of the covert agent.

The CIA said she is the daughter of a former member of the US Air Force, and was raised on military bases.

The oldest of five children, she graduated from high school in England and then from the University of Louisville, where she studied journalism and languages - Spanish and French.

She joined the CIA in 1985.

"I wanted to be part of something bigger than just me," she said, according to her official biography.

"I wanted an overseas adventure where I could put my love of foreign languages to use. CIA delivered."

Her first position was in Africa as a case officer, an assignment she says "was right out of a spy novel. It really didn't get any better than that."

Learning Russian and Turkish, in the 1990s she worked in Russia and Eastern Europe, and was CIA station chief in a country reported as Azerbaijan.

She earned an agency award for leading an operation to capture two wanted terrorists. No details were given, but the timing points to the case of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

From there, she moved into the agency's Counter-terrorism Centre. Her first day on the job was Sept 11, 2001, when Al-Qaeda operatives hijacked and crashed four US airliners, leaving almost 3,000 dead.

It was that period, from 2001 to 2005, that has cast a shadow both on the CIA and Ms Haspel's resume.

The agency seized suspected terrorists around the world, held them at "black sites" in foreign countries, and put them through rough interrogations, often using torture methods.

Former CIA officials say Ms Haspel oversaw the secret prison in Bangkok, where Al-Qaeda suspects Abu Zubayadah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri were water-boarded.

Ms Haspel "personally supervised the torture of a CIA detainee in 2002, leading to at least three waterboard sessions", according to the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

She is praised by some for following orders; others criticise her for not refusing to do so. Her own views of torture remain unclear.

"To promote someone so heavily involved in the torture programme to the top position at the CIA, the agency responsible for one of the darkest chapters in our history, is a move that I'm very wary of," said Senator Diane Feinstein, a Democrat.

After that dark period, Ms Haspel ran CIA Europe operations from London in 2008, and became deputy director of global clandestine operations in 2012.

But when she was tipped to be director of the clandestine service in 2013, lawmakers objected based on her ties to the torture programme, according to The New York Times.

Instead, she did another stint in Europe, and then was named last year by then CIA chief Mike Pompeo to serve as the agency's deputy director.

Though described as "soft spoke" and "gentle", her career leaves few doubts as to a streak of toughness.

But the CIA has chosen to focus on lighter traits, like the fact that she is a fan of the University of Kentucky basketball team and of the late country singer Johnny Cash.

"Her office has a number of mementos from her time overseas - along with a five-foot-tall poster of Johnny Cash as a symbol of American individualism," the agency divulged.

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