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After a year of gripes, Trump's hands now free to reshape CIA and NSA

Tim Johnson, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Fourteen months into his term, President Donald Trump is reshaping America's two largest intelligence agencies, both of them facing internal troubles and a cascade of global threats.

Trump on Tuesday tapped CIA Director Mike Pompeo to become secretary of state, and elevated Pompeo's deputy, Gina Haspel, to become the agency's first-ever female director. Later this spring, the top-secret National Security Agency will also get a new director.

Both agencies have been, at times, vilified by Trump, and faced a series of leaks and disclosures in recent years that have battered morale. Yet for all of Trump's complaints, he has chosen insiders rather than bomb-throwers to take their helms, signaling a muscular -- but not disruptive -- approach to intelligence-gathering.

The transitions come as Trump relies on vital input from both agencies as he faces his biggest foreign challenge: A one-on-one summit, perhaps in May, with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, a saber-rattling nuclear-armed adversary.

In some ways, Trump sent a reassuring message to the CIA with the pick of Haspel, a 32-year veteran of the agency who served twice as station chief in London, a key CIA post. Haspel has played a role in some of the agency's most heavily criticized practices this century and is likely to defend the agency from wholesale change.

But on the issue of Russia, another major challenge for the Trump administration, Haspel's views are known to differ from those of Trump, who has only reluctantly accepted the intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and will meddle again in November's midterm elections.

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"That's the huge schism. And the one thing I do know about her is that she's well aware of Russian espionage and disinformation and propaganda. ... She knows the real story," said John Sipher, who retired from the CIA in 2014 after a 28-year career.

How Trump may seek to change the CIA and NSA are far less clear than his past antipathy to the U.S. intelligence establishment, which he has decried as a haven for "deep state" antagonists and likened to creating an atmosphere akin to "Nazi Germany."

Haspel is "not seen as partisan or political" and will face challenges in keeping the CIA's door at the White House wide open as did Pompeo, who was overtly partisan, Sipher said.

For some, Haspel's Achilles heel is her role following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. In 2002, Haspel was sent to northern Thailand as CIA chief of a secret detention facility, known as Cat's Eye, where terror subjects were imprisoned and subject to newly approved use of torture techniques.


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