Rex Tillerson
Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Here’s how you notify a secretary of state that he no longer has a job.

I asked yesterday why Rex Tillerson was cutting his African trip short and coming home, and I anticipated that it meant he would be stepping down either voluntarily or otherwise. I also speculated about whether it might have something to do with Tillerson’s coziness with Vladimir Putin. Based on WikiLeaks’ response, it doesn’t appear that they approve of Tillerson’s replacement:

That’s an obvious attempt to complicate CIA director Mike Pompeo’s confirmation at Secretary of State. But, in truth, you can make the argument that Tillerson was fired for being too tough on Russia.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a harsh condemnation of Russia following a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom last week, going further than the White House’s response stopping short of pinning blame for the attack on Moscow.

In a Monday morning call with United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Tillerson discussed the attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury, according to a State Department statement.

“We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week,” Tillerson said in the statement.

He continued, “There is never a justification for this type of attack — the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation — and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior. From Ukraine to Syria — and now the UK — Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.”

The State Department’s position on the attack appears be much stronger than the White House’s response.

In truth, it looks like Tillerson’s fate was sealed long before he condemned the Russians yesterday for the nerve agent attack in the UK. Later on we can sort out exactly when he knew for certain that he no longer would be serving as Secretary of State, but I believe it was either Trump’s plan all along or it arose out of Tillerson’s response to being woken up at three in the morning on Friday morning in Africa and learning that the president had agreed to meet with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea.

Pompeo’s replacement as CIA director is going to be very controversial, too. Gina Haspel could easily be in a Hague prison cell with Serbian war criminals.

Haspel ran a “black site” CIA prison located in Thailand in 2002. The site was codenamed “Cat’s Eye” and held suspected al Qaeda members Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah for a time. The Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture specifies that during their detention at the site they were waterboarded and interrogated using no-longer-authorized methods. Declassified CIA cables specify that Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in a month, was sleep deprived, kept in a “large box”, had his head slammed against a wall, and he lost his left eye. Zubaydah was deemed, by the CIA interrogators, to not be in possession of any useful intelligence.

Haspel later was the chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, who headed the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. In his memoir, Rodriguez wrote that Haspel had “drafted a cable” in 2005 ordering the destruction of dozens of videotapes made at the black site in Thailand.

I’m not overly inclined to be fair to torturers, but she was “just following orders” and no one above her in rank was ever held accountable for torturing human beings who were in CIA custody and at their mercy. On the other hand, she’s unambiguously guilty of destroying the evidence of torture by ordering the destruction of videotapes. I am sure she is in some ways an accomplished intelligence officer, but in my moral universe she lost the right to serve in our government, let alone to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, when she didn’t have the strength or character to resign when asked to commit acts of brutal inhumanity.

Technically, since she is the deputy director, I think Haspel can indefinitely serve as CIA director on an interim basis without needing confirmation. As for Pompeo, trolling from WikiLeaks notwithstanding, I don’t imagine that he will have any real difficulty being confirmed at the State Department. So, this is a done deal.

What’s kind of crazy is that both moves might be an improvement. Haspel is at least an intelligence professional instead of a political hack like Pompeo. And Tillerson was so destructive to the morale and proper functioning of the State Department that it’s possible that Pompeo will be less of a catastrophe.

I guess the only remaining question is whether Tillerson played a vital role in restraining the president and, if so, whether Pompeo can continue to fulfill that function.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at