Trump’s pick for CIA No. 2 prompts Dem fears

Senate Democrats and human rights activists are rallying against Donald Trump’s selection of an officer linked to the CIA’s controversial enhanced interrogation program to take the number-two seat at the agency.

As a clandestine officer, Gina Haspel oversaw the brutal interrogation of two terrorism suspects at a black site in Thailand — and then later played a role in the destruction of video tapes documenting the harsh treatment of the detainees, according to multiple reports.

In 2013, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight Senate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate MORE (D-Calif.) reportedly blocked her promotion to head the agency’s clandestine service over her role in the program.

For Republicans — and some former CIA officers — her promotion is a signal that Director Mike Pompeo is wisely prioritizing career officials as he attempts to boost morale after months of disparaging comments about the agency from President TrumpDonald John TrumpWSJ: Trump ignored advice to confront Putin over indictments Trump hotel charging Sean Spicer ,000 as book party venue Bernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin MORE. Haspel is a 30-year veteran with a weighty resume and a ringing list of testimonials from former intelligence officials.

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But for some Democrats, elevating Haspel to deputy director of the agency is a clear sign that the administration is weighing a return to the use of banned techniques now considered torture — such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

Lawmakers are circumspect about addressing Haspel’s role in the program publicly — only a heavily-redacted 500-page executive summary of the Senate report has been declassified — but have hinted heavily where their concerns lie.

Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight House passes measure blocking IRS from revoking churches' tax-exempt status over political activity Senators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS MORE (D-Ore.) and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichCNN congressional correspondent talks about her early love of trolls and family Overnight Energy: DNC to reject fossil fuel donations | Regulators see no security risk in coal plant closures | Senate committee rejects Trump EPA, Interior budgets Energy commission sees no national security risk from coal plant closures MORE (D-N.M.) on Thursday fired off a letter to Trump warning that “her background makes her unsuitable for the position.”

“We are sending separately a classified letter explaining our position and urge that the information in that letter be immediately declassified,” they wrote.

“I want some reassurance from her that she intends to comply with both the spirit and the letter of the law, like Director Pompeo testified that he would during his confirmation process,” Senate Intelligence ranking member Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate panel advances Trump IRS nominee Bipartisan bill would bring needed funds to deteriorating National Park Service infrastructure Senate Dems press for info on any deals from Trump-Putin meeting MORE (D-Va.) said in a statement, noting that he plans to meet with her “as soon as possible to secure that commitment.”

Lawmakers repeatedly pressed Pompeo on his stance on torture during his confirmation hearing — although many were dissatisfied with his answer.

The former Republican congressman vowed to abide by the law, but said that he would consult with CIA experts to determine whether the currently legal methods are sufficient and work with experts to offer recommendations to make changes if they aren’t.

Opponents of the use of torture — including some Republicans, like Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainObama, Bush veterans dismiss Trump-Putin interpreter subpoena Controversial Trump judicial nominee withdraws Trump vows to hold second meeting with Putin MORE (Ariz.) — have watched the Trump administration warily for signs that it will try to resurrect techniques since outlawed by Congress.

Trump in an interview told ABC News last month that he “absolutely” thinks that waterboarding works and would consider reinstating it as if senior administration officials think it’s necessary.

“I will rely on Pompeo and [Defense Secretary James Mattis] and my group. And if they don’t want to do, that’s fine. If they do want to do, then I will work toward that end. I want to do everything within the bounds of what you're allowed to do legally,” Trump said.

A draft executive order that would pave the way for the revival of the program, circulated last week, sparked swift backlash from Capitol Hill.

For human rights activists, Haspel’s promotion is a confirmation of their worst fears about the intentions of the new administration.

“We are gravely concerned that, only a few days after taking office, CIA Director Pompeo has selected as his deputy a person who has run a secret CIA torture prison and then lobbied to destroy evidence of the crimes committed there,” said Christopher Anders, deputy director of the D.C. American Civil Liberties Union.

According to reports, Haspel was in charge of the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, two captured terrorism subjects.

Zubaydah alone was waterboarded 83 times in a single month, slammed into walls and confined in a coffin-like box — before officials determined he had no useful information to provide.

“I felt I was going to explode from bending my legs and my back and from being unable to spread them not even for short instants,” he wrote to his lawyers in 2008, describing being placed in the box. “The very strong pain made me scream unconsciously.”

The sessions were recorded, but the videotapes were ordered destroyed in 2005. The agency maintains that the decision was made by Haspel’s then-boss, Clandestine Service head Jose Rodriguez, according to The New York Times.

But Haspel’s name appears alongside Rodriguez’s on the cable carrying the order and some reports, citing former officials, suggest she also lobbied to destroy the recordings.

The incident sparked a Justice Department investigation, but no charges were brought.

There’s very little that worried Democrats will be able to do to block Haspel’s appointment — the position does not require Senate confirmation.

For others, Haspel’s role in the program is less worrisome than it appears at face value. Given her resume, it would have been impossible for her to avoid some involvement with the program, former officials say.

In announcing the appointment, Pompeo told a senior lawmaker that any official at her level would have touched that program, according to a Senate aide.

In a Tuesday op-ed, former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell defended Haspel’s role in drafting the cable ordering the destruction of the video tapes.

“She did so at the request of her direct supervisor and believing that it was lawful to do so. I personally led an accountability exercise that cleared Haspel of any wrongdoing in the case,” Morrell wrote.

The appointment, one former officer argued, indicates the “consistent agency position that you shouldn’t punish good officers for doing their best in difficult circumstances.”

“It does not signal that we’re going to start pulling people’s fingernails off,” said Glenn Carle, a former covert CIA officer. “I think it is an affirmation of professionalism and a way for Pompeo pretty quickly to win the loyalty of the professional cadre in the [Directorate of Operations, formerly the Clandestine Service].”

But he nevertheless called her appointment — as a senior officer involved in the program — "provocative." 

Morale at the agency has been closely monitored in the aftermath of a bitter public feud between Trump and senior officials under the Obama administration over Russia’s involvement in the election.

Republicans widely praised Haspel’s experience, characterizing her as a dedicated officer who has earned the respect of her peers.

“Over many years of hard work, Gina Haspel has earned the deep respect of her colleagues throughout the CIA,” Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonBipartisan group introduces retirement savings legislation in Senate Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war Hillicon Valley: DOJ appeals AT&T-Time Warner ruling | FBI agent testifies in heated hearing | Uproar after FCC changes rules on consumer complaints | Broadcom makes bid for another US company | Facebook under fire over conspiracy sites MORE (R-Ark.) said in a statement. “I can say from personal experience she’ll be a shrewd, skillful, and selfless deputy director.”

House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) praised her “dedication, forthrightness and her deep commitment to the Intelligence Community.”