CIA nominee bolsters chance for confirmation

CIA nominee bolsters chance for confirmation
© Greg Nash

Gina Haspel had no major stumbles Wednesday in her highly anticipated testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, a performance that earned some muted criticism from Democrats but overall appeared to bolster her chances of being confirmed as the CIA’s next director.

Haspel, a career CIA officer who spent over three decades undercover, wavered little under questioning from Sens. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments Dems launch pressure campaign over migrant families California Dems endorse progressive challenger over Feinstein MORE (D-Calif.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisDems to propose legislation to prevent ICE from shackling pregnant women Rasmussen poll: Nearly three-quarters of Dems want 'fresh face' as nominee in 2020 Kamala Harris lands book deal MORE (D-Calif.) and other Democrats about her role in the agency’s controversial post-9/11 interrogation and detention program.

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She fiercely defended the agency’s counterterror chops and her own “moral compass,” as Democrats repeatedly pressed her on the morality of torture — and criticized her for providing “legalistic” answers.

“I believe that CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools that we were authorized to use,” Haspel said. “What I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to.”

Under current law, U.S. government interrogators are limited to techniques authorized in the Army Field Manual.

Haspel vowed that the CIA would not return to the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques under her leadership, arguing that the agency lacks the expertise to conduct interrogations and that she does not believe “torture works,” as President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE has previously stated.

But, she said, “We got valuable information from debriefing of al Qaeda detainees and I don't think it's knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”

Asked if she would follow an immoral order from the president, Haspel said that should would not.

“I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that was immoral, even if it was technically legal,” she said.

It was a steady, even performance that lasted just under three hours, before lawmakers and Haspel went behind closed doors for the classified portion of the hearing.

Although the tone of the hearing was largely courteous, it was punctuated by the arrests of pink-clad protesters, many of whom were dragged forcibly from the hall as they shouted “Bloody Gina!” and “She’s a torturer!”

In an exchange with one of her fiercest critics, Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate Dems protest vote on controversial court pick On The Money: Fed chief lays out risks of trade war | Senate floats new Russia sanctions amid Trump backlash | House passes bill to boost business investment Hillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback MORE (D-Ore.), Haspel was quick to defend the agency and kept speaking through his attempts to interject. She called it a “tragedy” that the controversy surrounding the agency’s interrogation practices “has cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country.”

Haspel will almost certainly need some Democratic support, thanks to the opposition of Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Nation editor: Reaction by most of the media to Trump-Putin press conference 'is like mob violence' Lewandowski: Trump-Putin meeting advances goal of world peace Rand Paul to travel to Russia after downplaying election meddling MORE (R-Ky.) and the extended absence of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainPence, Pompeo urged Trump to clarify Russia remarks: report GOP lawmaker renews call for Trump to release tax returns after Putin summit House conservatives criticize media, not Trump, for Putin furor MORE (R-Ariz.).

And by mid-afternoon, a critical red-state Democrat, Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Morrisey accuses Manchin of 'lying' to Trump, attacks ‘liberal’ record The Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments MORE (D-W.Va.), had announced he would support her nomination — a move that came the day after the West Virginia primary left him with a competitive race in November. 

Several other key Democrats have yet to come out in opposition, despite expressing some measured criticism of Haspel’s failure to answer questions on the morality issue.

The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate Dems press for info on any deals from Trump-Putin meeting Overnight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Hillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback MORE (Va.), remains an unknown. He said that he wanted more “clarity” from Haspel in the closed session, but did not tip his hand on how he would vote.

Haspel provided a handful of new details during the course of the hearing — like the number of detainee interrogations documented in a set of videotapes that she supported destroying in 2005 — but she declined to confirm key details about her record in a public setting.

She would not say whether she had overseen the interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the mastermind behind the USS Cole bombing, at a black site prison in Thailand that she is reported to have run in 2002.

Al-Nashiri was waterboarded three times during the period in which Haspel was reportedly in charge of the facility.

Haspel did dispute a claim by a former CIA official that she ran the agency’s wider interrogation department. She said that she was not read into the program until a year after it was established.  

She also emphasized that she does not appear on the 2002 videotapes documenting the interrogations, which took place at the prison she ran.

Public reporting has widely indicated that the tapes covered the interrogations of two men — al-Nashiri and another al Qaeda suspect, Abu Zubaydah. In fact, Haspel said, they covered the interrogation of only one detainee. She did not specify which one. 

Democrats repeatedly pressed her to explain her role in the 2005 decision to destroy the tapes. She said that then-head of the agency's clandestine service Jose Rodriguez made the decision on his own authority — but that “as chief of staff, as I think everyone else at the agency was, we were extremely concerned about the security risk” to agency personnel if the tapes leaked.

“The tape issue had lingered at CIA for a period of about three years,” Haspel said. “Over time there was a great deal of concern about the security risk posed to CIA offers who were depicted on the tapes ... centered on the threat from al Qaeda should those tapes be irresponsibly leaked.”

“We were aiming to do two things,” she continued — follow U.S. law and “reach a resolution to protect officers.”

She noted that the decision was made in consultation with CIA lawyers, who she said assured them that there was no legal requirement to maintain the tapes. She said she knew there was some disagreement outside of the agency about destroying the tapes, but that she believed there would be a meeting with the CIA director at the time, Porter Goss, before that step was taken.

“I was working towards a resolution within a process,” she said.

On paper, Haspel has much to appeal to Democrats wary of Trump’s attitude towards the intelligence community.

She is a 33-year career veteran of the agency who has been endorsed by former intelligence officials associated with both parties. She has deep operational experience covering Russia and would be the first woman to lead the spy agency.

But it is the torture issue that has defined her confirmation, and it is that issue that dominated her hearing on Wednesday.

Feinstein, who has long been a leading voice in the Senate condemning the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, summed up Democrats’ dilemma in her opening remarks to Haspel:

“I think, as you know, I like you personally very much,” she said, then added that “this is probably the most difficult hearing in my more than two decades that I have ever sat in.”