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Senate confirms Haspel to head CIA

The Senate on Thursday confirmed Gina Haspel to lead the CIA despite engrained opposition over her involvement in the George W. Bush-era interrogation program.

Senators voted 54-45 to confirm Haspel, making her the first female director of the spy agency.

GOP Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Legislatures boost security after insurrection, FBI warnings Former Missouri senator says backing Hawley was 'worst mistake of my life' MORE (Ky.) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake Arizona county's Republican committee debates censuring Cindy McCain MORE (Ariz.) sided with most Democrats in voting against Haspel. GOP Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe best way to handle veterans, active-duty military that participated in Capitol riot Cindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake MORE (Ariz.), who was captured and tortured during the Vietnam War, also opposes her nomination but is in Arizona undergoing treatment for brain cancer.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenBipartisan group of senators: The election is over Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 How Congress dismissed women's empowerment MORE (D-N.H.) and red- and purple-state Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonGeorgia Senate races shatter spending records Georgia voters flood polls ahead of crucial Senate contests The Hill's Morning Report - Fearing defeat, Trump claims 'illegal' ballots MORE (Fla.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) supported the nominee.

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Haspel is a veteran CIA official who has been with the agency for more than 30 years and by all accounts is well-liked by her colleagues. But her nomination received roughly half the support from Democrats that now-Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoOn The Money: Retail sales drop in latest sign of weakening economy | Fast-food workers strike for minimum wage | US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits Treasury imposes additional sanctions on Cuba over allegations of 'serious human rights abuse' MORE, a former House member, received last year when he was confirmed as President TrumpDonald TrumpCIA chief threatened to resign over push to install Trump loyalist as deputy: report Azar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments Justice Dept. argues Trump should get immunity from rape accuser's lawsuit MORE’s first CIA chief.

Her nomination was immersed almost immediately by controversy because of her involvement in the agency’s post-Sept. 11 use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” — now widely viewed as torture. In particular, senators homed in on her time spent running a CIA black site and role in the destruction of videotapes documenting the interrogation of an al Qaeda suspect.

The CIA and the White House launched an all-out charm offensive in order to build support for Haspel's nomination, playing up politically favorable aspects of her largely secret career, including her work on Russia.

They also touted her support among former intelligence community officials, including James ClapperJames Robert ClapperThe biggest example of media malfeasance in 2020 is... Meet Biden's pick to lead the US intelligence community The new marshmallow media in the Biden era MORE, former President Obama’s director of national intelligence.

Haspel also worked to distance herself from the CIA’s former interrogation techniques. She said during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee that program would not be restarted under her leadership, but dodged Democratic questions about the program’s morality.

She went a step further in a letter this week to Warner, saying the agency should not have used the so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

“With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior Agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken,” Haspel wrote in the letter.

Haspel’s supporters say her comments make it clear she would not restart the program and that she was following orders in the environment that followed the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

“Throughout the process, she demonstrated candor, integrity and a forthright approach to the committee's questions. She displayed the talent and expertise that make her uniquely qualified to face America’s biggest national security challenges, whether in the area of counterterrorism or renewed international competition among great powers,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi mum on when House will send impeachment article to Senate Democratic senator: COVID-19 relief is priority over impeachment trial The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history MORE (R-Ky.) said ahead of Thursday's vote.

Republican senators also pressed their colleagues on why they would confirm John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanThe biggest example of media malfeasance in 2020 is... Meet Biden's pick to lead the US intelligence community Sunday shows: Health officials anticipate vaccine distribution, warn of worsening pandemic MORE to be CIA chief, even though he was a senior official at the agency during the Bush administration, but would stand against Haspel.

Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump's growing isolation as administration comes to an end Cotton: Senate lacks authority to hold impeachment trial once Trump leaves office MORE (R-Ark.) name dropped Democrats who voted for Brennan during Haspel’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“John Brennan supports her nomination!” he added in a tense moment, interrupting Warner. Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrOfficials discussing 25th Amendment for Trump following violence at Capitol GOP senator says Trump 'bears responsibility' for Capitol riot Republican infighting on election intensifies MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the panel, told him to stand down, but Cotton refused.

The Senate has had a contentious history with the CIA over its interrogation program. Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinBottom line Trump vetoes bipartisan driftnet fishing bill Dumping Abraham Lincoln? A word of advice to the 'cancel culture' MORE (D-Calif.), the former chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, did battle with the Obama administration over releasing a report on the program. She also took to the Senate floor to accuse the agency of spying on committee staffers working on the so-called torture report.

In 2015, the Senate approved an amendment to an annual defense policy bill, spearheaded by McCain, that banned torture. Nearly two dozen Republican senators, including members of leadership, voted against the amendment.

McCain and other opponents to Haspel’s nomination argue that her involvement in the torture program should disqualify her from running the agency. 

“Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” McCain said in a statement.

Senators refer to McCain as the “conscience” of the Senate because of his work on the issue. But he failed to convince his colleagues to sink Haspel's nomination, even as they gathered before the Thursday vote to watch a documentary on the 81-year-old senator’s life. 

Senators voting against Haspel also knocked the agency for not publicly or more broadly releasing details of her involvement with the interrogation program including the summary of the "Durham report" that detailed her involvement in the destruction of videotapes.

“Congress needs to be able to provide fully informed oversight. My questions about Ms. Haspel's role in the destruction of videotapes relevant to discussions occurring in Congress regarding the program have not been adequately answered,” GOP Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) said in a statement.

The summary was shared with members of the Intelligence Committee.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Health Care: Biden unveils COVID-19 relief plan | Post-holiday surge hits new deadly records | Senate report faults 'broken' system for insulin price hikes Biden plan would up extra unemployment benefit to 0 Report faults 'broken' system for insulin price spikes MORE (D-Ore.), shortly before the vote, accused Haspel and the agency of trying to hide the more contentious aspects of Haspel’s career.

“Haspel has been exercising the unprecedented power to personally censor any facts about her that might get in the way of her nomination. When the Senate votes on a nomination, when all the relevant information is by design kept secret, how is this any different than a coverup?” he asked.