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 Paul (Ky.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) sided with most Democrats in voting against Haspel. GOP Sen. John McCain (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 Shaheen (D-N.H.) and red- and purple-state Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) supported the nominee.
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 Pompeo, a former House member, received last year when he was confirmed as President Trump’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 Clapper, 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 McConnell (R-Ky.) said ahead of Thursday’s vote.
Republican senators also pressed their colleagues on why they would confirm John Brennan 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 Cotton (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 Burr (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 Feinstein (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 Wyden (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.