National Security

CIA torture could stymie nominee

Senate confirmation of President Trump's pick to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, will likely hinge on how the 30-year intelligence veteran handles questions about her involvement in the agency's brutal interrogations of terrorism suspects in the post-9/11 era.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Wednesday he would oppose her nomination, leaving Republicans with the bare minimum 50 votes needed to confirm her - if there are no other GOP defections and if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) returns to vote.

Independent-minded Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has already said she isn't making a decision until after Haspel's hearing and McCain, who was tortured during his five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said in a statement that Haspel will have to "explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA's interrogation program."

This puts Democrats in a potentially powerful position to swing Haspel's confirmation.

Yet early signs suggest that the minority is prepared to offer support, despite her controversial record, fierce opposition from human rights activists and the fact that she is a Trump nominee.

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), on Wednesday cited a "very good working relationship" with Haspel, currently the agency's deputy director. Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), a red-state Democrat who also sits on the Intelligence panel, said he was "very much open-minded."

Even one of the Senate's harshest critics of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and the architect of the so-called torture report, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), signaled a surprisingly open reception to Haspel that could pull others off the fence.

"We've had dinner together. We have talked. Everything I know is she has been a good deputy director," Feinstein said on Tuesday, adding, "I think, hopefully, the entire organization learned something from the so-called enhanced interrogation program."

Feinstein in 2013 blocked Haspel's promotion to run clandestine operations at the agency over her role in interrogations at a CIA "black site" prison and the destruction of videotapes documenting the waterboarding sessions of an al Qaeda suspect there.

A few lawmakers have come out in opposition to Haspel - most prominently Paul and Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) - but it's unclear how much influence they will wield. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that he is not whipping votes to oppose Haspel.

Lawmakers are likely to be looking for signs from Haspel on whether the Trump administration is weighing a return to the use of controversial techniques such as waterboarding that are currently banned.

Trump on the campaign trail advocated waterboarding suspected terrorists and in recent weeks announced that he will keep open detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.

He later said that he was persuaded by Defense Secretary James Mattis that torture is ineffective, an opinion widely held by lawmakers, military officials and others.

Lawmakers will almost certainly ask Haspel, who oversaw the use of interrogation methods now widely seen as torture under President George W. Bush, if she would do the same under a directive from Trump.

Haspel, 61, would be first woman to head the CIA if confirmed.

A career intelligence professional, Haspel is by all accounts well-liked by the workforce at Langley. She twice ran the CIA station in London, an important post because of the "special relationship" between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. When she was tapped for deputy director last year, the agency issued an unusual press release listing a series of ringing testimonials from officials like former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Acting Director Michael Morrell.

Her status as a career professional - rather than a politician - is seen as a major mark in her favor in an administration accused by critics of politicizing intelligence.

"I think it's much better to have intelligence professionals serving in senior intelligence positions," former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said to the Cipher Brief, adding wryly, "My ringing endorsement probably won't help her with this administration."

But Haspel is a central figure in a particularly nightmarish episode in the agency's history: a pair of interrogations that took place at one of the CIA's first "black site" prisons, which she briefly ran.

In 2002, agency operatives captured al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah and sent him to the prison compound, code-named Cat's Eye. There, he was waterboarded 83 times - at one point, leaving him "completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth," according to the 2014 report spearheaded by Feinstein.

"They kept pouring water and concentrating on my nose and my mouth until I really felt I was drowning and my chest was just about to explode from the lack of oxygen," Zubaydah said in a description of waterboarding. "That was the first time and the first day that I felt I was going to die from drowning. ... I started vomiting water but also rice and string beans."

According to his own account, he was beaten against a wall, deprived of sleep and shackled inside a coffin-like box 20 inches across and 30 inches deep. He lost his left eye while in the CIA's custody.

Haspel was sent by the CIA to run Cat's Eye in October 2002 - after the interrogation of Zubaydah, according to a former senior CIA official who spoke to The New York Times.

But in November of that year, another al Qaeda suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of bombing the U.S.S. Cole, was waterboarded three times.

In 2005, Haspel reportedly played a role in a decision to destroy videotapes documenting the interrogations of both men. The destruction of the tapes was ordered by Jose Rodriguez, then head of the agency's clandestine service - but Haspel, at the time his chief of staff, was reportedly a strong advocate for the choice. Rodriguez wrote in his memoir that Haspel drafted the cable ordering the destruction of the tapes amidst growing scrutiny of the detention and interrogation program.

The Justice Department investigated the destruction of the tapes, but no charges were filed.

Although they are illegal now, the techniques used on Zubaydah and al-Nashiri - like waterboarding - were authorized by the Justice Department in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Some supporters of Haspel say she has been unfairly vilified for carrying out orders that, at the time, were done under the protection of the U.S. flag.

"People may have a disagreement with policies, but ultimately she was a career person at the CIA who is charge of implementing policies of the leadership," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said, calling her "incredibly qualified."

Hayden, who ran the agency for the last two years of the Bush administration, told Cipher Brief that Haspel "did precisely what the agency and the nation asked her to do."

Wyden, along with Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), is calling for the CIA to declassify more information about Haspel's record at the agency.

But Republicans on the Intelligence Committee don't see the specter of torture as a serious roadblock. Cornyn on Tuesday brushed aside the suggestion that Haspel's involvement in the interrogation program would be a problem.

"I think we've moved on from that," Cornyn said.

Jordain Carney contributed.

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