Trump’s CIA pick facing brutal confirmation fight

Trump’s CIA pick facing brutal confirmation fight
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The Senate’s debate over Gina Haspel’s confirmation as CIA director is poised to be a bitter litigation of one of the most controversial episodes in recent U.S. history.

Haspel, the CIA’s deputy director, is indelibly tied to the agency’s use of harsh interrogation techniques after the Sept. 11 attacks. But she is also a 33-year intelligence veteran who is seen even by some critics of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE as an experienced and apolitical hand.

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Though a handful of lawmakers have already come out in opposition to her nomination, including one Republican, she appears to be on cautiously stable footing.

One of the Senate’s fiercest anti-torture voices, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTrump administration urges Congress to reauthorize NSA surveillance program The Hill's Morning Report - More talk on guns; many questions on Epstein's death Juan Williams: We need a backlash against Big Tech MORE (D-Calif.), has surprised many with her praise of Haspel’s professionalism, though she has also criticized her role in the agency’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” program. Feinstein’s mixed signals come as she faces a primary challenge from the left in her bid for reelection.

On Sunday, one of the most closely watched Republican votes, Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCook Political Report moves Susan Collins Senate race to 'toss up' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move MORE (Maine), told NBC’s Chuck Todd that a recently declassified memo “exonerated” Haspel from allegations that had been “a major concern” for her. But she said she had not made a decision on voting for Haspel and still has “a lot of questions.”

Meanwhile, the same red-state Democrats who have broken with their party in saying they’ll vote in favor of Trump’s pick for secretary of State, current CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan Japan's Hormuz dilemma The Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? MORE, are seen as possible votes in Haspel’s column.

Key Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee — like Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerFacebook users in lawsuit say company failed to warn them of known risks before 2018 breach New intel chief inherits host of challenges Overnight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces MORE (Va.) — have not tipped their hands about how they’ll vote.

Still, even if Haspel clears the committee, her confirmation fight is likely to be tumultuous. Human rights advocates and some former military and intelligence officials are urging the Senate to vote down Haspel over her role in the agency’s detention and interrogation programs.

Hinting at the challenge ahead, the CIA is engaged in an extraordinarily public campaign to burnish Haspel’s image and correct what it says is a swath of inaccurate reporting about a career intelligence officer who, up until a year ago, was virtually anonymous.

There are few obvious parallels to Haspel’s nomination. Although there have been a handful of CIA nominees with operational experience at the agency before now, many of them had been in the public arena prior to their nomination. Haspel remained undercover until last year.

Because so much of her record at the CIA is classified, there are limitations on what the agency can make public — something that critics say is just a convenient excuse designed to shield the agency from scrutiny.

Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWyden blasts FEC Republicans for blocking probe into NRA over possible Russia donations Wyden calls for end to political ad targeting on Facebook, Google Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity MORE (D-Ore.) and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichOvernight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador Senate committee advances nomination of general accused of sexual assault House passes bill requiring CBP to enact safety, hygiene standards MORE (D-N.M.), both members of the Intelligence Committee, have complained that the CIA is selectively declassifying only positive information about Haspel.

The CIA on Friday did declassify a 2011 memo in which former Deputy Director Michael Morell found that Haspel “acted appropriately” when she drafted an order to destroy videotapes of harsh interrogations at a “black site” prison in Thailand that she briefly ran.

Association with the agency’s interrogation program has scuttled a nominee for CIA director before. John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanWebb: Questions for Robert Mueller A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats Trump critic Brennan praises his Iran decision: I 'applaud' him MORE was President Obama’s favored choice for CIA director after his 2008 election — but Brennan was forced to withdraw his name under intense scrutiny of his role at the agency while the program was ongoing. (Brennan was confirmed for the position in 2013, after Obama won his second term.)

Much will ride on how Haspel performs during her public hearing in May. Confirmation hearings can be grueling affairs, and there is no known instance of Haspel appearing before Congress in a public setting.

Lawmakers will press her for public commitments that she won’t return to the use of waterboarding and other techniques now considered torture, even if asked by the president. She is likely to be asked to express remorse for her role in the program — a potentially delicate balance to strike. Haspel’s supporters have pointed to Morell’s finding that she was following orders in destroying the tapes.

Trump in the past has said that he would bring back the use of waterboarding, although he later said that Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOnly Donald Trump has a policy for Afghanistan New Pentagon report blames Trump troop withdrawal for ISIS surge in Iraq and Syria Mattis returns to board of General Dynamics MORE had convinced him that rapport-building techniques were more effective.

By all accounts, Haspel is well-liked within the CIA. Former government officials from multiple administrations have offered their endorsements, citing Haspel’s service and experience.

One key unknown remains: Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? Trump makes rare trip to Clinton state, hoping to win back New Hampshire Graham promises ObamaCare repeal if Trump, Republicans win in 2020 MORE. The Arizona Republican, who was tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has long been one of the loudest opponents of the interrogation program in the Senate. He issued a letter to Haspel demanding “a detailed account” of her role overseeing the interrogation program that had a deadline of earlier this month.

Yet McCain is in Arizona receiving treatment for an aggressive form of brain cancer, so it’s unclear if he will be in Washington for the vote once Haspel’s nomination reaches the floor.

The public allegations against Haspel concern two incidents.

In 2002, the CIA sent Haspel to run a black site prison in Thailand known as Cat’s Eye, where the al Qaeda suspect accused of bombing the USS Cole was waterboarded three times.

Prior to Haspel’s arrival at the site, agency operatives waterboarded another al Qaeda suspect, Abu Zubaydah, 83 times — at one point leaving him “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth,” according to a 2014 report spearheaded by Feinstein.

In 2005, Haspel drafted the cable ordering the destruction of videotapes documenting the interrogations of the two men, amidst growing scrutiny of the detention and interrogation programs. The decision was made by Jose Rodriguez, then head of the agency’s clandestine service — but Haspel, at the time his chief of staff, has been reported as having strongly advocated for the choice.

The Justice Department investigated the destruction of the tapes, but no charges were ever filed — a decision that is still a source of controversy among interrogation experts, many of whom were baffled.

In Morell’s 2011 memo, the then-deputy director concluded that Haspel was only following orders.

“Although there is no ‘good soldier’ defense in the case of an act that violates the law or Agency regulations, the Special Prosecutor evidently found no prosecutable offense, nor did I find a violation of Agency regulations,” Morell wrote.

Critics were far from satisfied. Wyden blasted the memo as “highly incomplete” but “[confirming] some extremely troubling facts about Deputy Director Haspel.”

He has hinted repeatedly that there is much about Haspel’s record that remains unknown. As a member of the intelligence panel, Wyden has access to classified information that the rest of his colleagues do not.

“My concerns about Ms. Haspel are far broader than this episode or anything else that has appeared in the press,” Wyden said in a statement Friday.