Moment of truth for Trump pick to lead CIA

Gina Haspel is set to face off with senators Wednesday in what is expected to be a bruising relitigation of the use of harsh interrogation techniques during the George W. Bush administration.

Haspel is set to be grilled by the Senate Intelligence Committee not only about her role in the use of the techniques, but also about her involvement in the destruction of videotapes documenting a pair of brutal interrogations at a black site prison that she briefly ran.

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Democrats on the committee have lambasted the CIA — and Haspel as its current acting director — for declining to declassify more information about her participation in the interrogation program. They have hinted heavily that there is much about Haspel’s record that is troubling.

“At the root of this is whether or not she can establish trust based on past behavior, her willingness to be transparent about that and establish a framework for how she might govern and make decisions going forward,” said Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Rodney Davis says most important thing White House can do on COVID-19 is give consistent messaging; US new cases surpass 50k for first time Overnight Defense: Navy won't reinstate fired captain | Dems probe use of federal officers in DC | Air Force appoints woman as top noncommissioned officer Dems request watchdog probe use of federal law enforcement in DC during Floyd protests MORE (D-N.M.), who said he is “leaning” toward opposing her.

“I think this hearing is a very important moment and opportunity for all of those things. This is her chance.”

On paper, Haspel’s nomination would seem to check all the right boxes.

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’s her role in the CIA’s controversial detention and interrogation program in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks that has taken center stage in the confirmation process.

Thanks to the defection of Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul's exchange with Fauci was exactly what America needed GOP Arizona lawmaker says Fauci and Birx 'undermine' Trump's coronavirus response Fauci: 'We are not going in the right direction' MORE (R-Ky.) and the continuing absence of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJuan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden Democrats lead in three battleground Senate races: poll Republican Scott Taylor wins Virginia primary, to face Elaine Luria in rematch MORE (R-Ariz.), Haspel’s chances of confirmation will hang on Democratic support. And her performance on Tuesday is likely to be key to winning those votes. 

Haspel’s supporters have been closely watching Democrats up for reelection in states that went for President TrumpDonald John Trump Trump responds to calls to tear down monuments with creation of 'National Garden' of statues Trump: Children are taught in school to 'hate their own country' Trump accuses those tearing down statues of wanting to 'overthrow the American Revolution' MORE in the 2016 election, like Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' report | Climate change erases millennia of cooling: study | Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget McConnell on filibuster talk: Democrats want to 'vandalize' Senate rules MORE (W.Va.), who said Monday that he is “very open minded” about supporting Haspel. 

But Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterBipartisan Senate group offers bill to strengthen watchdog law after Trump firings Senate confirms Trump's watchdog for coronavirus funds Montana barrels toward blockbuster Senate fight MORE, a Montana Democrat who is also up for reelection, told CNN on Tuesday that he will be voting “no” because “I’m not a huge fan of waterboarding.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Overnight Defense: Democrats blast Trump handling of Russian bounty intel | Pentagon leaders set for House hearing July 9 | Trump moves forward with plan for Germany drawdown MORE (D-Va.), whose state is home to CIA headquarters, is another key unknown. He has remained notably quiet on Haspel’s nomination, although he has criticized the agency for failing to turn over adequate information on her background.

One of the big questions for the hearing is how substantively Haspel will answer the questions related to her counterterrorism experience. Up until the Sept. 11 attacks, she worked extensively on operations against Russia and in the CIA’s Europe division. 

But in 2001, she requested a transfer to the agency’s counterterror division. Sept. 11 was her first day on the job, according to The Washington Post.

During that time, the Justice Department authorized the CIA to use a swath of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques on al Qaeda suspects, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, confinement, forced nudity and waterboarding, among other things. Almost all of the details of Haspel’s role in the program remain classified, but it has been publicly reported that she ran a black site prison in Thailand during a period when one suspect was waterboarded three times.

As acting director, Haspel is the classification authority over her own record, yet there have been are no obvious signals that she will address any of the more sensitive questions related to her role in the program during her public testimony.

She is expected to provide assurances that she does not support a return to the interrogation techniques, something she has been privately telling lawmakers behind closed doors.

But those assurances appear unlikely to satisfy some critics.

“I met with her today, and as of now this is headed towards a secret confirmation process,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenCongress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits Hillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse MORE (D-Ore.) said. “There’s going to be something public tomorrow, but you really aren’t going to know very much about her role during the crucial period.”

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday Senate passes extension of application deadline for PPP small-business loans MORE (R-Maine), a moderate on the committee who is also being closely watched, disagreed on Tuesday with the notion that it will hurt Haspel’s chances of confirmation if she declines to answer too many questions in open session.

“No, because there’s a lot that she can’t answer in open session. That’s a legitimate answer,” she said. 

According to The New York Times, CIA message logs showing how accepting she was of the now-renounced interrogation techniques raised alarm bells in the White House and nearly derailed her nomination over the weekend. 

Reportedly fearing for the agency’s reputation, Haspel sought to withdraw her nomination on Friday over concerns that the White House was not going to firmly back her if things got rough. She recommitted only after senior White House aides assured her that the administration would stand behind her. 

In another curious development revealed on Tuesday, the principal architect behind the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is seeking to submit six paragraphs of information about Haspel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to the Times.

Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in CIA custody, according to a lengthy committee report on the program, but it is not known whether Haspel was involved either directly or indirectly in his interrogation. He is currently held in the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrBiden campaign adds staff in three battleground states Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress? Trump asserts his power over Republicans MORE (R-N.C.) said Tuesday that he believes Haspel will be reported favorably out of the committee, adding that he expects to hold a vote on her confirmation next week.