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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 HeinrichA Senator Gary Johnson could be good not just for Libertarians, but for the Senate too Election Countdown: What to watch in final primaries | Dems launch M ad buy for Senate races | Senate seats most likely to flip | Trump slump worries GOP | Koch network's new super PAC Rand Paul endorses Gary Johnson's Senate bid 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 PaulA Senator Gary Johnson could be good not just for Libertarians, but for the Senate too Conservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Senate approves 4B spending bill MORE (R-Ky.) and the continuing absence of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ 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 TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE in the 2016 election, like Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinGOP plays defense on ObamaCare’s pre-existing conditions Doug Jones to McConnell: Don't 'plow right through' with Kavanaugh Cook Political Report moves Texas Senate race to ‘toss-up’ MORE (W.Va.), who said Monday that he is “very open minded” about supporting Haspel. 

But Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterNelson campaign to donate K from Al Franken group to charity Montana lawmakers cheer recommendation to ban mining north of Yellowstone Cook Political Report moves Texas Senate race to ‘toss-up’ 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 WarnerKey House Dem's objections stall intel bill as deadline looms Russia docs order sets Trump on collision with intel community Hillicon Valley: North Korean IT firm hit with sanctions | Zuckerberg says Facebook better prepared for midterms | Big win for privacy advocates in Europe | Bezos launches B fund to help children, homeless 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 WydenHillicon Valley: NYT says Rosenstein wanted to wear wire on Trump | Twitter bug shared some private messages | Vendor put remote-access software on voting machines | Paypal cuts ties with Infowars | Google warned senators about foreign hacks Overnight Health Care: Opioids package nears finish line | Measure to help drug companies draws ire | Maryland ObamaCare rates to drop Google says senators' Gmail accounts targeted by foreign hackers 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 CollinsKavanaugh accuser set to testify Thursday McConnell told Trump criticism of Kavanaugh accuser isn't helpful: report Dems see Kavanaugh saga as playing to their advantage 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 BurrKey House Dem's objections stall intel bill as deadline looms Trump assures storm victims in Carolinas: 'We will be there 100 percent' Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas 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.