CIA nominee bolsters chance for confirmation

CIA nominee bolsters chance for confirmation
© Greg Nash

Gina Haspel had no major stumbles Wednesday in her highly anticipated testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, a performance that earned some muted criticism from Democrats but overall appeared to bolster her chances of being confirmed as the CIA’s next director.

Haspel, a career CIA officer who spent over three decades undercover, wavered little under questioning from Sens. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur Sanders endorses Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur for Katie Hill's former House seat Houston police chief stands by criticism of McConnell, Cruz, Cornyn: 'This is not political' MORE (D-Calif.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Sanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate MORE (D-Calif.) and other Democrats about her role in the agency’s controversial post-9/11 interrogation and detention program.

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She fiercely defended the agency’s counterterror chops and her own “moral compass,” as Democrats repeatedly pressed her on the morality of torture — and criticized her for providing “legalistic” answers.

“I believe that CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools that we were authorized to use,” Haspel said. “What I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to.”

Under current law, U.S. government interrogators are limited to techniques authorized in the Army Field Manual.

Haspel vowed that the CIA would not return to the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques under her leadership, arguing that the agency lacks the expertise to conduct interrogations and that she does not believe “torture works,” as President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE has previously stated.

But, she said, “We got valuable information from debriefing of al Qaeda detainees and I don't think it's knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”

Asked if she would follow an immoral order from the president, Haspel said that should would not.

“I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that was immoral, even if it was technically legal,” she said.

It was a steady, even performance that lasted just under three hours, before lawmakers and Haspel went behind closed doors for the classified portion of the hearing.

Although the tone of the hearing was largely courteous, it was punctuated by the arrests of pink-clad protesters, many of whom were dragged forcibly from the hall as they shouted “Bloody Gina!” and “She’s a torturer!”

In an exchange with one of her fiercest critics, Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report Trump administration approves Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina MORE (D-Ore.), Haspel was quick to defend the agency and kept speaking through his attempts to interject. She called it a “tragedy” that the controversy surrounding the agency’s interrogation practices “has cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country.”

Haspel will almost certainly need some Democratic support, thanks to the opposition of Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial Pentagon to take bigger role in vetting foreign students after Pensacola shooting Overnight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons MORE (R-Ky.) and the extended absence of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Budowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? MORE (R-Ariz.).

And by mid-afternoon, a critical red-state Democrat, Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump Manchin warns he'll slow-walk government funding bill until he gets deal on miners legislation MORE (D-W.Va.), had announced he would support her nomination — a move that came the day after the West Virginia primary left him with a competitive race in November. 

Several other key Democrats have yet to come out in opposition, despite expressing some measured criticism of Haspel’s failure to answer questions on the morality issue.

The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings, inflaming tensions Watchdog report finds FBI not motivated by political bias in Trump probe Ex-Rep. Scott Taylor to seek old Virginia seat MORE (Va.), remains an unknown. He said that he wanted more “clarity” from Haspel in the closed session, but did not tip his hand on how he would vote.

Haspel provided a handful of new details during the course of the hearing — like the number of detainee interrogations documented in a set of videotapes that she supported destroying in 2005 — but she declined to confirm key details about her record in a public setting.

She would not say whether she had overseen the interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the mastermind behind the USS Cole bombing, at a black site prison in Thailand that she is reported to have run in 2002.

Al-Nashiri was waterboarded three times during the period in which Haspel was reportedly in charge of the facility.

Haspel did dispute a claim by a former CIA official that she ran the agency’s wider interrogation department. She said that she was not read into the program until a year after it was established.  

She also emphasized that she does not appear on the 2002 videotapes documenting the interrogations, which took place at the prison she ran.

Public reporting has widely indicated that the tapes covered the interrogations of two men — al-Nashiri and another al Qaeda suspect, Abu Zubaydah. In fact, Haspel said, they covered the interrogation of only one detainee. She did not specify which one. 

Democrats repeatedly pressed her to explain her role in the 2005 decision to destroy the tapes. She said that then-head of the agency's clandestine service Jose Rodriguez made the decision on his own authority — but that “as chief of staff, as I think everyone else at the agency was, we were extremely concerned about the security risk” to agency personnel if the tapes leaked.

“The tape issue had lingered at CIA for a period of about three years,” Haspel said. “Over time there was a great deal of concern about the security risk posed to CIA offers who were depicted on the tapes ... centered on the threat from al Qaeda should those tapes be irresponsibly leaked.”

“We were aiming to do two things,” she continued — follow U.S. law and “reach a resolution to protect officers.”

She noted that the decision was made in consultation with CIA lawyers, who she said assured them that there was no legal requirement to maintain the tapes. She said she knew there was some disagreement outside of the agency about destroying the tapes, but that she believed there would be a meeting with the CIA director at the time, Porter Goss, before that step was taken.

“I was working towards a resolution within a process,” she said.

On paper, Haspel has much to appeal to Democrats wary of Trump’s attitude towards the intelligence community.

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 is the torture issue that has defined her confirmation, and it is that issue that dominated her hearing on Wednesday.

Feinstein, who has long been a leading voice in the Senate condemning the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, summed up Democrats’ dilemma in her opening remarks to Haspel:

“I think, as you know, I like you personally very much,” she said, then added that “this is probably the most difficult hearing in my more than two decades that I have ever sat in.”