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Haspel vows at confirmation hearing that she would not allow torture by CIA

Posted May 9, 2018 1:47 p.m. EDT
Updated May 9, 2018 3:09 p.m. EDT

Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, told senators at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that she would not allow the agency to start another brutal interrogation program that employed torture techniques.

She was by turns confrontational and evasive as senators pressed her about the CIA’s use of torture and her views on it. “My moral compass is strong,” she insisted at one point.

As a career spy, Haspel spent most of her life in the shadows and she opened by saying she welcomed “the opportunity to introduce myself to the American people.”

She sought to portray herself as a “typical, middle-class American” — an Air Force “brat” from Kentucky, just one who lucked into a career in the rarefied world of intelligence gathering. With the steady, impassive bearing of a trained CIA officer, she portrayed her years as a spy as filled with danger and intrigue.

“From my first days in training, I had a knack for the nuts and bolts of my profession,” she said. “I excelled in finding and acquiring secret information that I obtained in brush passes, dead drops, or in meetings in dusty alleys of Third World capitals.”

She also confronted her record on torture, the issue that has dominated her nomination.

“I understand that what many people around the country want to know about are my views on CIA’s former detention and interrogation program,” Haspel said. “Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”

It was not clear whether her remarks would satisfy Democrats on the committee who signaled that they wanted a clear repudiation of her role and of torture carried out by others at the agency.

She also highlighted the fact that she would be the first woman to lead the CIA in the male-dominated world of spying.

Few women were in senior roles when she joined the CIA, and “we are stronger now because that picture is changing. I did my part — quietly and through hard work — to break down some of those barriers.”

Senators immediately launched into questioning about one of the most controversial episodes of Haspel’s career — her role in the destruction of interrogation videotapes that showed the torture of al-Qaida detainees. This is the first time she has given her account of the destruction, which occurred in 2005.

She said there were concerns about the “security risk” the tapes posed — that the lives of undercover agency officers might be put in danger if the tapes were to become public.

There have long been rumors — never confirmed — that Haspel appeared in the tapes, some of which were made when she was running a CIA detention facility in Thailand in 2002. Her answer was definitive: “I did not appear on the tapes,” she said.

But Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., questioned the timing of the agency’s order to destroy the tapes, which came just days after the announcement of a Senate investigation into government detention programs. She said she wasn’t aware of the order.

“I knew there was disagreement about the issue of the tapes outside the agency,” she said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who led the committee’s torture investigation, pressed Haspel on the selective declassification of information about her record and pressed for an explanation of her role in the interrogation program.

“Given the CIA’s refusal to make your record public, I am very limited in what I can say,” Feinstein began, before lamenting that despite personal affection, the hearing was “probably the most difficult hearing in my more than two decades.”

Haspel rejected that jab, insisting she thought it unwise to bend department guidelines on classification just to help her own case.

“It has been suggested to me by my team that if we tried to declassify some of my operational history, it would help my nomination,” she said. “I said that we could not do that. It is very important that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency adhere to the same classification guidelines that all employees must adhere to because there are very good reason for those classification guidelines.” Haspel also swatted back an assertion by Feinstein that Haspel was an unidentified woman referenced as the head of the agency’s interrogation program in a memoir by John A. Rizzo, the CIA’s former general counsel.

Rizzo, Haspel said, was simply wrong and Feinstein must have missed a correction he later issued.

“Senator, I did not run the interrogation department,” Haspel said. “In fact, I was not even read into the interrogation program until it had been up and running for a year.”

That assertion, however, raised its own questions. Haspel arrived in Thailand in late 2002, the year the interrogation program began, to oversee a secret prison. An al-Qaida suspect was waterboarded three times while she was there.

Democrats have indicated that they are willing to get behind Haspel’s nomination, but not without extracting serious and unequivocal commitments from her. Warner, the panel’s top Democrat, laid out a narrow path to “yes” in his opening remarks.

He said that Democrats would expect Haspel to cooperate with the committee as it tries to exercise oversight. He asked her to pledge to cooperate with the ongoing investigations into Russian election interference by both the committee and special counsel Robert Mueller. And he said he would want to know how Haspel would deal with a president “who does not always seem interested in hearing, mush less speaking, the truth.” But, as expected, Warner said he was most concerned with Haspel’s views of the brutal interrogation program she helped run in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Ms. Haspel, what the committee must hear, is your own view” of the program, Warner said. “Should the United States ever permit detainees to be treated the way the CIA treated detainees under the program — even if you believe it was technically ‘legal’? Most importantly, in your view — was the program consistent with American values?”

He continued: “We must hear how you would react if the president asked you to carry out some morally questionable behavior that may seem to violate a law or treaty.”

But despite their repeated efforts to pin down her views on the morality of the enhanced interrogation program and the use of torture general, many of the committee’s more liberal members made clear they were less than satisfied with her answers.

“The president has asserted that torture works,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said. “Do you agree with that statement?”

“Senator, I — I don’t believe that torture works,” Haspel said. But, she added, that “valuable information” was obtained from al-Qaida operatives who underwent advanced interrogation by the agency.

“Is that a yes?” Harris asked.

“No, it’s not a yes,” Haspel said. “We got valuable information from debriefing of al-Qaida detainees, and I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”