Political News

Rejecting CIA Torture, Haspel Seems to Secure Votes for Confirmation

Posted May 15, 2018 7:44 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, appeared Tuesday to have secured the votes to be confirmed after she declared that the agency should not have undertaken its interrogation program in which al-Qaida detainees were tortured after the Sept. 11 attacks. She had refused to condemn the program at her confirmation hearing last week.

“With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken,” she wrote in a letter to the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. “The United States must be an example to the rest of the world, and I support that.”

After receiving the letter, Warner announced on Tuesday afternoon that he would support her confirmation. Soon after, two other Democrats, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Bill Nelson of Florida, said they, too, would vote for Haspel.

The Intelligence Committee is scheduled to vote on her confirmation on Wednesday. The Senate majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he expected the full Senate would vote at the end of the week.

Haspel said one of the “hard lessons since 9/11” was the costs of the agency’s use of torture, which she called “enhanced interrogation.”

“While I won’t condemn those that made these hard calls, and I have noted the valuable intelligence collected, the program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world,” she wrote.

Haspel's apparently clear path to confirmation essentially ends a cycle of debate about the agency’s use of torture after the Sept. 11 attacks and about the years of investigations and recriminations over human rights and the rule of law that followed — and that erupted anew when Trump tapped her as the next director of the CIA.

She would be the first woman to lead the agency. But the now-likely Senate approval for her ascent to its helm, as a former operative directly involved in the agency’s “black site” interrogation prisons, is weaving that historic moment with a far more ambiguous layer of symbolism.

In 2002, she ran a CIA prison in Thailand during which a captured al-Qaida detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the destroyer USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, was subjected to waterboarding and other coercive techniques. She was also involved in the agency’s destruction of tapes of interrogation sessions in 2005.

Warner called his decision “difficult” and said there were “valid questions” about her record. But he said he was persuaded — including by things she had said privately about the torture program, and by her support among Obama-era and career intelligence officials — that she would “stand up” to Trump if he ordered her to do something illegal or immoral.

In her testimony last week, Haspel had vowed never to restart a detention and interrogation program and said she would obey current law. But she also refused to condemn the agency’s defunct torture program and insisted that it had been legal at the time.

Her letter, delivered to Warner along with her written responses to other questions posed by senators, struck a different tone. Still, Haspel did not acknowledge that she personally had played any role in the detention and interrogation program — details that remain classified. As the acting director of the CIA, she has the authority to declassify those facts, but she has refused to do so, to heavy criticism by some Democrats and human-rights advocates.

While two Republican senators, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Rand Paul of Kentucky, have expressed opposition to her confirmation, two other Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, have also said they will vote for her.

At the conclusion of last week’s hearing, Warner noted that John Brennan, who led the CIA in the second term of the Obama administration, had during his 2013 confirmation process “quite explicitly repudiated” the agency’s interrogation program. He pushed her to make a clearer public statement — one he said Tuesday he had now received.

Haspel’s repudiation of the program reinforced the obstacles to Trump’s campaign vow to bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse” because, as he then insisted, “torture works.” As president, he backed away from that idea early last year at the urging of advisers including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Mike Pompeo, whose move to secretary of state from CIA director prompted Haspel’s nomination.

Haspel’s written responses also briefly addressed other important issues that did not come up at her hearing. Asked about the Iran nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from last week, she said that Iran had continued to substantially meet its commitments. She also said she agreed with the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and pledged to “fully cooperate” with the investigations into it, including by special counsel Robert Mueller.

But most of the written questions, like those in her hearing, addressed issues related to the CIA’s defunct torture program and her role in it. Several addressed apparent discrepancies in her testimony.

For example, Haspel had testified that she was briefed about the interrogation program after a year. But the agency developed its torture techniques in the summer of 2002 and she was running a prison where they were used later that year.

Asked about that disconnect, she wrote that she meant she was told about the program a year after President George W. Bush had signed a then-classified memorandum of notification authorizing the CIA to capture and detain terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks. The agency considered its interrogation program to derive from that authority.

Haspel also faced questions about her role in the CIA’s destruction, in 2005, of 92 videotapes of detainee interrogation sessions. As chief of staff to the head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez, she drafted an order he issued to destroy the records as congressional scrutiny of the program increased. During the hearing, she said only one detainee was depicted on those tapes. But declassified documents have indicated that two of the tapes recorded the interrogations of al-Nashiri, the detainee tortured in her custody, and the rest were of another prisoner, Abu Zubaydah.

Asked about that apparent discrepancy, Haspel disclosed that a CIA lawyer who reviewed the tapes in 2002 found that there were no viewable videotapes of the interrogation of al-Nashiri, so only one detainee was depicted on them when they were destroyed. (Several of the tapes were blank and two were broken, but it has never been made public which ones; she did not explain how both of the al-Nashiri tapes were rendered unviewable.)

The tapes’ destruction prompted a special investigation by a Justice Department prosecutor, John Durham, who in 2010 apparently recommended against charging either Rodriguez or Haspel. The Justice Department has provided to the Intelligence Committee the executive summary of a classified report by Durham laying out his factual findings and legal analysis.

In addition, Senate Democrats have asked the Trump administration to provide a little-known second report by Durham related to his investigation. It centered on whether anyone who was interviewed by investigators or testified before a grand jury about the tapes made false statements or committed perjury.

Durham did not charge anyone with such a crime, and it is not publicly known whether anything said by Haspel, as opposed to some other CIA subject or witness, contributed to his decision to open a follow-up review.

While the details of Haspel’s career remain largely classified, her still-secret personnel files have been made available to the Intelligence Committee, and several of the questions to which she delivered written answers this week offered potential hints at their contents.

For example, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., pressed her about whether, during the Bush administration’s second term when the program was winding down, she advocated continuing or expanding it. She responded vaguely that “as a midlevel officer,” she believed that interrogating captured terrorists for intelligence about plots was important.

The public also does not know whether Haspel played any role in the CIA’s 2003 rendition of Khaled el-Masri, a German and Lebanese citizen, from Macedonia to a secret prison in Afghanistan where he was abused before the agency let him go as an innocent victim of mistaken identity. But several senators asked vague questions in the context of his case.

In response, she wrote: “I take full responsibility for all of my actions,” adding that one of the “hard lessons” she learned at the Counterterrorism Center was “the need to foster a culture of questioning in the workforce in which junior officers feel comfortable challenging the process to make sure CIA’s activities adhere to the highest standards.”