Torture, Morality at Heart of Senate Hearing on Trump’s Pick to Head CIA

Gina Haspel dodges questions but appears headed toward narrow confirmation.

CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel waits for her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 9. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel waits for her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 9. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Kamala Harris, a California Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, had a simple question for the woman President Donald Trump nominated to lead the CIA.

She never got an answer.

Harris wanted to know if Gina Haspel, a 33-year veteran of the agency who oversaw the torture of at least one detainee after the 9/11 attacks, had come to view the physical abuse of detainees as wrong.

“Do you believe that the previous interrogation techniques were immoral?”

Haspel, facing a tough confirmation hearing in the committee Wednesday, pondered the question for a moment — it required her to evaluate the use of waterboarding and other techniques that she at one point supervised while running a secret CIA site in Thailand.

Then she dodged it.

“I believe that the CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools that we were authorized to use,” Haspel said.

Pressed for a straight yes or no, Haspel dodged again, this time by endorsing changes in the law that have banned the use of torture: “I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to.”

The short exchange offered a glimpse into the tangled legacy of the CIA’s interrogation program in the years of the George W. Bush administration, a legacy complicated by Trump’s lauding of waterboarding and other abusive measures on the one hand and the agency’s effort to distance itself from those very methods in recent years on the other.

Haspel tried to balance the two competing agendas by pledging not to go back to torturing suspects but also defending the CIA’s actions in the aftermath of 9/11.

“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,” she said.

Haspel, who spent the early part of her career running spies during the Cold War, arrived in Thailand in 2002 to oversee a secret prison the CIA used to interrogate high-value detainees. Shortly before her arrival, the agency had ended a period of intense waterboarding of the al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. By November, another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, arrived at the base. While Haspel was chief of base at the prison, Nashiri was waterboarded several times.

At the hearing, Haspel argued that the CIA had learned a series of painful lessons from the period following 9/11, among them that the agency was ill-suited to run an interrogation and detention program. She endorsed changes to the law that have made methods such as waterboarding illegal and have limited the CIA to techniques listed in the Army Field Manual.

In another key moment at the hearing, Haspel confirmed her 2005 role in destroying videotapes of the interrogations at the prison in Thailand and said she had advocated for their destruction. Haspel served at the time as the chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, then the CIA’s clandestine director.

She argued at the hearing that the tapes posed a security risk to the CIA officers seen conducting the interrogations. Haspel wrote the cable Rodriguez sent ordering the tapes’ destruction but said on Wednesday that she thought her boss would get the approval of CIA Director Porter Goss.

Asked whether she would once again support an order to destroy the tapes, Haspel said she would not — but only on procedural grounds.

Bush administration lawyers at the time were adamantly opposed to the tapes’ destruction, but Rodriguez believed they would cause irreparable harm to the agency.

“The piece that was missing” with the tapes’ destruction, Haspel said, “was making sure that we had all the stakeholders’ concurrence.”

Haspel faulted the leadership of the agency for not moving more quickly on the issue. “When your officers are concerned about their physical security you can’t let it languish in your inbox for three years with no action,” she said. 

CIA lawyers have argued that the destruction of the tapes was ultimately irrelevant because the interrogations were described in detail in written records. But Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico poured cold water on the argument at the hearing.

Do you think a transcript that says, ‘The detainee continued to scream,’ or, ‘The detainee appeared to be drowning,’ has the same gravity, the same reality as an actual video?”

“I never saw the videos,” Haspel replied.

As Democrats made torture the centerpiece of the hearing, committee Republicans focused on Haspel’s broader record at the agency. Some seemed to suggest that Haspel had the kind of experience required to stand up to Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community, steady an erratic president, and “speak truth to power,” a phrase repeatedly invoked.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri made the most explicit case for Haspel’s candidacy as a check on Trump when he underlined the importance of her “being in the room” and her “mastery of the facts” when the president makes decisions. “Talk about your sense of obligation to present those facts and to speak truth to power at a moment when it matters,” Blunt urged Haspel.

“Truth to power is one of CIA’s most important missions,” Haspel replied.

Indeed, at times her hearing strayed into bizarre proclamations of moral rectitude. “My parents gave me a very strong moral compass,” she said early on. She later returned to the theme: “My parents raised me right.”

That may have been enough to pick up the votes she needs for confirmation. With Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky pledging to oppose her nomination and a deeply divided Senate, White House officials have said they expect a close vote.

But by Wednesday afternoon, Haspel’s prospects improved, with Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat facing a tough re-election campaign in a state Trump carried in 2016, announcing he would support her nomination.

The Senate Intelligence Committee will vote on her nomination in coming weeks, and then Haspel’s nomination will head to the full Senate for a vote.

 Twitter: @EliasGroll