WASHINGTON — Gina Haspel told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that she “will not restart” a controversial CIA interrogation program if confirmed to lead the agency and that she would obey her moral compass, not President Donald Trump, if she were ever instructed to carry out other questionable activities.
“We’re not getting back into that business,” Haspel said. “I would not restart, under any circumstances, an interrogation program at CIA.
But that was not enough to convince Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who serves on the committee, to vote for her nomination.
King, who had been undecided before the hearing, announced Wednesday afternoon that he would vote against Haspel’s nomination.
Calling Haspel’s responses Wednesday to the committee “narrowly crafted” and “evasive,” King, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, joined Democrats in opposing her nomination.
“There are still serious questions that have not received the benefit of public scrutiny, as CIA — under Acting Director Haspel’s leadership — has been slow to disclose important information regarding her service,” he said in a prepared statement.
Haspel resisted efforts by senators to get her to say whether she believed it was morally wrong for her agency to use “enhanced” interrogation techniques on terrorist suspects, including waterboarding, which many have said is a form of torture. She said that the techniques had been authorized at the time by the highest legal authorities in the U.S. government and by President George W. Bush.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, pressed Haspel about what she would do if Trump ordered her to waterboard a high-value terrorism suspect, noting that Trump said during his campaign that he supports waterboarding and other controversial interrogation measures.
Haspel replied that she does not believe the president would make such an order and that if so, she could “educate him.”
“The reason I have been nominated is that people have respect for my views on this issue,” Haspel said to Collins, adding that the CIA “is not the right place to conduct interrogations,” as it does not have the proper expertise.
Collins, who had also said she was undecided before the hearing, found that response sufficient to earn her support.
“I have long believed — and have consistently stated — that this program was completely unacceptable and that waterboarding is tantamount to torture,” Collins said in a statement announcing her support for Haspel. “She testified that under her leadership, the CIA would follow the law and would not resume enhanced interrogations, and that she would not seek to repeal the law” that bans waterboarding as an interrogation technique.
Senators were visibly frustrated at Haspel’s unwillingness to say definitively whether she believed it was wrong at the time to waterboard terrorist suspects. Haspel defended the interrogation sessions.
“We got valuable information from debriefing of al-Qaida detainees,” Haspel told Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California. “I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”
King pushed Haspel to admit that she was the person at the CIA — where she is serving as acting director — blocking the declassification of materials related to her career that some lawmakers say raise additional questions about her fitness for the job.
“You are making the classification decision,” King said to Haspel, who retorted, “I am electing not to make an exception for myself, but I am adhering to existing RDI guidelines,” using the acronym for the CIA’s former rendition, detention and interrogation program.
Haspel took charge in 2002 of a secret CIA detention facility in Thailand where an al-Qaida suspect was waterboarded, and in 2005 she drafted a cable, ultimately issued by her boss, ordering the destruction of dozens of videotapes of the interrogation sessions. She told senators Wednesday that she had “absolutely” supported the destruction of 92 tapes, all depicting one detainee being interrogated, over concerns “about the security risk that was posed to our officers.” She noted that CIA lawyers at the time had determined there was no legal obligation to retain them, despite lawmakers and government officials having raised questions about the interrogations only days before their destruction was ordered.
She also told senators that she “fully” supports the current “standards for detainee treatment required by law” and that, in retrospect, the CIA “was not prepared to conduct a detention and interrogation program.” She also said that the CIA learned “tough lessons” during “that tumultuous time” and that experience reinforced her “personal commitment, clearly and without reservation,” not to restart the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.
But senators warned her that a pledge to simply follow the laws against torture were “not enough.”
“No one should get credit for simply agreeing to follow the law. That’s the least we should expect from any nominee, and certainly the director of the CIA,” Warner told Haspel, setting the stage for what was expected to be a contentious hearing.
Haspel’s hearing comes just days after she offered to bow out to avoid discussing in a public setting her role in the agency’s interrogation program. White House officials — who tweeted support for Haspel during her Wednesday hearing — convinced her not to step aside. Haspel’s answers and overall performance Wednesday could make or break her bid for the Cabinet post.
Haspel’s CIA career has been anything but ordinary — and even she acknowledged that practically nothing is known about her publicly. Still, she offered few details about her career, save for narrating how she volunteered to work in the CIA’s counterterrorism center immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Haspel dropped only hints about her biography of “brush passes, dead drops, or in meetings dusty back alleys of Third World capitals,” weaving a narrative akin to a spy novel. “I recall very well my first meeting with a foreign agent. It was on a dark, moonless night with an agent I’d never met before,” Haspel said. “When I picked him up, he passed me the intelligence, and I passed him an extra $500 for the men he led.”
Several Republicans noted that Haspel would, if confirmed, become the first woman to run the agency. Haspel also referred to this at various points in her written remarks, speaking about how she and others “leaned forward” to put her in her current position.
Panel chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, told reporters Tuesday that the committee could vote as soon as next week on Haspel’s nomination, and that he expected Haspel to receive a positive endorsement. But her chances of being confirmed on the Senate floor — where not all Republicans have pledged to support her — is not certain.
BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.