WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee moved Wednesday to recommend Gina Haspel for CIA director, setting up a floor vote that her opponents say will signal to the world whether the United States condemns or condones torture.
The committee voted 10 to 5 to in favor of her nomination.
With two of 51 Republicans committed to voting against Haspel, and five Democrats already indicating they will support her, it appears she is set to become the agency’s first female director.
Haspel’s 33-year record at the Central Intelligence Agency intersected with the agency’s enhanced interrogation program, in which after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States agents subjected certain detainees to procedures subsequently condemned as torture. While Haspel promised during her confirmation hearing to never revive the program, she was far less resolute about condemning the techniques as immoral.
It was Haspel’s reticence to say that the CIA’s interrogation program was, in retrospect, morally wrong that sparked the Senate’s authorities on torture — namely, Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, who endured years of it as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who authored the Senate’s definitive report on the CIA’s practices — to declare Haspel unconfirmable.
It has been almost three years since McCain led the charge in Congress to curtail the interrogation techniques, pushing legislation to make the Army field manual’s code of conduct the government standard. The Senate adopted that rule change in 2015 as part of the annual defense authorization bill by a vote of 78 to 21.
Much of the concern over Haspel’s nomination has centered around campaign statements made by President Donald Trump, who expressed an eagerness to reinstate certain outlawed practices, including waterboarding.
Haspel said in her confirmation hearing that she would disobey any order from Trump to revive such techniques. But she also claimed to have a close relationship with the president, which discomfited those already uneasy about her record.
The controversial episodes in Haspel’s career include a stint overseeing a secret prison in Thailand where brutal interrogations were conducted, and her role drafting the 2005 cable ordering the destruction of 92 videotapes depicting the interrogation of one detainee. Many have also criticized her for not declassifying more documents related to her mostly-clandestine CIA career.
McCain’s warning resonated with several critics of the president, including his fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who pointed to it last week as compelling and indicated it could influence his decision — suddenly putting the nomination in jeopardy.
Haspel received a vital endorsement this week from the intelligence committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Virginia, who, believing Haspel had been “more forthcoming” in private meetings, gave her a second chance to say more clearly and in writing that “the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken” and that “the United States must be an example to the rest of the world.”
In written answers to the committee’s questions, and a separate letter to Warner, Haspel stopped short of condemning the agency officials “that made these hard calls” and praised the “valuable intelligence collected” through the program — despite the Senate’s determination that interrogations were not a viable means of gaining information.
But for Warner, and for the Democrats who followed his lead to also announce their support for Haspel on Tuesday, it was enough.
“Ms. Haspel’s involvement in torture is deeply troubling, as my friend and colleague, John McCain, so eloquently reminded us. However, Ms. Haspel explained to me that the agency should not have employed such tactics in the past and has assured me that it will not do so in the future,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, wrote, adding that she “trust[ed] her word.”
Heitkamp is one of several senators contacted by former CIA chiefs working to support Haspel’s nomination. Former CIA Director John Brennan contacted her, Warner, and Sens. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, to urge them to vote for Haspel. Three of the four have declared their support. Similarly, former CIA Director Leon Panetta made a personal appeal to Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-West Virginia, who also declared his support last week.
The Democrats who have elected to vote for Haspel have all cited the confidence she has of the agency’s rank-and-file and the broader intelligence community.
Washington Post writer Shane Harris contributed to this report.
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