At her confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to be CIA director, probably said enough of the right things to get her the job, but her evasions on key questions about her views on torture—now and at the time she ran a secret detention site—clearly rankled Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who seemed to be looking for a reason to support her but not having much success.
Haspel, the first woman ever nominated for the job, is currently the CIA’s deputy director and its acting director since Mike Pompeo left to become secretary of state. Nearly as significant, she has spent her entire 33-year career in the agency’s clandestine services serving seven foreign tours, four as station chief. That sort of experience accounts for both the appeal and the distaste of her nomination.
CIA workers, as well as several former directors, have endorsed her nomination with enthusiasm. Not since 1991, with the confirmation of Robert Gates, has a career intelligence officer risen from within to the agency’s top slot. Not since 1973, with William Colby, has a career operative in the clandestine service done so. Many CIA insiders are suspicious of outsiders who take the reins at Langley. Given Trump’s harsh attacks on the agency’s work, especially its conclusions about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, CIA employees also welcome a director with deep loyalties to the agency. Haspel was asked at the hearing whether she agreed with the agency’s assessment of Russian interference. She said that she does.
However, this loyalty, especially to the covert branches, also raises special concerns. Haspel is known to have supervised a “black site”—a secret detention center for extreme interrogation of terrorist suspects—while she was stationed in Thailand. She was also chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, the head of the CIA’s clandestine service, when he destroyed videotapes showing agency officers torturing suspects in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
Democratic senators made the point that the CIA director serves as America’s face in several international forums and wondered whether that face should belong to someone who—however qualified she might be on other grounds—was a participant in one of the agency’s, and the nation’s, darkest chapters
Loch Johnson, a professor at the University of Georgia and the author of several respected histories of the CIA, said in an email shortly after the hearing, “The torture program was devastating to our moral standing in the world, and now a person who was up to her scuppers in the program is about to be the agency’s director?” He added, “Haspel is hardly the only viable inside female candidate” for the job. A female analyst—as opposed to an operative—might be a better choice, as she would be “untainted” by the association.
In fact, Susan Gordon, the CIA’s principal deputy director for national intelligence,* is said to be a backup candidate for the top job if Haspel is rejected. (Gordon was one of several CIA officials who attended Wednesday’s hearing as Haspel’s supportive guests.) Former CIA Director Mike Hayden, who has called Haspel the best choice to be the agency’s director, said in an email that Gordon would be the “second best pick.”
Haspel declined to discuss her work at the black sites—or, in fact, any details about her assignments over the decades—in the open hearing Wednesday morning. (A classified session was scheduled to take place behind closed doors in the afternoon.) However, the subject of torture—or what used to be officially called “enhanced interrogation”—came up repeatedly, to mixed effect.
In her favor, Haspel declared, in her opening statement, “I can offer my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that, under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart a detention and interrogation program.” Under questioning, she went further, testifying that she would not permit the program’s resumption “under any circumstances,” even if Trump ordered her to restart it.
However, her answers turned slippery when the questions grew more specific. A few senators pressed her on what she thought about waterboarding and other forms of torture not just legally but morally, at the time and in retrospect. She never quite gave an answer. She was especially evasive under questioning from Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California. “I believe that CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on our country, given the legal tools,” Haspel said. When Harris reasked the question, she replied, “I support the higher moral standard we’ve decided to adopt”—referring to the agency’s decision, in the years since the tortures, to abide by the U.S. Army’s field manual on interrogation, which explicitly forbids some of the methods that the CIA used to employ, including waterboarding.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, asked, “Should CIA be in the business of interrogating detainees?” Haspel replied, “We’re not in the business of interrogating detainees.”
When asked about Rodriguez’s destruction of what might have been incriminating tapes, Haspel cited an inspector general’s report clearing her of any culpability, though she acknowledged writing the memo—which went out under his signature—reporting that he was destroying them. She also said, under questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, that she “absolutely was an advocate” of destroying the tapes to protect the security of CIA officers whose faces were exposed.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, asked if anyone had considered making a digital copy of the tape and blotting out the officers’ faces before destroying the original. Haspel replied, “I’m just not a technical person.” Heinrich said, “It’s not that complicated.” Haspel said, “I don’t know if that was considered or not.”
When Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, noted that Rodriguez destroyed the tapes over the objections—and without the knowledge—of two White House lawyers, the CIA director, the director of national intelligence, and the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Haspel said she knew there were “some objections.” King said, “Those were not ‘some objections,’ ” but rather prohibitions expressed by superiors. Haspel said she didn’t remember those conversations.
King also noted that, after three years of sitting on the tapes, Rodriguez destroyed them right after newspapers revealed their existence. Haspel said, “I do not recall being aware of that.”
She did say that Rodriguez had told her he would consult with the CIA director at the time, Porter Goss, before destroying the tapes. She said she didn’t know until after the fact that he then destroyed them on his own without informing Goss.
Haspel also evaded questions from Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, about whether she ever called for the continuation of the interrogation program. She replied, “We’d been informed the program was legal and authorized by the president,” adding, “I and my colleagues in the Counterterrorism Center were working as hard as we could with the tools we were given.” When Wyden said she didn’t answer the question, she replied, “I think we did extraordinary work.”
When Sen. Harris asked whether she believes that torture works, Haspel paused and said, “Valuable information was obtained from senior al-Qaida operatives,” though “it’s not knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”
A few Democrats expressed frustration that the CIA had selectively declassified material about Haspel’s career, cherry-picking documents that might help her get confirmed but suppressing others that might raise doubts about her suitability. (The senators making this point have access to all documents, classified and otherwise, so they would know the contents of the more damaging ones.)
Sen. Wyden made the further point that, as acting director, Haspel herself has been the one making decisions on which documents to declassify. Haspel replied that she was merely following CIA guidelines on declassification. (It is true that almost everything about clandestine operations is highly classified.)
Sen. Harris asked if, “given the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Haspel would agree to recuse herself from these decisions and turn the matter over to Dan Coats, director of national intelligence. Finally, after Harris asked the question in several different phrasings, Haspel said, “I’ll take that for the record,” adding, “I’m not a lawyer.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee consists of eight Republicans and seven Democrats. No Republican expressed an inclination to oppose her nomination; only one, Susan Collins of Maine, so much as asked a critical question. So unless some exchange in the closed hearing tipped the balance, Haspel’s confirmation seems likely.
*Correction, May 9, 2018: This article originally misidentified Susan Gordon as the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence. She is the principal deputy director of national intelligence.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.