Haspel secures crucial Democratic votes, paving way to confirmation

Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to head the CIA, on Tuesday secured three additional Democrat votes in her ongoing confirmation campaign, virtually ensuring she will be confirmed as the first female director of the CIA.

With five Democrats now publicly supporting her nomination, Haspel looks likely to breeze through a full Senate floor vote, which is expected to take place at the end of the week. Senators Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, announced last week that they would support Haspel’s nomination. On Tuesday, Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Mark Warner, D-Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, and Bill Nelson, D-Florida, publicly added their endorsements to her candidacy.

Two Republican senators – Rand Paul of Kentucky and John McCain of Arizona – have announced their opposition to Haspel’s candidacy. Last week, McCain, who was captured and subjected to torture during the Vietnam War, called on his Senate colleagues to reject Haspel, who he said was disqualified for the role by virtue of her reported oversight of the use of enhanced interrogation techniques – which many refer to as torture – when she ran a secret CIA ‘black site’ in 2002, as well as by her failure, during her confirmation hearing, to acknowledge the interrogation program’s immorality. Haspel’s candidacy has also generated controversy because of her involvement in 2005 with the subsequent destruction of 92 videotapes documenting the interrogations. She drafted a cable ordering their destruction at the instruction of her boss, then-Director of the clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake, also of Arizona, has said McCain’s opposition to Haspel’s candidacy is a significant factor in his own decision, which he has not yet made publicly known.

Haspel won some Democrats’ support after she conceded, in documents provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, that the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques in the aftermath of 9/11 “did damage” to the CIA’s officers and its standing – something she had not stated as overtly during her public confirmation hearing last week. 

In a letter addressed to Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, Haspel wrote, “Over the last 17 years, the agency and I have learned the hard lessons since 9/11. 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.”

“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,” Haspel wrote. “The United States must be an example to the rest of the world, and I support that.”

Warner, who called his decision to support Haspel “difficult,” said in an afternoon statement, “I believe she is someone who can and will stand up to the President if ordered to do something illegal or immoral – like a return to torture.”

“I’m going to support Gina Haspel’s nomination to be Director of the CIA. I also respect my colleagues who have made a different decision,” Warner said.  

Minutes after Warner’s announcement, Heitkamp also endorsed Haspel. In a statement, Heitkamp said, “It is particularly important that the Director of the CIA puts the mission of the agency and our country’s security far above partisan politics and that the director be highly respected by agency rank and file. After meeting her and talking with former leaders in our intelligence community, I have concluded that Gina Haspel meets these standards. I am therefore planning to vote to confirm her as Director of CIA.”

Like Warner, Heitkamp said hers was “not an easy decision.”

“Ms. Haspel’s involvement in torture is deeply troubling, as my friend and colleague, John McCain, so eloquently reminded us,” Heitkamp said.  “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. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, in his statement of support for Haspel, said she had “publicly acknowledged that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program should not have been undertaken and has vowed to uphold our nation’s laws and values in leading the agency.”

Although Haspel did say – both in private meetings in the lead-up to and during her confirmation hearing – that she would “never” reinstate an interrogation program at CIA, a number of senators left last week’s public hearing troubled by her reluctance to definitively say whether her personal opinion of enhanced interrogation techniques was that they were morally wrong. During one of the most contentious exchanges of the hearing, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., repeatedly asked Haspel for a “yes or no” answer to whether she believed enhanced interrogation was – even if legal – immoral. Haspel provided a number of answers that some Democrats on the committee later criticized as being excessively “legalistic.”

In the immediate aftermath of the hearing, Senators Harris, Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; and Angus King, I-Maine, said Haspel had not been forthcoming enough about her past and had, as a consequence, failed to persuade them she was the right candidate for the job.

In an apparently concerted effort to address the concerns like-minded Democrats, Haspel provided written responses to senators’ questions following her public hearing, which were made public by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. In them, she again and repeatedly addressed the agency’s past with enhanced interrogation techniques, in language significantly reminiscent of what she wrote to Warner.

“As Director,” she wrote, “I would refuse to undertake any proposed activity that is contrary to my moral and ethical values.”

“I do not and would not hesitate to reject a proposal that fails to meet this threshold,” she wrote.

The 63-page document containing Haspel’s answers also covered territory left otherwise largely unexplored during the hearing, including Haspel’s views on Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, her commitment to cooperating with ongoing Russia probes, and her willingness to “speak truth to power.” It did not reveal many additional details about her involvement with the “black site” or with the destruction of the interrogation tapes. In matters related to both, she mainly referred readers to classified addenda or discussions that took place behind closed doors. 

Of the Iran deal, Haspel wrote, “Iran has continued to substantially meet the JCPOA commitments that the U.S. intelligence community judges extend the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year.” President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal last week.

Asked whether she believed she would be able to tell the president the “unvarnished truth,” even in cases when it might be unwelcome, Haspel said, “I believe it is critically important for the CIA as an organization, and most especially for the Director of the CIA individually, to ‘speak truth to power,’ even if these truths are unwelcome.”

In response to a question – also raised during her hearing – about whether President Trump had ever asked her to pledge loyalty to him, Haspel wrote, “No.”

She also said she would be prepared to disobey a direct order by the president, if one arose, to waterboard a detainee. “Today the law is clear,” Haspel wrote, “and such techniques are prohibited.”

“[I]f confirmed as Director,” she wrote, “I would not allow CIA to engage in the use of enhanced interrogation techniques again.”

She was also asked whether she was committed to making a priority of countering Russian influence operations targeting U.S. elections a priority at the agency and whether she would convey the seriousness of that threat to President Trump.

“Yes, I do,” she wrote in her responses.  “I believe my long experience working against the Russian target has uniquely prepared me to understand and respond effectively to the serious threat posed by Russia.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee will vote on Haspel’s nomination in a closed session on Wednesday morning.

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