Moment of truth for Trump pick to lead CIA

Gina Haspel is set to face off with senators Wednesday in what is expected to be a bruising relitigation of the use of harsh interrogation techniques during the George W. Bush administration.

Haspel is set to be grilled by the Senate Intelligence Committee not only about her role in the use of the techniques, but also about her involvement in the destruction of videotapes documenting a pair of brutal interrogations at a black site prison that she briefly ran.

ADVERTISEMENT

Democrats on the committee have lambasted the CIA — and Haspel as its current acting director — for declining to declassify more information about her participation in the interrogation program. They have hinted heavily that there is much about Haspel’s record that is troubling.

“At the root of this is whether or not she can establish trust based on past behavior, her willingness to be transparent about that and establish a framework for how she might govern and make decisions going forward,” said Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichPuerto Rico’s electric grid under scrutiny as new hurricane season looms Dem Heinrich to vote ‘no’ on Trump CIA nominee Administration bears down in late push for CIA nominee MORE (D-N.M.), who said he is “leaning” toward opposing her.

“I think this hearing is a very important moment and opportunity for all of those things. This is her chance.”

On paper, Haspel’s nomination would seem to check all the right boxes.

She is a 33-year career veteran of the agency who has been endorsed by former intelligence officials associated with both parties. She has deep operational experience covering Russia and would be the first woman to lead the spy agency.

But it’s her role in the CIA’s controversial detention and interrogation program in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks that has taken center stage in the confirmation process.

Thanks to the defection of Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulFormer intelligence leaders make show of force for CIA nominee Gina Haspel is exactly the type of leader the CIA needs today Administration bears down in late push for CIA nominee MORE (R-Ky.) and the continuing absence of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSenate GOP warms to Trump’s rescissions package HBO announces date, title for McCain documentary Hatch apologizes to McCain for funeral comments MORE (R-Ariz.), Haspel’s chances of confirmation will hang on Democratic support. And her performance on Tuesday is likely to be key to winning those votes. 

Haspel’s supporters have been closely watching Democrats up for reelection in states that went for President TrumpDonald John TrumpMcConnell trolls Blankenship on Twitter: ‘Thanks for playing, Don’ Pittenger loses GOP primary fight Blankenship concedes GOP Senate primary in W. Va. MORE in the 2016 election, like Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinBlankenship concedes GOP Senate primary in W. Va. Morrisey wins W.Va. Senate primary, averting GOP fears GOP West Virginia Senate primary: live results MORE (W.Va.), who said Monday that he is “very open minded” about supporting Haspel. 

But Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterOvernight Defense: Trump pulls US out of Iran nuke deal | Reaction and fallout | Obama calls decision a ‘serious mistake’ | Show of force for CIA pick | New questions after briefing on Niger Overnight Finance: Deal on Dodd-Frank rollback | Trump pulls US out of Iran nuke deal | House votes to repeal auto-loan guidance, setting new precedent Tester to vote ‘no’ on Trump’s CIA pick: ‘I’m not a fan of waterboarding’ MORE, a Montana Democrat who is also up for reelection, told CNN on Tuesday that he will be voting “no” because “I’m not a huge fan of waterboarding.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: AT&T paid Michael Cohen for ‘insights’ into administration | White House hosting AI summit | Georgia gov vetoes controversial cyber bill | Show of force for CIA pick | FCC chair meets Sprint, T-Mobile execs Overnight Defense: Trump pulls US out of Iran nuke deal | Reaction and fallout | Obama calls decision a ‘serious mistake’ | Show of force for CIA pick | New questions after briefing on Niger Former intelligence leaders make show of force for CIA nominee MORE (D-Va.), whose state is home to CIA headquarters, is another key unknown. He has remained notably quiet on Haspel’s nomination, although he has criticized the agency for failing to turn over adequate information on her background.

One of the big questions for the hearing is how substantively Haspel will answer the questions related to her counterterrorism experience. Up until the Sept. 11 attacks, she worked extensively on operations against Russia and in the CIA’s Europe division. 

But in 2001, she requested a transfer to the agency’s counterterror division. Sept. 11 was her first day on the job, according to The Washington Post.

During that time, the Justice Department authorized the CIA to use a swath of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques on al Qaeda suspects, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, confinement, forced nudity and waterboarding, among other things. Almost all of the details of Haspel’s role in the program remain classified, but it has been publicly reported that she ran a black site prison in Thailand during a period when one suspect was waterboarded three times.

As acting director, Haspel is the classification authority over her own record, yet there have been are no obvious signals that she will address any of the more sensitive questions related to her role in the program during her public testimony.

She is expected to provide assurances that she does not support a return to the interrogation techniques, something she has been privately telling lawmakers behind closed doors.

But those assurances appear unlikely to satisfy some critics.

“I met with her today, and as of now this is headed towards a secret confirmation process,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenFormer intelligence leaders make show of force for CIA nominee Administration bears down in late push for CIA nominee CIA delivers classified materials to Congress on Haspel MORE (D-Ore.) said. “There’s going to be something public tomorrow, but you really aren’t going to know very much about her role during the crucial period.”

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate GOP warms to Trump’s rescissions package The Hill’s 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Pfizer — Trump accuses Mueller team of secret ‘conflicts of interest’ This week: Senate tees off net neutrality showdown MORE (R-Maine), a moderate on the committee who is also being closely watched, disagreed on Tuesday with the notion that it will hurt Haspel’s chances of confirmation if she declines to answer too many questions in open session.

“No, because there’s a lot that she can’t answer in open session. That’s a legitimate answer,” she said. 

According to The New York Times, CIA message logs showing how accepting she was of the now-renounced interrogation techniques raised alarm bells in the White House and nearly derailed her nomination over the weekend. 

Reportedly fearing for the agency’s reputation, Haspel sought to withdraw her nomination on Friday over concerns that the White House was not going to firmly back her if things got rough. She recommitted only after senior White House aides assured her that the administration would stand behind her. 

In another curious development revealed on Tuesday, the principal architect behind the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is seeking to submit six paragraphs of information about Haspel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to the Times.

Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in CIA custody, according to a lengthy committee report on the program, but it is not known whether Haspel was involved either directly or indirectly in his interrogation. He is currently held in the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate Intel: Russia waged ‘unprecedented’ cyber campaign on U.S. voting systems Hillicon Valley: AT&T paid Michael Cohen for ‘insights’ into administration | White House hosting AI summit | Georgia gov vetoes controversial cyber bill | Show of force for CIA pick | FCC chair meets Sprint, T-Mobile execs Overnight Defense: Trump pulls US out of Iran nuke deal | Reaction and fallout | Obama calls decision a ‘serious mistake’ | Show of force for CIA pick | New questions after briefing on Niger MORE (R-N.C.) said Tuesday that he believes Haspel will be reported favorably out of the committee, adding that he expects to hold a vote on her confirmation next week.