WASHINGTON — Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, told lawmakers on Wednesday that she would not restart the agency’s defunct torture program if confirmed to head the CIA — but she refused to weigh in on the morality of the program.
Asked several times whether she thought the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA on terrorism suspects in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks were moral, Haspel dodged the question. She claimed the CIA’s interrogation program was legal at the time, and said she now supports limiting interrogation techniques to the ones outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manuals.
“I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to,” Haspel said, pointing to anti-torture legislation passed by Congress years after the CIA shut down its interrogation program. (Torture was already illegal under the Geneva Conventions when the CIA began interrogating detainees using techniques like waterboarding.) The CIA should focus on intelligence collection and analysis and leave interrogations to the Pentagon and the FBI, Haspel said.
Haspel, who oversaw a black site where at least two detainees were waterboarded (one of them before Haspel arrived at the prison), faces a contentious confirmation process. Most Democrats are expected to oppose her confirmation because of her involvement in the interrogation program and her subsequent role in destroying videotapes that documented the interrogations. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has also said he will vote against her.
Haspel, the current acting CIA director, was expected to assure lawmakers on Wednesday that she would not restart the CIA’s interrogation program — even if ordered to do so by Trump, who has expressed enthusiasm for waterboarding terrorism suspects. But Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee appeared frustrated that she would not outright condemn the CIA’s past conduct.
“I want to see, I want to feel, I want to trust that you have the moral compass that you said you have,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) told her. “You’re giving very legalistic answers to very fundamentally moral questions.”
Haspel, however, did not express remorse about the CIA’s use of torture. If anything, she appeared frustrated with the continued focus on the matter.
“I’m not going to sit here with benefit of hindsight and judge the very good people who made hard decisions, who were running the agency, in very extraordinary circumstances at the time,” she told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) later told HuffPost it troubled her that Haspel did not answer “four different times” whether the CIA’s interrogation techniques were immoral. “I think she knows the answer and she didn’t give it,” Harris said.
At one point, Haspel seemed offended by a question about whether she’d called for the interrogation program to be continued as it was winding down.
“Let me say this about myself. After 9/11, I didn’t look to go sit on the Swiss desk,” she said. “I stepped up. I was not on the sidelines. I was on the front lines in the Cold War and I was on the front lines in the fight against al Qaeda.”
“I’m very proud of the fact that we captured the perpetrator of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I think we did extraordinary work,” she continued. “To me, the tragedy is that the controversy surrounding the interrogation program... has cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country.”
“I don’t believe that torture works,” Haspel said. But the CIA obtained “valuable information” through its interrogations, she claimed. It is unknowable whether enhanced interrogation led to that information, she said, echoing a longstanding CIA defense of the program.
Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee, meanwhile, said they were satisfied by Haspel’s responses about the CIA interrogation program, saying they’d received assurances from her in private that it was not moral.
“I don’t think I got that from her at all,” Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said when asked about Haspel’s dodging of the question. “I think she shares my view and everyone’s view up here that it is immoral.”
Lawmakers also pushed Haspel on her role in destroying 92 videotapes that showed the CIA interrogating Abu Zubaydah, the agency’s first detainee. At the direction of her boss at the time, Jose Rodriguez, Haspel drafted a cable calling for the destruction of the tapes. Haspel said Wednesday that she supported Rodriguez’s decision because the tapes could have endangered the CIA officials who appeared in them if they’d leaked.
When Heinrich asked why the CIA did not preserve a digital copy of the tapes with the faces of the CIA officials blacked out, Haspel said she didn’t know. “I’m just not a technical person,” she said.
Ahead of Wednesday’s confirmation hearing, the CIA launched an unusually aggressive lobbying campaign on behalf of Haspel, pushing stories about her popularity within the agency and pointing out that she would be the first female CIA director.
Democratic lawmakers say the CIA selectively declassified information about the parts of her career that are flattering and withheld potentially damaging information. Haspel confirmed on Wednesday that she was involved in decisions about which parts of her record to declassify — but said she followed standard guidance.
While the CIA has highlighted the parts of her career that were unrelated to the interrogation program, the president has suggested that he chose her, in part, because of her role at the black sites.
The day before her confirmation hearing, Trump tweeted in support of Haspel, saying she “has been, and always will be, TOUGH ON TERROR!”
Haspel received a boost after the hearing on Wednesday when Sen. Joe Manchin (announced he would support her nomination to lead the CIA..), a vulnerable red-state Democrat up for re-election this year,
This article has been updated to include Harris and Risch’s comments and to reflect Manchin’s announcement.