In confrontational hearing, Gina Haspel won't say if torture was "immoral"

Haspel had a heated encounter with Sen. Kamala Harris on the morality of waterboarding

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published May 9, 2018 5:25PM (EDT)

CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate (Select) Committee on Intelligence May 9, 2018. (Getty/Alex Wong)
CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate (Select) Committee on Intelligence May 9, 2018. (Getty/Alex Wong)

Controversy ensued when President Donald Trump nominated Gina Haspel to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency replacing Mike Pompeo, who has moved to assume the position of Secretary of State. The contention reportedly caused Haspel to consider withdrawing her nomination.

On paper, Haspel appears to have the credentials to be a qualified candidate. A veteran of 33 years in the agency, she would be the first woman to lead it. In fact, there’s been little talk about her being inexperienced.

Yet when you take a look at her dark history — like that time in the early aughts when she oversaw a secret "black site" in Thailand where suspected terrorists were subjected to torture techniques such as waterboarding — and her credentials seem more questionable.

Does she support torturing tactics? Or does she think they’re immoral? These are questions she was pressed to answer during today’s CIA confirmation hearing.

At first, Haspel began by addressing the elephant in the room.

"I understand that what many people around the country want to know about are my views on CIA’s former detention and interrogation program," Haspel said to the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”

In the hearing, Haspel shed light on her early days as a spy. She joined the CIA in 1985 as an operations officer in the Clandestine Service.

"From my first days in training, I had a knack for the nuts and bolts of my profession. I excelled in finding and acquiring secret information that I obtained in brush passes, dead drops, or in meetings in dusty back allies of third world capitals," she said.

Immediately, senators jumped in with tough questions. When asked by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., if she would restart a detention and interrogation program — even if ordered to do so by President Trump — she said no.

“I would not restart, under any circumstances, an interrogation program at CIA," Haspel said.

Tensions flared when Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California had her few minutes of interrogation.

"One question I've not heard you answer is, do you believe the previous interrogation techniques were immoral?" Harris asked.

Haspel started to answer by talking about the tactics' legality.

"I'm not asking do you believe they were legal, I'm asking do you believe they were immoral,” Harris interrupted.

“Senator, I believe that CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools,” Haspel responded.

“Please answer yes or no. Do you believe in hindsight that those techniques were immoral?” Harris pressed.

“What I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves [to],” Haspel said.

Harris asked Haspel to “please answer the question,” to which Haspel responded: “I think I've answered the question.”

Harris’s urgency to press for an answer seemed to echo what other Democratic senators were wondering.

“I know you believed it was legal,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said. " I want to trust that you have the moral compass you said you have. You're giving very legalistic answers to very moral questions.”

According to CNN, protesters repeatedly interrupted Haspel throughout the hearing, one of them even yelled, "Bloody Gina!" Eventually a protester was removed from the hearing after interrupting Haspel while she was answering a question.

Haspel also noted that her gender gives her a leg up with her allies.

”It is not my way to trumpet the fact I am a woman for the top job in the CIA, but I would be remiss in not remarking on it, not least because of the outpouring of support from young women in the CIA and across the [intelligence community], because they consider it a good sign for their own prospects,” she said.

Yet critics are taking a very strong stance against her nomination — in the Senate and outside it.

Some Democratic senators on the Intelligence Committee wrote a letter to the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, asking for information related to Haspel’s involvement in the interrogation program.

“The American people deserve transparency regarding the background of a nominee who will be asked to represent them, and their values, around the world,” they wrote.

A group of over 100 career and non-career senior diplomats also wrote a letter to the Senate expressing “serious concern.”

“We have no reason to question Ms. Haspel’s credentials as both a leader and an experienced intelligence professional. Yet she is also emblematic of choices made by certain American officials in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001 that dispensed with our ideals and international commitments to the ultimate detriment of our national security,” the letter stated. “What we do know, based on credible, and as yet uncontested reporting, leaves us of the view that [Ms. Haspel] should be disqualified from holding cabinet rank.”

Diplomats who signed the letter have served under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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