Torture doesn't work, Trump's nominee for CIA director tells senators

During her U.S. Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, Gina Haspel said that since her past involvement in waterboarding after the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA has learned some "tough lessons."

Gina Haspel has been under fire for involvement in waterboarding after 9/11 attacks

Gina Haspel, U.S. President Donald Trump's pick to lead the CIA, pauses while testifying at her confirmation hearing before the Senate intelligence committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to be CIA director said Wednesday that she does not believe torture works and she would not carry out any presidential order she thought was immoral.

Facing tough questioning by members of the Senate intelligence committee during her confirmation hearing, Gina Haspel said her "moral compass is strong."

"I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal," said Haspel, a 33-year veteran of the agency. "I would absolutely not permit it."

She was responding to a question about what she would do if she received a directive from Trump that she found to be morally objectionable.

Trump has said he supports subjecting terror suspects to harsh interrogation tactics like waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and a "hell of a lot worse."

Haspel said Wednesday she doesn't believe Trump would ask her to resume waterboarding and that the CIA must undertake activities consistent with American values.

Haspel, 61, faces what will likely be a close confirmation vote in the full Senate, in part because she was chief of base at a covert detention site in Thailand where terror suspects were waterboarded.

Protests disrupt hearings

Protesters shouting "Prosecute the torturers!" and "Bloody Gina" disrupted the hearing several times, and police escorted them out of the room. Haspel was stone-faced throughout.

A protester is removed by police officers as she shouts at Gina Haspel during the confirmation hearing. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Haspel said that she agrees with others at the CIA who have said that valuable information was obtained during the debriefing of al-Qaeda detainees. But she adds that it's not known whether harsh interrogation techniques "played a role in that."

Haspel said the spy agency learned "tough lessons" from its use of harsh detention and interrogation tactics on terror suspects after Sept. 11. 

"It is important to recall the context of those challenging times immediately following 9/11," she said. "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."

Committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina who supports Haspel, stressed that the hearing was not about the now-defunct CIA interrogation program, but about who should lead the agency in the future as it faces current threats to U.S. national security.

Haspel said that being in the public spotlight is new for her because she spent more than 30 years "in the shadows" working undercover and acquiring secret information from dead drops and meetings in dusty back alleys of Third World capitals.

She portrayed herself as a "typical middle-class American" with a "strong sense of right and wrong," who just doesn't happen to have any social media accounts. She said she was born in Kentucky and while her family has deep roots there, she grew up as an air force "brat," following her father to postings all over the world.

"I joined CIA in 1985 as a case officer in the clandestine service," she said. "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."

Haspel's fate hinges on how well she fields tough questions from senators about details of her time running the covert detention site where terror suspects were waterboarded, a tactic that simulates drowning. Some senators are also seeking an explanation for why she wanted videos of the sessions destroyed.

Malachy Kilbride, of Camp Springs, Md., holds a sign protesting the nomination of Haspel to head the CIA as two other protesters wear orange jumpsuits and black hoods to represent Guantanamo detainees. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Last month, the CIA released a memo showing Haspel was cleared of wrongdoing in destroying the tapes. The Justice Department also investigated, but no charges were filed.

The 2011 memo that the CIA released summarizes a disciplinary review conducted by the CIA's then-deputy director Mike Morell. He said that while Haspel was one of the two officers "directly involved in the decision to destroy the tapes," he "found no fault" with what she did.

Asked whether she would support the destruction of the tapes today, Haspel said she would not. She said she never saw the videos and was not depicted on them, but that the destruction was important at the time to protect the CIA personnel who appear on the tapes from being targeted by militants.

Haspel's critics outside Congress argue that anyone who willingly participated in one of the CIA's darkest chapters should not head the spy agency. They argue that having Haspel as the face of U.S. intelligence will undercut U.S. efforts to champion human rights.

'Secret confirmation'

Democrats have complained that the CIA has failed to declassify enough information on her career, leaving the public in the dark about the person who might end up leading the CIA.

Oregon's Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, and three of his party colleagues recently wrote a letter to Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, asking that his office, which oversees all U.S. intelligence agencies, declassify the documents.

Wyden warned it would set a damaging precedent "if this administration is allowed to get away with what I consider to be a secret confirmation" for the most visible official in U.S. intelligence.

Haspel greets supporters at the conclusion of her Senate confirmation hearing. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Haspel said she would put more intelligence officers in the field abroad and says there has been an outpouring of support from young women at the CIA who hope she becomes the first female CIA director.

"It is not my way to trumpet the fact that I am a woman up for the top job, but I would be remiss in not remarking on it — not least because of the outpouring of support from young women at CIA who consider it a good sign for their own prospects," Haspel said.

'Person of great character'

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said Wednesday, after attending Haspel's confirmation hearing, that he had decided to vote to confirm Haspel.

Manchin said he found Haspel to be a "person of great character" and that he has respect for the 33 years she spent working for the CIA all over the world.
 
Most Republicans, except Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, are expected to vote for Haspel. But support is not certain, which means she would need at least one Democratic vote to be confirmed by the Senate.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona urged his colleagues to vote against the confirmation. McCain was detained and tortured in prison during the Vietnam War and is a leading voice against harsh interrogation. He is battling brain cancer and is not expected to be able to vote.

McCain said in a statement late Wednesday that Haspel had failed to fully explain her involvement in the CIA's enhanced interrogation program.

"I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defence," said McCain. "However, Ms. Haspel's role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture's immorality is disqualifying."

Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine said he will vote against the confirmation. King said the CIA, under acting director Haspel's leadership, has been slow to disclose information about her career. He also complained that some of her responses during Wednesday's confirmation hearing were "narrowly crafted and evasive."