(Bloomberg) -- Gina Haspel spent three decades working in secret. Now the lifelong spy is preparing for a bruising public debut as she fights to become President Donald Trump’s CIA chief amid criticism of her involvement in alleged torture programs and role in destroying videotapes of interrogations.
Haspel testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee for her confirmation hearing on Wednesday. She’s already acting CIA director, taking over after Mike Pompeo became secretary of state, and she’s received repeated public backing from Trump, the CIA and former directors of the agency as they seek to ensure her support in the narrowly divided Senate.
“This is a woman who has been a leader wherever she has gone,” Trump said Tuesday in a Twitter posting. “The CIA wants her to lead them into America’s bright and glorious future!”
But Haspel’s opponents, including human rights groups and some former military and intelligence officials, say the Central Intelligence Agency hasn’t fully disclosed her role in “enhanced interrogation” programs after the Sept. 11 attacks. Senators including Kentucky Republican Rand Paul say they won’t support her.
“Gina Haspel’s record on torture, including running a CIA ‘black site’ prison in Thailand, should disqualify her from consideration,” Paul said when Haspel’s nomination was announced.
The hearing is reopening the unresolved debate over waterboarding and other harsh techniques. Trump revived that debate as a presidential candidate -- saying “torture works” -- to convince voters he’d be tough on terrorists, according to Gregg Bloche, a professor at Georgetown University’s law school who signed a letter with Physicians for Human Rights opposing Haspel’s nomination.
“Given that Trump chose to do that, it’s critical that there be this conversation,” Bloche said in an interview. He said “there’s a huge amount still to be learned” about Haspel’s previous work, which is “a perfect test of what she might face right now.”
The 61-year-old Haspel spent Monday and Tuesday on Capitol Hill, seeking support from Democrats on the intelligence panel and meeting with critics including Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.
She’ll need the support of at least one Democrat to win confirmation, with Paul vowing to oppose her and GOP Senator John McCain away from Washington as he battles brain cancer. Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Kirsten Gillibrand already have said they’ll vote against Haspel.
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“I’m looking forward to Wednesday,” Haspel said after meeting with Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who says he’s undecided.
The CIA and White House have sought to thwart criticism of Haspel, even after the Washington Post and Associated Press reported over the weekend that she had considered withdrawing her nomination because of concern that the hearing could damage the agency’s reputation. In a tweet Monday, Trump said Haspel “has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists.”
Since taking office, Trump has suggested he would defer to the judgment of retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, his secretary of defense, who has said that torture isn’t as effective as sitting down with “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers.” As CIA chief, Pompeo also came out against waterboarding.
Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director, told reporters on a conference call last week that Haspel has been “preparing aggressively” for the hearing, underscoring that she has support from former Obama administration officials, such as ex-CIA director John Brennan, who are usually critical of Trump.
The CIA provided more classified documents about Haspel to the committee on Monday, including her performance evaluations, an agency spokeswoman said. But Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the Intelligence panel’s top Democrat, sent a letter to Haspel Monday saying the level of disclosure so far is “unacceptable.”
After meeting with Haspel on Tuesday, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a senior Democrat on the committee, said he expects the most crucial portions of Haspel’s confirmation hearing will be conducted behind closed doors, which he said sets a dangerous precedent.
Wyden said the administration is unwilling to declassify information “that I believe the American people have a right to have” and is needed to answer the question, “What was the nominee’s role during this crucial period and what sort of person is she?”
Feinstein told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on April 22 that she’s spoken to Haspel about the CIA’s interrogation program and that the nominee “regrets it.” But Feinstein said Haspel supported the methods while they were being used and that she supervised one of the sites “where some of this ‘interrogation’ -- so-called -- went on.”
In an April 24 letter to Feinstein and other senators, Jaime Cheshire, the CIA’s director of congressional affairs, said the agency is committed to providing a “complete picture” of Haspel’s 33-year CIA career, including her time working in its counterterrorism center. But Cheshire said the agency protects information regarding personnel involved in the former “Rendition, Detention and Interrogation” program, as well as information about the operation and location of any overseas detention facilities.
In 2002, Haspel oversaw a secret agency prison in Thailand, where the New York Times reported that an al-Qaeda suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded three times. Last month, the CIA declassified a 2011 memo by then-Deputy Director Michael Morell on his decision not to discipline Haspel for her role in destroying tapes of detainee interrogations.
In the memo, Morell, who was following up on an investigation by a special prosecutor, found fault with Haspel’s former boss at the time, Director of the National Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez. He said a memo drafted by Haspel calling for the destruction of interrogation tapes -- which were shredded in 2005 -- was ordered by Rodriguez and that she believed Rodriguez would seek permission from then-CIA Director Porter Goss before carrying it out.
In 2014, Senate Democrats led by Feinstein issued a scathing report on the CIA’s secret detention facilities and interrogation techniques, after bitter fights with the agency over what information the lawmakers could obtain and what they could release. It found the agency’s techniques were far more brutal and less effective than publicly portrayed.
Daniel Jones, a former chief investigator for the Senate Intelligence Committee and lead author of the report, said Haspel’s actions helped prompt the committee’s inquiry.
“The decision to destroy the tapes by Rodriguez and the creation of that cable by Gina Haspel and her advocacy of the destruction of the tapes” led to the eventual 7,000-page report, Jones said on a call with reporters last week.
President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2009 prohibiting the use of brutal tactics such as waterboarding, but his administration declined to pursue potential criminal charges against CIA agents after he said “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said confirming Haspel could undercut U.S. efforts to promote human rights because she’ll always be identified with the enhanced interrogation program.
“Her confirmation is going to be interpreted not just as sweeping it under the rug, but people overseas are going to look at it as it’s an implicit approval of that program,” Ford told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.
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