(Bloomberg) -- Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, promised she wouldn’t resort to waterboarding and other harsh techniques that she once helped supervise, but she repeatedly refused to disavow their past use as immoral or ineffective.
“Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart a detention and interrogation program,” Haspel told the Senate Intelligence Committee at her confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
While Haspel has the backing of many current and former intelligence officials after three decades with the Central Intelligence Agency -- and now appears to have the votes needed for confirmation on the Senate floor -- human rights groups and some former military and intelligence officials say her role in “enhanced interrogation” programs hasn’t been fully disclosed or explained.
Senator Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, asked Haspel four times: “Do you believe the previous interrogation techniques were immoral?” Haspel said only that the CIA did “extraordinary work” to prevent another attack on the U.S. after Sept. 11, using the legal tools the agency was provided.
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s senior Democrat, told Haspel her pledge that she’d follow the law “is not enough.” He said she must explain how she’d react if Trump -- who has said in the past that “torture works” -- “asks you to carry out some morally questionable behavior that might seem to violate a law or treaty.”
Haspel said that “my moral compass is strong” and that “I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral even if it was technically legal.”
Later in the day, Warner said Haspel spoke with “a lot more clarity” on the questions he’d raised during a closed-door session with the committee, but that he hasn’t yet decided whether he will vote to confirm her.
The nominee was defended by Republicans, including Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s chairman, who said Haspel is a “natural fit” to run the intelligence agency. He objected to turning the hearing into an inquiry “into a long-shuttered program.”
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida also vouched for Haspel and said young people would be deterred from joining the CIA “if someone is smeared in this process.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Haspel’s performance before the committee demonstrated her strong experience and showed “she is the right person to lead the CIA, and the Senate should confirm her.”
Haspel may have secured the key vote needed when Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat facing a tough re-election campaign, announced Wednesday that he found her “to be a person of great character” and would vote for her. At least one Democratic vote is needed in the closely divided chamber because Republican Rand Paul is opposed to Haspel.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is away from Washington as he battles brain cancer, urged the Senate to reject Haspel in a statement Wednesday night. McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, said her “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”
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. On Wednesday, Haspel said that she could discuss such classified details only in the closed-door session.
She also wrote a memorandum approving the shredding in 2005 of videos that documented such methods. She testified that her boss made the decision to destroy 92 tapes of a single detainee as a security matter and she agreed because “I understood our officers’ faces were on them.”
In recounting lessons learned from her years at the agency, where she has served as acting director since Mike Pompeo became secretary of state, Haspel said the “CIA has learned some tough lessons, especially when asked to tackle missions that fall outside our expertise.” She said she agrees with past findings of the Intelligence Committee’s majority that in retrospect the “CIA was not prepared to conduct a detention and interrogation program.”
Trump defended Haspel in a tweet on Tuesday, saying “This is a woman who has been a leader wherever she has gone. The CIA wants her to lead them into America’s bright and glorious future!”
Haspel invoked the historical marker she would achieve as the agency’s first female director. Noting there were few women in senior roles when she joined the CIA in 1985, she said she’s tried to do her part to change that “quietly and through hard work -- to break down some of those barriers.”
The nominee, who said she has no social-media accounts, said she was introducing herself to the American people after spending “over 30 years under cover and in the shadows.”
Haspel, 61, also made it clear she relished the classic spywork she engaged in earlier in her career.
“I excelled in finding and acquiring secret information that I obtained in brush passes, dead drops, or in meetings in dusty back alleys of third world capitals,” she said. “I recall very well my first foreign agent meeting was on a dark, moonless night with an agent I’d never met before. When I picked him up, he passed me the intelligence, and I passed him an extra $500 for the men he led. It was the beginning of an adventure I had only dreamed of.”
Drawing on her experience as a multilingual secret agent, Haspel said her plans as CIA chief include “putting more intelligence officers in the field overseas and emphasizing “foreign language excellence.”
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