Haspel Bid to Head CIA All But Assured After Backing From Warner

(Bloomberg) -- The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee declared his support for Gina Haspel’s nomination to head the CIA, an endorsement that may seal her confirmation when the chamber votes as early as next week.

“I believe she is someone who can and will stand up to the president if ordered to do something illegal or immoral – like a return to torture,” Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said Tuesday in a statement. His endorsement of President Donald Trump’s nominee was quickly followed by one from Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, bringing to four the number of Democrats publicly backing Haspel.

Many Democratic senators and two Republicans have announced their opposition to Haspel, a 30-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, citing her role after the Sept. 11 attacks in supervising waterboarding and other interrogation techniques that critics call torture.

‘Valid Questions’

“There are valid questions that have been raised regarding the acting director’s record, and I have been frank with Ms. Haspel that I wish she had been more open with the American public during this process,” Warner said. “However, in both our one-on-one meetings and in classified session before the committee, I found Acting Director Haspel to be more forthcoming regarding her views on the interrogation program.”

In a letter to Warner on Tuesday, Haspel said she now believes the program was a mistake.

“The program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world,” she wrote. “With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior Agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken.”

Haspel’s comments went beyond her testimony at her confirmation hearing last week, when she repeatedly refused to disavow techniques such as waterboarding as immoral. She did pledge the CIA “will not restart a detention and interrogation program” under her leadership.

Still, Haspel cited “valuable intelligence collected” through the interrogation program in her letter, a finding disputed by its critics.

Haspel had been facing a potentially close confirmation vote. A number of Democrats and two Republicans, Rand Paul and John McCain, have said they’ll oppose her confirmation because of her role in supervising the use of the disputed techniques on suspected terrorists in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

McCain, who’s away from Washington as he battles brain cancer, said in a statement last week that Haspel’s “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

Setting Example

“The United States must be an example to the rest of the world, and I support that,” Haspel said in her letter.

Haspel otherwise has won bipartisan praise for her three decades as a working spy who would become the first woman to lead the CIA.

Among Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana also have said that they will vote for Haspel. Manchin, Donnelly and Heitkamp all are running for reelection in states that Trump won by wide margins in 2016.

Russia Probe

In written responses to questions submitted by Intelligence Committee members and released by the panel Tuesday, Haspel pledged to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and said she agreed with the 2017 findings by U.S. intelligence agencies. They found the meddling was aimed at hurting Democrat Hillary Clinton and ultimately at helping Trump win.

Asked if it’s necessary for the CIA director to “speak truth to power,” including to the president, Haspel said, “I have spent my life speaking truth to power” and that she has “delivered unwanted news to CIA directors, cabinet secretaries and the president.”

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