Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, tried to clear the air over her role in the CIA’s controversial interrogation program — described as “torture” by critics — at the start of her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
“I knew that accepting the president’s nomination would raise questions about CIA classified activities and my career at the agency,” Haspel told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I also understand that it is important for the American people to get to know me so they are able to judge my fitness for this position.”
Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985 and has spent most of her 30-plus years in the spy agency undercover, oversaw a secret prison in Thailand where terror suspects were waterboarded between 2003 and 2005.
“I think it is important to recall the context of those challenging times immediately following 9/11,” Haspel said. “For me, I had just returned to Washington from an overseas posting, and I reported for duty the morning of 9/11. I knew in my gut when I saw the video of the first plane hitting the tower in Manhattan that it was Bin Laden. I got up and I walked over to the Counterterrorism Center as the CIA compound was evacuated, and I volunteered to help. I didn’t leave for three years. We worked seven days a week, and I even had friends who postponed weddings and having babies. The men and women of CIA were driven and charged with preventing another attack.
“The first boots on the ground in Afghanistan were my colleagues,” Haspel continued. “The first U.S. casualty in Afghanistan was a CIA officer and colleague, and it was CIA who identified and captured the mastermind of 9/11 in a brilliant operation. I am proud of our work during that time. The hard lessons we learned from that experience inform my leadership of CIA today.”
In 2009, then-President Barack Obama signed an executive order barring the CIA from using harsh interrogation methods such as waterboarding. As a candidate, Trump said that he would consider reintroducing waterboarding and “a lot worse.” But Haspel told lawmakers on Wednesday she has no interest in restarting the Bush-era torture regime.
“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 said.
She added: “The law provides that no individual in U.S. custody may be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach that is not authorized by and listed in the Army Field Manual. I fully support the standards for detainee treatment required by law, and just as importantly, I will keep CIA focused on our collection and analysis missions that can best leverage the expertise found at the agency.”
Haspel said the CIA has learned hard lessons from its post-9/11 performance.
“We have decided to hold ourselves to a stricter moral standard,” Haspel said.
When pressed by Sen. Mark Varner, D-Va., on whether she would change her position on torture if asked by Trump to do so, Haspel was unequivocal.
“I would never ever take the CIA back to an interrogation program,” she said.
Later during the open session, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., repeatedly asked Haspel if she now believes waterboarding was immoral. Haspel would not answer directly.
Harris also asked Haspel if she agreed with Trump’s assertion that “torture works.”
Haspel hedged, saying the CIA gained valuable information from its enhanced interrogation of al-Qaida operatives but that the answer to the question was not “knowable.”
Several protesters were removed before and during Haspel’s hearing, including one woman who chanted “bloody Gina” as she was led out of the room.
The lawmakers also questioned Haspel during a closed-door, classified session on Wednesday afternoon. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.., emerged from Wednesday’s hearing to declare he would vote to confirm Haspel.
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