The Senate Intelligence Committee moved Wednesday to recommend Gina Haspel for CIA director, setting up a floor vote that her opponents say will signal to the world whether the United States condemns or condones torture.
The committee voted 10 to 5 in favor of her nomination.
In a statement announcing the outcome, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the panel’s chairman, called Haspel “the most qualified person” President Trump could have chosen for the Cabinet post. “She has acted morally, ethically, and legally, over a distinguished 30-year career,” he said, “and is the right person to lead the Agency into an uncertain and challenging future.”
With only three of 51 Republicans committed to voting against Haspel and six Democrats indicating that they will support her, she appears set to become the agency’s first female director. The full Senate is expected to vote on her confirmation in coming weeks.
Haspel’s 33-year record at the CIA intersected with the agency’s “enhanced interrogation” program, in which, after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, agents subjected certain detainees to procedures subsequently condemned as torture. Although Haspel promised during her confirmation hearing never to revive the program, she was far less resolute about condemning the techniques as immoral.
It was Haspel’s reluctance to say that the CIA’s interrogation program was, in retrospect, morally wrong that sparked the Senate’s authorities on torture — namely Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who endured years of it as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who wrote the Senate’s definitive report on the CIA’s practices — to declare Haspel unconfirmable.
It has been almost three years since McCain led the charge in Congress to curtail the interrogation techniques, pushing legislation to make the Army Field Manuals’ code of conduct the government standard. The Senate adopted that rule change in 2015 as part of the annual defense authorization bill by a vote of 78 to 21.
Much of the concern about Haspel’s nomination has centered on campaign statements made by Trump, who expressed an eagerness to reinstate certain outlawed practices, including waterboarding.
Haspel said during her confirmation hearing that she would disobey any order from Trump to revive such techniques. But she also claimed to have a close relationship with the president, which discomfited those already uneasy about her record.
The controversial episodes in Haspel’s career include a stint overseeing a secret prison in Thailand where brutal interrogations were conducted and her role drafting a cable in 2005 that ordered the destruction of 92 videotapes depicting the interrogation of one detainee. Many also have criticized her for not declassifying more documents related to her mostly clandestine CIA career.
McCain’s warning resonated with several critics of the president, including Jeff Flake, his fellow Republican senator from Arizona, who announced Wednesday evening that he would oppose Haspel’s nomination.
“As a country we need to turn the page on the unfortunate chapter in the agency’s history having to do with torture,” he said in a statement explaining his decision. “My questions about Ms. Haspel’s role in the destruction of videotapes relevant to discussions occurring in Congress regarding the program have not been adequately answered.”
But Haspel received a vital endorsement this week from Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat. He said Haspel had been “more forthcoming” in private meetings in which he gave her a second chance to say more clearly and in writing that “the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken” and that “the United States must be an example to the rest of the world.”
In a statement released after Wednesday’s vote, Warner said Haspel would be a strong advocate for the CIA’s workforce “and an independent voice who can and will stand up on behalf of our nation’s intelligence community.”
“Most importantly,” Warner said, “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.”
In written answers to the committee’s questions and in a separate letter to Warner, Haspel stopped short of condemning the agency officials who “made these hard calls” and praised the “valuable intelligence collected” through the program — despite the Senate’s determination that the interrogations were not a viable means of gaining information.
But for Warner, and for the Democrats who followed his lead to announce their support for Haspel on Tuesday, it was enough.
“Ms. Haspel’s involvement in torture is deeply troubling, as my friend and colleague, John McCain, so eloquently reminded us. However, Ms. Haspel explained to me that the agency should not have employed such tactics in the past and has assured me that it will not do so in the future,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) wrote, adding that she “trust[ed] her word.”
Heitkamp is one of several senators contacted by former CIA chiefs working to support Haspel’s nomination. Former CIA director John Brennan contacted her, Warner, and Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to urge them to vote for Haspel. All four have declared their support; Shaheen announced her decision Wednesday evening. Similarly, former CIA director Leon E. Panetta made a personal appeal to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who declared his support last week. Another Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), announced Tuesday he would vote for Haspel.
The Democrats who have elected to vote for Haspel have cited the confidence she has in the agency’s rank and file and the broader intelligence community.
Shane Harris contributed to this report.