WASHINGTON — Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, defended the agency’s torture of terrorism suspects as her confirmation hearing Wednesday served as another reckoning of the extraordinary measures the government employed in the frantic hunt for the Sept. 11 conspirators.
“I’m not going to sit here with the benefit of hindsight and judge the very good people who made hard decisions, who were running the agency in very extraordinary circumstances,” she told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But poised to take over the agency.
She vowed that she would not start another interrogation program like the one developed under President George W. Bush, after 9/11 while the United States was actively trying to thwart terrorist plots. It involved brutal techniques like waterboarding detainees, dousing them with ice water, forcing them to stay awake for as long as a week and subjecting some to medically unnecessary rectal feeding.
“Having served in that tumultuous time,” she said, “I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”
Haspel, 61, appeared headed for confirmation after two senators considered swing votes — Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican — said later on Wednesday that they would support her.
At least one influential Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was unconvinced by Haspel’s assurances and dealt a symbolic blow to her nomination.
In a statement Wednesday night, McCain, a former prisoner of war and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that “her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” and he urged his colleagues to vote against her. McCain is being treated for brain cancer and is not expected to make it back to Washington for the vote.
Seeking to shape the public’s impression of her in her first high-profile appearance, Haspel introduced herself at the hearing as an Army “brat” born in Kentucky and a “typical, middle-class American” — albeit one who spent her adult life on the rise in the exotic world of intelligence gathering, where danger and intrigue constantly lurked.
“From my first days in training, I had a knack for the nuts and bolts of my profession,” she said. “I excelled in finding and acquiring secret information that I obtained in brush passes, dead drops, or in meetings in dusty alleys of Third World capitals.”
Haspel rejected Democrats’ suggestions that she declassify more information about her background, saying that the director should be subject to agency guidelines on keeping its secrets. She bristled and pushed back on charges that the interrogation program was immoral, insisting that her own “moral compass is strong,” and fought to describe what she said were the CIA’s successes in capturing the United States’ most-wanted men.
The interrogation program “has cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country,” she said, citing the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as an example of the CIA’s “extraordinary work.”
Her comments reflected how, years after the methods used by the CIA on al-Qaida suspects were outlawed, a deep ambivalence remains inside the agency about the program.
The program was effectively ended in 2007 and its techniques prohibited by President Barack Obama in 2009. In a sweeping report in 2014, the Intelligence Committee excoriated the agency for practices that it said were far less effective than the CIA led either the Bush administration or the public to believe.
Haspel defended herself, saying she embraced the chance to serve after the terrorist attacks.
“After 9/11, I didn’t look to go sit on the Swiss desk — I stepped up,” she said. “I was not on the sidelines. I was on the front lines in the Cold War, and I was on the front lines in the fight against al-Qaida.”
Democratic senators peppered her with confrontational questions from the outset. They repeatedly asked for details on Haspel’s role in some of the most notorious episodes of the interrogation program, including her conveyance of an order from her superior to destroy videotapes documenting 92 of the interrogations.
In her first public account of the destruction, which occurred in 2005, she said there were concerns about the “security risk” the tapes posed — that the lives of undercover agency officers might be put in danger if they were to become public.
Rumors have long swirled — but have never been confirmed — that Haspel appeared in the tapes, some of which were made when she was running the CIA detention facility in Thailand. Her answer was definitive: “I did not appear on the tapes,” she said.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, questioned the timing of the agency’s order to destroy the tapes, which came days after an announcement of a Senate investigation into government detention programs. Haspel said she had not been aware of the investigation.
“I knew there was disagreement about the issue of the tapes outside the agency,” she said.
Other pressing national security issues — Russia, China, the Iran nuclear deal or the role of the CIA under a president who once compared intelligence officials to Nazis — got little airtime as Democrats hammered Haspel, and Republicans sought to portray her as uniquely qualified to run the United States’ premier spy agency.
Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., the chairman of the committee, declared that Haspel was “without a doubt, the most qualified person the president could have chosen to lead the CIA, and the most prepared nominee in its 70-year history.”
He added, “Those who have issues with programs or operations conducted years ago should address their questions to former presidents, former directors and former attorneys general.”
Few Democrats on the committee disputed Haspel’s qualifications. What they wanted was to hear was a repudiation of the interrogation program. What they got was a nominee who was by turns confrontational and evasive.
“The president has asserted that torture works,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said in one confrontational exchange. “Do you agree with that statement?”
Haspel replied that she did not believe it worked. But, she added, al-Qaida operatives who were interrogated did give up useful information.
“Is that a yes?” Harris then asked.
“No, it’s not a yes,” Haspel said. “We got valuable information from debriefing of al-Qaida detainees, and I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”
Still, Haspel insisted that even if the Trump administration were to produce a legal opinion justifying the use of torture, as officials in the Bush-era Justice Department had done, she would refuse.
“I would not put CIA officers at risk by asking them to undertake risky, controversial activity again,” she said, adding: “I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.”
Haspel betrayed no hint of her wavering of late last week, when she considered withdrawing her nomination over fears that she did not have the full backing of the White House. Her performance appeared to persuade at least two key undecided senators — Manchin and Collins.
Later, when Manchin made formal his support, he called Haspel a “person of great character.”
His vote ensured that her nomination will pass out of the Intelligence Committee with a favorable recommendation and made all but certain her confirmation by the full Senate, where moderate Democrats up for re-election in states Trump won in 2016 are likely to follow suit.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.