By Deb Riechmann
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next CIA director said Wednesday the spy agency learned “tough lessons” from its use of harsh detention and interrogation tactics on terror suspects after 9/11 and that if confirmed, she would not permit the CIA to restart such a program.
“CIA has learned some tough lessons, especially when asked to tackle missions that fall outside our expertise,” acting CIA director Gina Haspel told the Senate intelligence committee. “For me, there is no better example of implementing lessons learned than what the agency took away from the detention and interrogation program.”
Haspel’s promise could put her at odds with Trump, who spoke during the campaign about toughening the U.S. approach to fighting extremists and vowed to authorize waterboarding and a “hell of a lot worse.”
Before the confirmation hearing got underway, protesters in the room shouted anti-torture slogans. Committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said those who disrupt the hearing will be escorted out. He said the hearing is not about the now-defunct CIA interrogation program, but about who should lead the agency in the future as it faces current threats to U.S. national security.
The sound of dozens of clicking cameras greeted Haspel as she entered the room and shook hands with members of the committee. In her opening remarks, she acknowledged that the American public wants to know her views on the CIA’s now-defunct detention and interrogation program.
Haspel said that being in the public spotlight is new for her because she spent more than 30 years “in the shadows” working undercover and acquiring secret information from dead drops and meetings in dusty back alleys of third-world capitals.
She portrayed herself as a “typical middle-class American” with a “strong sense of right and wrong” who just doesn’t happen to have any social media accounts. She said she was born in Kentucky and while her family has deep roots there, she grew up as an Air Force “brat,” following her father to postings all over the world.
Haspel emphasized her experience, saying, “I know CIA like the back of my hand.”
Haspel’s fate hinges on how well she fields tough questions from senators who want details of her time running a covert detention site where terror suspects were waterboarded, a tactic that simulates drowning, and seek an explanation for why she wanted videos of the sessions destroyed.
Haspel’s critics outside Congress have stepped up their opposition, arguing that anyone who willingly participated in one of the CIA’s darkest chapters should not head the spy agency. They argue that having Haspel as the face of U.S. intelligence will undercut America’s effort to champion human rights.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that Haspel is among the most experienced people to be nominated to serve as CIA director. But, he said, many people, including him, have questions about the message the Senate would send by confirming someone for this position who served as a supervisor in the CIA Counterterrorism Center during the time of the detention and interrogation program.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and three of his Democratic colleagues recently wrote a letter to Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, asking that his office, which oversees all U.S. intelligence agencies, declassify the documents. He cited a provision of an executive order that prohibits information from being classified “in order to conceal violations of law, inefficiency or administrative error” or “to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency.”
Wyden warned it would set a damaging precedent “if this administration is allowed to get away with what I consider to be a secret confirmation” for the most visible official in U.S. intelligence.
In her defense, Haspel said that in retrospect it is clear, as the Senate committee’s 2014 report on the program concluded, that the “CIA was not prepared to conduct a detention and interrogation program.”
If confirmed, Haspel said she will follow the legal framework the U.S. has since imposed that bans any tactic not spelled out in the Army Field Manual. Under U.S. law, all government employees, including intelligence agents, must abide by Army guidelines for interrogating prisoners — guidelines that don’t permit waterboarding.
Warner said he appreciates that Haspel has acknowledged the history of the program and that she is committed to upholding the law, but “it is not enough.” He said “no one should get credit simply for agreeing to follow the law.”
Haspel didn’t mention the destruction of the tapes in her opening remarks, but last month, the CIA released a memo showing Haspel was cleared of wrongdoing in destroying the tapes.
The memo, written in 2011, summarizes a disciplinary review conducted by then-CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell. He said that while Haspel was one of the two officers “directly involved in the decision to destroy the tapes,” he “found no fault” with what she did.
Haspel said she would put more intelligence officers in the field abroad and says there has been an outpouring of support from young women at the CIA who hope she becomes the first female CIA director.
“It is not my way to trumpet the fact that I am a woman up for the top job, but I would be remiss in not remarking on it — not least because of the outpouring of support from young women at CIA who consider it a good sign for their own prospects,” Haspel said.