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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Trump’s CIA pick promises no more waterboarding

Gina Haspel, the agency’s acting director, tells Senate confirmation hearing that her ‘moral compass is strong’

CIA director nominee and acting CIA director Gina Haspel is sworn in to testify at her Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill. REUTERS/Aaron P Bernstein
CIA director nominee and acting CIA director Gina Haspel is sworn in to testify at her Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill. REUTERS/Aaron P Bernstein

President Donald Trump’s pick for CIA director, whose role in its harsh former interrogation system imperils her nomination, told US lawmakers on Wednesday she would never resume the program and would refuse any morally objectionable orders from the president.

The Senate confirmation hearing for Gina Haspel, the CIA’s acting director, was dominated by questions about her part in the spy agency’s use of methods such as waterboarding, a type of simulated drowning widely considered torture, more than a decade ago under President George W Bush. She also was pressed about the destruction of videotapes documenting the tactics.

“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 such a detention and interrogation program,” she told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“My moral compass is strong. I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it,” Mrs Haspel said when asked what she would do if Mr Trump asked her to carry out an order she found “morally objectionable.”

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An undercover officer for most of her 33-year career, Mrs Haspel in 2002 served as CIA station chief in Thailand, where the agency interrogated suspected al Qaeda extremists at a secret prison using methods including waterboarding. Three years later, she drafted a 2005 cable ordering the destruction of videotapes of those harsh interrogations.

When pressed, Mrs Haspel often stuck to scripted answers and avoided several questions by saying they involved classified information. She later testified at a closed-door classified session.

Republican Senator Susan Collins asked Mrs Haspel what she would do if the president, who has advocated the return of waterboarding, gave her a direct order to use it on a “high-value terrorism suspect.”

“I do not believe the president would ask me to do that,” Mrs Haspel replied, without directly answering the question.

She said other government entities are now responsible for interrogations of terrorism suspects, adding: “I would not restart, under any circumstances, an interrogation program at CIA.”

Democratic Senator Kamala Harris asked Mrs Haspel if she believed the previous interrogation techniques, which included waterboarding, were immoral and demanded a “yes or no” answer, which Mrs Haspel refused to give it.

She said the CIA has learned “tough lessons,” and in retrospect she believed it was unprepared to conduct the detention and interrogation program employed after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants.

Mrs Haspel needs 51 votes to be confirmed as the first woman director of the CIA in the 100-seat Senate, where Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a 51-49 majority. The agency’s former deputy director, she would succeed Mike Pompeo, a Republican former congressman confirmed last month as secretary of state.

She has the strong support of many Republicans but faces a difficult confirmation. At least one Republican, Senator Rand Paul, has said he opposes her, and others have said they will wait to make a decision.

Late on Wednesday, it appeared that his colleague John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, would also vote against her appointment.

CBS News' Steve Portnoy tweeted that Senator McCain had urged fellow Republicans to reject Mrs Haspel’s nomination, saying her “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

No Democrat has expressed support.

Democrats pressed Haspel on a 2005 decision to destroy tapes of interrogations when she was chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, then the CIA’s clandestine service chief. Mrs Haspel acknowledged she “absolutely was an advocate” for destroying the tapes, saying she feared an “irresponsible leak” of the video that would reveal the identities of CIA agents and put them at risk.

Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich asked her, “Doesn’t that feel like a cover-up?”

“I never watched the tapes, but I understood that our officers’ faces were on them and it was very dangerous,” she said.

Haspel refused to criticize or second-guess actions taken by US and CIA leadership in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, including the interrogation program.

“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 at the time,” she said.

Committee Democrats expressed frustration they have not been given more details of Mrs Haspel’s long record with the agency, much of which remains classified.

Protesters interrupted her testimony before being removed, one yelling, “Bloody Gina” and “You are a torturer.”

Rights activists panned her performance. “Gina Haspel said she has a moral compass, but refused to say whether the torture program she supervised was wrong,” said Christopher Anders of the American Civil Liberties Union.