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CIA pick Haspel says she won’t ‘judge’ whether waterboarding was wrong

Gina Haspel, the Trump administration's nominee for CIA director, during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 9, 2018. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)
Tom Brenner/The New York Times
Gina Haspel, the Trump administration's nominee for CIA director, testified at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

WASHINGTON — During his 2016 campaign for president, Donald Trump proclaimed that “torture works” and vowed to “bring back waterboarding.”

On Wednesday, President Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, faced tough questions from senators concerned he would ask her to do exactly that — and that her record suggests she would not speak up and say no.

Not long after a protester was dragged out of the marble-lined hearing room screaming “Prosecute the torturers,” Haspel read her opening statement to “introduce myself to the American people for the first time.” She referred to herself as “a typical middle-class American,” aside from her 33 years of undercover work for the agency, which has prevented her from starting any social media accounts or talking about her work.

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Senators quickly turned to her role in the agency when the Bush administration, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, authorized waterboarding and other interrogation tactics widely believed to be torture. Haspel, who reportedly supervised a CIA prison in Thailand where an Al Qaeda leader named Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was waterboarded, promised she would never restart an interrogation program in the future, saying she believes the CIA should be “out of the business” of interrogating terror suspects and instead focus on gathering intelligence. She also said she’d be able to speak truth to power if asked to do something wrong.

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“My moral compass is strong,” Haspel said. “I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral even if it was technically legal.”

But Haspel stopped short of saying she believed waterboarding was immoral, leaving Democratic senators frustrated.

“I’m not going to sit here with the benefit of hindsight and judge,” Haspel said.

Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, asked Haspel four times whether she personally believed using those techniques had been wrong. Each time, Haspel refused to say, instead pointing out that now they are illegal and she supports the new standard. Congress outlawed waterboarding in 2015.

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“I think you have to be very direct about these things,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, Harris’s colleague from California, said after the portion of the hearing that was open to the public.

Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, complained Haspel was hiding behind legalese. “You’re giving very legalistic answers to very fundamentally moral questions,” he said.

Waterboarding is a form of torture in which water is poured over a cloth covering the face of a person, eliciting the feeling of drowning. Haspel, who was tapped to replace former CIA director Mike Pompeo, was a high-ranking official in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center when the agency used waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques on terror suspects. Before that, she rose through the ranks on the clandestine side of the agency, becoming station chief in several cities the CIA will not disclose. She became deputy director of the entire agency last year and is currently its acting director.

Haspel also explained her role in ordering the destruction of dozens of videotapes in 2005 that showed the brutal interrogation of a detainee, including waterboarding. She conceded she was “absolutely” an advocate for destroying the tapes to protect the identities of CIA operatives depicted in them, but only if it could be done so legally. In the end her boss made the call, and she carried out the order, she said.

Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, asked her what she would do if the president directed her to waterboard a terror suspect.

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“I do not believe the president would ask me to do that,” Haspel said, as protesters in the crowd laughed loudly. “I would advise anyone who asked me about it that CIA is not the right place to conduct interrogations.”

“We’re not getting back into that business,” she added.

Haspel refused to say in the open hearing whether she had a supervisory role in the interrogation program while the CIA was waterboarding suspects, asserting that information was classified. Haspel told senators she was not briefed on the program until a year after it began. She also refused to answer whether she had been a vocal advocate for expanding the interrogation program in the past.

Haspel’s nomination was dealt a potentially crippling blow several hours after the hearing when Republican Senator John McCain urged his colleagues to vote against her.

“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense. However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing,’’ said a statement from McCain, who faced torture during his nearly six years as a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War. Now battling brain cancer in his home state of Arizona, McCain has been an influential voice among his colleagues on matters of security, intelligence, and interrogation techniques.

“Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,’’ he wrote.

Her nomination had appeared to be in trouble before the hearing, with The Washington Post reporting she offered to withdraw late last week and had to be talked down by White House officials. “She has been, and always will be, TOUGH ON TERROR!” Trump tweeted about her Tuesday. Most Democrats are fired up in opposition to her, and another Republican senator, Rand Paul, has already said he will vote against her.

She, however, did receive several boosts Wednesday. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who embraced Haspel before she took her seat for questioning, said he would vote for her. Manchin said in a statement she was “supremely qualified” for the job. After the hearing, Collins’s office released a statement saying the senator would also vote for confirmation.

Haspel is backed by a litany of former CIA officials, including several who served under Barack Obama such as Jim Clapper and John Brennan.

During the hearing, Democratic senators complained that the CIA refused to declassify more about her record in the clandestine service. Haspel conceded that as acting director of the agency, she was in charge of deciding what remained secret about her past. Democrats called that a blatant conflict of interest.

“There is no greater indictment of this nomination process than the fact that you are deciding what the country gets to know about you and what it doesn’t,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said.

The agency previously released a resume highlighting her time undercover in vague but glowing terms, with no mention of her involvement in the interrogation program. Wyden accused Haspel of releasing only information that reflected positively on her past, such as an intelligence community report clearing her of wrongdoing in destroying the tapes, while obscuring information about her role in the interrogation program. Senators on the committee have access to her full classified record but cannot talk about it with the press or their constituents.

Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com.