“We’re not getting back into that business,” Haspel said. “I would not restart, under any circumstances, an interrogation program at CIA.”
“My moral compass is strong,” Haspel said as the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), pressed her to define her “moral code.”
“I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that is immoral, even if it is technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it,” Haspel continued. “I believe CIA must undertake activities that are consistent with American values.”
Haspel resisted efforts by senators to get her to say whether she believed it was morally wrong for her agency to use “enhanced” interrogation techniques on terrorist suspects, including waterboarding, which many have said is a form of torture. She said that the techniques had been authorized at the time by the highest legal authorities in the U.S. government and by President George W. Bush.
Senators were visibly frustrated at Haspel’s unwillingness to say definitively whether she believed it was wrong at the time to waterboard terrorist suspects. Haspel defended the interrogation sessions.
“We got valuable information from debriefing of al-Qaeda detainees,” she told Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). “I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”
Senators have asked several of Trump’s Cabinet nominees to commit to standing up to the president and informing Congress if he were to pressure them to do anything legally or morally questionable. But the pledge takes on extra significance with Haspel, whose hearing centered around the role she played in the CIA’s interrogation program — something Trump said on the campaign trail he wouldn’t mind bringing back into practice.
Haspel told senators that she doubted the president would ever ask her to waterboard a suspect, stressing that experience had shown that the CIA “is not the right place to conduct interrogations,” as it does not have the proper expertise.
Haspel said she had a “great reputation” with Trump and his inner circle, adding that “the president does turn to me for my view on certain countries and certain experiences.”
“I give him by best advice,” Haspel said, noting that she separates her views from that of CIA analysts.
Haspel took charge in 2002 of a secret CIA detention facility in Thailand where an al-Qaeda suspect was waterboarded, and in 2005 she drafted a cable, ultimately issued by her boss, ordering the destruction of dozens of videotapes of the interrogation sessions. She told senators Wednesday that she had “absolutely” supported the destruction of 92 tapes, all depicting one detainee being interrogated, over concerns “about the security risk that was posed to our officers.” She noted that CIA lawyers at the time had determined there was no legal obligation to retain them, despite lawmakers and government officials having raised questions about the interrogations only days before their destruction was ordered.
But when asked by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) whether she would support the same order today, she said she “would not” — noting that she had learned from experience that more stakeholders should have been involved in the decision.
She also told senators that she “fully” supports the current “standards for detainee treatment required by law” and that, in retrospect, the CIA “was not prepared to conduct a detention and interrogation program.” She also said that the CIA learned “tough lessons” during “that tumultuous time” and that experience reinforced her “personal commitment, clearly and without reservation,” not to restart the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.
But senators warned her that a pledge to simply follow the laws against torture were “not enough.”
“No one should get credit for simply agreeing to follow the law. That’s the least we should expect from any nominee and certainly the director of the CIA,” Warner told Haspel, setting the stage for what was expected to be a contentious hearing.
Panel Democrats and some Republicans were primed to grill the career CIA operative about her clandestine background, particularly the role she played in the agency’s controversial interrogation program. They want Haspel to provide a public reckoning not only of her personal views on the interrogation techniques that were employed but also of the rest of her 33-year record at the agency. The CIA has refused to declassify materials about her tenure.
Haspel pushed back against the characterization that she held a decision-making role in the interrogation program. John Rizzo, the CIA’s former acting general counsel, has written in his memoir that the chief of staff to the head of clandestine operations in 2005 — the position Haspel held — “had previously run the interrogation program.”
That person running the program was not her, Haspel said. Rizzo “was wrong and he issued a correction.”
Haspel’s hearing comes just days after the nominee offered to bow out, to avoid discussing in a public setting her role in the agency’s interrogation program. White House officials — who tweeted support for Haspel during her Wednesday hearing — persuaded her not to step aside. Haspel’s answers and overall performance Wednesday could make or break her bid for the Cabinet post.
Haspel spoke deliberately and carefully in her opening statement, calling the hearing “a new experience for me, as I spent over 30 years undercover and in the shadows,” and noting that the hearing was the first time she had directly engaged with the American public in her career.
“I think you will find me to be a typical middle-class American,” Haspel told senators.
But Haspel’s CIA career has been anything but ordinary — and she acknowledged that practically nothing is known about her publicly. Still, she offered few details about her career, save for narrating how she volunteered to work in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Haspel dropped only hints about her biography of acquiring information “in brush passes, dead drops, or in meetings in dusty allies of Third World capitals,” weaving a narrative akin to a spy novel. “I recall very well my first meeting with a foreign agent. It was on a dark, moonless night with an agent I’d never met before,” Haspel said. “When I picked him up, he passed me the intelligence and I passed him an extra $500 for the men he led.”
The CIA has made documents about Haspel’s career available to lawmakers to read, but it has not declassified them so that they can be discussed with the public — save for an internal review that found Haspel was not at fault in the destruction of the interrogation tapes. Warner called that decision “unacceptable” in a letter sent to Haspel earlier this week
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pushed Haspel to acknowledge that she was the person at the CIA — where she is serving as acting director — blocking the declassification of materials related to her career that some lawmakers say raise additional questions about her fitness for the job.
“You are making the classification decision,” King said to Haspel.
She retorted, “I am electing not to make an exception for myself, but I am adhering to existing RDI guidelines,” using the acronym for the CIA’s former rendition, detention and interrogation program.
Harris challenged Haspel to recuse herself from the decisions about declassification of her record. Haspel demurred, questioning whether she would even have the authority to recuse herself, as she is “not a lawyer.”
“I am following the guidelines that exist at CIA,” Haspel told Harris, offering no promises to try to leave the declassification decision to someone else.
Haspel cited her support from the rank and file in the agency, noting that “they know that I don’t need time to learn the business of what CIA does.”
“I know CIA like the back of my hand,” she said. “I know them, I know the threats we face, and I know what we need to be successful in our mission.”
Haspel’s career success is not in question — Warner and the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), praised her for her tenure and work in the CIA. But committee members are divided over whether Haspel’s career is enough to recommend her for the public, Cabinet-level position of leading the agency.
Several Republicans noted that Haspel would, if confirmed, become the first woman to run the agency. Haspel also referred to this at various points in her written remarks, speaking about how she and others “leaned forward” to put her in her current position.
Several Democrats were frustrated by what they saw as Haspel’s efforts to parse “legalese” when answering questions about her role drafting the cable ordering the destruction of the interrogation tapes.
“That was 17 years ago,” Haspel told Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), arguing that “when you’re out in the trenches and Washington says, ‘This is what we need you to do. This is legal. The attorney general has deemed it so,’ ” someone in her position would have no real say in the matter.
“In all of my assignments I have conducted myself honorably and in accordance with U.S. law,” she said. “My parents raised me right. I know the difference between right and wrong.”
Haspel pledged to cooperate with congressional oversight and tell lawmakers that “if we can’t share aspects of our secret work with the public, we should do so with their elected representatives.” She will have the opportunity to provide more details about her tenure during a closed-door hearing after her public testimony.
Burr told reporters Tuesday that the committee could vote as soon as next week on Haspel’s nomination and that he expected Haspel to receive a positive endorsement. But her chances of being confirmed on the Senate floor — where not all Republicans have pledged to support her — is not certain.