One influential Democrat announced Tuesday he’ll vote against Gina Haspel to be the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, saying her “background makes her unsuitable to serve.”
Sen. Ron Wyden didn’t elaborate on that background but others said Ms. Haspel, a longtime CIA operative, was involved in the agency’s waterboarding and rendition programs in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Watchdog groups said Ms. Haspel ran a “black site” facility in Thailand where detainees from the war on terror were sent, and where some of the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” were pioneered.
Abu Zubaydah, picked up in 2002, was waterboarded 83 times, “slammed against walls, sleep deprived, and locked in a coffin-like box” during his interrogation, the watchdog groups said. Later, promoted to a position back at CIA headquarters, she tried to expunge evidence of the torture, the groups said.
“She was up to her eyeballs in torture,” said Christopher Anders, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.
Former CIA Director John Brennan said Ms. Haspel will face questions about her past.
“She was involved in a very, very controversial program,” he said on MSNBC. “I know that the Senate confirmation process will look at that very closely. I do think there’s going to be close scrutiny given to her nomination. But I do think at the end of the day she will be confirmed and should be confirmed.”
Mr. Brennan, who led the agency under President Obama and has been a vocal critic of Mr. Trump, said Ms. Haspel “has a lot of integrity.”
“She has tried to carry out her duties at CIA to the best of her ability, even when CIA was asked to do some very difficult things in very challenging times,” he said.
But Human Rights First said Ms. Haspel was involved in “one of the bleakest chapters in our nation’s history.”
“No one who had a hand in torturing individuals deserve to ever hold public office again, let alone lead an agency,” said Raha Wala, a spokeswoman for the group. “To allow someone who had a direct hand in this illegal, immoral, and counterproductive program is to willingly forget our nation’s dark history with torture.”
Ms. Haspel is currently deputy director at the CIA, and Mr. Wyden, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said he had raised concerns about her background when she was appointed to that position last year.
Sen. John McCain, an influential Republican who was tortured in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, said Ms. Haspel will have to detail her involvement in interrogations.
Mr. McCain fought and won a battle in the previous decade to apply the military’s interrogation standards to the CIA and the rest of the government. He said Ms. Haspel will have to commit to abiding by those standards if she’s to win support.
“Current U.S. law is clear in banning enhanced interrogation techniques. Any nominee for director of the CIA must pledge without reservation to uphold this prohibition, which has helped us to regain our position of leadership in the struggle for universal human rights — the struggle upon which this country was founded, and which remains its highest aspiration,” Mr. McCain said.
He said she will have to come clean about her past during her confirmation hearing.
“If Ms. Haspel seeks to serve at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence, the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from her past,” he said.
For his part Mr. Wyden said he would not only oppose Ms. Haspel but also vote against confirming Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director, to be the State Department secretary.
President Trump on Tuesday fired current Secretary Rex Tillerson, nominated Mr. Pompeo to succeed him, and Ms. Haspel to succeed Mr. Pompeo.
Ms. Haspel would be the first woman to lead the CIA.
Senate intelligence Chairman Richard Burr gave Ms. Haspel his backing on Tuesday, saying she “has the right skill set, experience, and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies.”
“I’m proud of her work, and know that my committee will continue its positive relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency under her leadership,” the North Carolina Republican said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who as a past chairwoman of the committee led a long investigation into torture, said she has had conversations with Ms. Haspel in the past.
“To the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with her again,” Mrs. Feinstein said.
Mr. Brennan said the waterboarding of terrorism detainees under the administration of President George W. Bush had been deemed legal at the time.
“Don’t forget the detention interrogation program was authorized by the president of the United States, and deemed lawful by the Department of Justice,” he said. “Gina is a very competent professional who I think deserves the chance to take the helm at CIA. I just hope that in this administration, where loyalty seems to be the highest priority, that Gina speaks truth to power and represents the CIA in an apolitical, nonpartisan and objective way.”