- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Gina Haspel, President Trump’s pick to head the CIA, emerged from a lifetime of undercover work to bat back allegations of torture and promise lawmakers Wednesday that she would fight any effort to reimpose post-9/11 interrogation practices.

Facing members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence after weeks of anticipation, Ms. Haspel firmly confronted sometimes sharp questioning from Democrats over her role at a secret CIA prison in Thailand where suspected al Qaeda terrorists were waterboarded in 2002. She refused to call the actions immoral or illegal and reminded Congress that the George W. Bush administration approved the tactics.

“I don’t think there’s any comparison between CIA officers serving their country, adhering to U.S. law, and terrorists who, by their very definition, are not following anybody’s law,” she told Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, during an exchange about a hypothetical CIA officer being waterboarded by a terrorist enemy.

But she also said those harsh policies would not be restored under her watch.

“I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal,” said Ms. Haspel, a 33-year veteran of the agency who has broad support from her colleagues in the intelligence community. “I would absolutely not permit it.”

Given her ties to the controversial chapter of the CIA’s history, Ms. Haspel was expected to face a close confirmation vote in the Senate, but she picked up a key endorsement when Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia became the first Democrat to publicly declare that he would vote for her.

SEE ALSO: Gina Haspel says she won’t allow CIA to do interrogations

“I have found Gina Haspel to be a person of great character,” Mr. Manchin, who faces a tough re-election battle in a strong pro-Trump state, said in a statement. “Over her 33-year career as a CIA operations officer, she has worked in some of the most dangerous corners of our world and I have the utmost respect for the sacrifices she has made for our country.”

Tapped by Mr. Trump to succeed Mike Pompeo, who last month was confirmed as secretary of state, Ms. Haspel has since been serving as the acting CIA director. If confirmed, she will be the agency’s first female director.

The hearing lacked the fireworks some had expected, although protesting Code Pink members had to be escorted from the hearing room.

Ms. Haspel kept calm as she walked lawmakers through some of the agency’s most divisive times. She said the agency obtained valuable information from al Qaeda detainees in the frantic days after Sept. 11, 2001, that helped head off further attacks.

Asked if she agreed with Mr. Trump’s comment on the efficacy of torture, she replied, “I don’t believe that torture works.” She added that she doesn’t think Mr. Trump would ask the CIA to resume waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

Leading up to the hearing, Ms. Haspel’s peers across the intelligence community praised her long years of experience climbing the ranks of the CIA’s clandestine service. Many former colleagues accompanied her to the hearing in a show of support.

SEE ALSO: Democrats press Gina Haspel to explain how she would deal with Donald Trump on issues of torture

But some committee Democrats said they felt Ms. Haspel had not gone far enough in repudiating what they said were the agency’s past abuses.

“I want to see, I want to feel, I want to trust that you have the moral compass you said you have,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat.

Ms. Haspel said she wasn’t involved in creating the program and didn’t even know about it until a year after it began. She said the subject was new to her at the time and, with hindsight, would not second-guess “the very good people who made hard decisions.”

But she insisted she would not allow the tactics to be used again.

“We follow the law. We followed the law then, and we follow the law now. I would never permit the CIA to resume an interrogation program,” she said.

Composed candidate

Ms. Haspel’s composure belied reports last week that she told Mr. Trump that she was ready to withdraw her nomination if the controversy proved too great or if she might be forced to publicly reveal too many details about the CIA’s record. White House officials persuaded her to push ahead.

If the committee approves Ms. Haspel’s nomination, then the full Senate will consider her, with Republicans clinging to a narrow 51-49 majority.

On another controversial topic, Ms. Haspel acknowledged that she oversaw the destruction of 92 videotapes showing rough interrogations of suspected terrorists at a secret CIA-run prison in Thailand where she once worked. She said her actions were reviewed in three investigations and each of them found she had acted properly. She denied reports in the press that she appeared personally on the tapes.

She said it was vital to erase the tapes to protect the CIA officers who appeared in the videos from al Qaeda retaliation.

“We were extremely concerned about the security risk that was posed to our officers. We were aiming to do two things: to adhere to U.S. law, but at the same time reach a resolution that would protect our officers,” she said.

Committee Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, praised Ms. Haspel as the “most prepared person to lead the CIA in its 70-year history” and said the confirmation hearing shouldn’t be used to relitigate the CIA’s post-9/11 tactics.

“This hearing is not about programs already addressed by executive order, legislation and the court of law. It’s about the woman seated in front of us,” Mr. Burr said.

Ms. Haspel filled in some details of the sketchy personal biography that the CIA had released, adding a touch of espionage poetry and humor.

She drew laughs by revealing that she had no social media account, “but otherwise you would find me to be a typical middle-class American.”

She described her evolution from an Air Force “brat” from Kentucky to operative who navigated the complex world of intelligence-gathering as a woman.

“From my first days in training,” she said in her opening remarks, “I had a knack for the nuts and bolts of my profession. I excelled in finding and acquiring secret information that I obtained in brush passes, dead drops or in meetings in dusty alleys of Third World capitals.”

Meanwhile, self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is being detained at Guantanamo Bay prison and was interrogated by the CIA after his capture in 2003, asked a judge to make public information about Ms. Haspel. It was unclear whether the information would be shared before the full Senate votes on her confirmation.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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