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CIA Nominee, Grilled About Torture, Vows to Not Allow 'Immoral' Interrogations

Gina Haspel, nominee to be director of the CIA, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 9, 2018. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON — Under grilling from the Senate Intelligence Committee about her thoughts on enhanced interrogation techniques, CIA director nominee Gina Haspel said at her Wednesday nomination hearing that she “would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I felt was immoral even if it was technically legal.”

“I believe that CIA must undertake activities that are consistent with American values,” she said. “America is looked at all over the world as an example to everyone else in the world, and we have to uphold that, and CIA is included in that.”

Haspel, a career CIA officer, began with the agency in 1985 and served as chief of station at various overseas assignments, including leadership of a “black site” detention facility in Thailand. She served as deputy director of the National Clandestine Service, deputy director of the National Clandestine Service for Foreign Intelligence and Covert Action, and chief of staff for the director of the National Clandestine Service. She was sworn in as deputy director on Feb. 7, 2017.

Her supporters include former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; the White House has even touted the support of the administration critics while pushing for Haspel’s confirmation.

Her detractors include Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has said his “no” vote will be because Haspel “participated in and helped develop the program that our own government has labeled torture,” and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is not expected to be back at the Senate for the vote but in a statement late Wednesday said her “role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing.”

“Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” McCain said. “I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) asked Haspel at the hearing, “Do you believe that the previous interrogation techniques were immoral?”

While Harris interjected her demand for a yes or no answer, Haspel replied that the CIA did “extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools” at agents’ disposal.

“What I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves,” said the agency nominee.

“Do you believe the previous techniques, now armed with hindsight — do you believe they were immoral, yes or no?” Harris pressed.

“Senator, I believe that we should hold ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the Army Field Manual,” Haspel responded.

“The president has asserted that torture works. Do you agree with that statement?” Harris asked.

“I don’t believe that torture works. I believe that in the CIA’s program — and I’m not attributing this to enhanced interrogation techniques — I believe, as many people, directors who have sat in this chair before me, that valuable information was obtained from senior al-Qaeda operatives that allowed us to defend this country and prevent another attack,” said Haspel.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) asked the nominee how she would respond if Trump “ordered you to get back in that business.”

“The president has selected me to give him advice,” Haspel said. “I would not restore it under any circumstances in an interrogation program at CIA, under any circumstances.”

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asked Haspel what her thoughts on enhanced interrogation techniques would be a CIA officer was captured and waterboarded.

“Would you determine that to be immoral and something that should never be done, condoned in any way, shape or form? Your response seems to be that civilized nations don’t do it, but uncivilized nations do it — or uncivilized groups do it,” Reed said. “A civilized nation was doing it until it was outlawed by this Congress.”

“Senator, I would never obviously support inhumane treatment of any CIA officers. We’ve lost CIA officers over the years to terrorists, I just gave an example. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed personally killed a Wall Street Journal correspondent and filmed that,” she replied. “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.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said Wednesday afternoon that he would vote to confirm Haspel.

“I have found Gina Haspel to be a person of great character. 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,” Manchin said in a statement. “She has earned the trust of her colleagues in the intelligence community and her intellect, steady temperament, vast knowledge of threats we face, and dedication to our country are undeniable. These attributes make her supremely qualified to serve as our next CIA director.”