CIA nominee Gina Haspel pledges not to restart interrogation programme

SPH Brightcove Video
US President Donald Trump's nominee to head the CIA, Gina Haspel, promised lawmakers on Wednesday she would never resume a programme of harsh interrogations.
CIA nominee Gina Haspel is sworn in before the Senate Intelligence Committee for her conformation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 9, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Ms Gina Haspel, US President Donald Trump's choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), promised she would not resort to waterboarding and other harsh techniques that she once helped supervise, but critics said her reassurances fell short.

"Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation programme," Ms Haspel planned to tell the Senate Intelligence Committee according to excerpts released in advance of the hearing that was underway on Wednesday (May 9).

Ms Haspel's opponents, including human rights groups and some former military and intelligence officials, say the CIA has not fully disclosed her role in "enhanced interrogation" programmes after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks and that she still has not said whether those techniques were a mistake.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee's senior Democrat, said in his opening statement that Ms Haspel's assurance she would follow the law "is not enough".

"We must hear how you would react if the president asks you to carry out some morally questionable behaviour that might seem to violate a law or treaty," Mr Warner said.

Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee's Republican chairman, said Ms Haspel is a "natural fit" to run the intelligence agency and objected to turning the hearing into an inquiry "into a long-shuttered programme".

In 2002, Ms Haspel oversaw a secret agency prison in Thailand, where the New York Times reported that an Al-Qaeda suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded three times. She also wrote a memorandum approving the shredding of videos that documented such methods.

"I understand that what many people around the country want to know about are my views on CIA's former detention and interrogation programme," Ms Haspel said in the excerpts released by the agency, where she has served as acting director since Mr Mike Pompeo became secretary of state.

"I have views on this issue, and I want to be clear."

But the excerpts offered no further explanation.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said after meeting with Ms Haspel on Tuesday (May 8) that he plans to vote against her confirmation.

"The administration is still unwilling to declassify information that I believe the American people have a right to have and will in fact answer the key questions, which is what was the nominee's role during this crucial period and what sort of person is she?" Mr Wyden told reporters.

Mr Trump defended Ms Haspel in a tweet on Tuesday, saying "This is a woman who has been a leader wherever she has gone. The CIA wants her to lead them into America's bright and glorious future!"

Ms Haspel, who is also expected to testify in a closed session later on Wednesday, invoked the historical marker she would achieve as the agency's first female director.

Noting there were few women in senior roles when she joined the CIA in 1985, she said she's tried to do her part to change that "quietly and through hard work - to break down those barriers".

Ms Haspel, 61, also made it clear she relished the classic spywork she engaged in earlier in her career.

"I excelled in finding and acquiring secret information that I obtained in brush passes, dead drops, or in meetings in dusty back allies of third world capitals," she said in the prepared testimony.

"I recall my first foreign agent meeting was on a dark, moonless night with an agent I'd never met before. When I picked him up, he passed me the intelligence, and I passed him extra money for the men he led. It was the beginning of an adventure I had only dreamed of."

Drawing on her experience as a multilingual secret agent, Ms Haspel said her plans as CIA chief include "putting more intelligence officers in the field overseas" and emphasising "foreign language excellence." But the interrogation methods are still certain to be at the forefront of debate on Wednesday.

While many past CIA and military officials have vouched for Ms Haspel, others are among her critics.

Mr Ali Soufan, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent, said the interrogation techniques did amount to torture and were counterproductive in gathering intelligence.

"I cannot believe after all these years, we're still talking about this and we are re-fighting this battle again," he told reporters on a conference call on Tuesday set up by opponents of Ms Haspel's nomination.

"She has a lot of baggage that will further stain our reputation in the world."

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.