Haspel confirmed as CIA's first female director

Ms Gina Haspel being sworn in to testify at her Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Washington last week. Lawmakers approved her nomination following a CIA public relations drive to bolster her chances.
Ms Gina Haspel being sworn in to testify at her Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Washington last week. Lawmakers approved her nomination following a CIA public relations drive to bolster her chances.PHOTO: REUTERS

Approval comes despite misgivings over her role in post-9/11 brutal interrogation sessions

WASHINGTON • The US Senate has confirmed Ms Gina Haspel to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), elevating a woman to the directorship for the first time despite bipartisan misgivings about her role in the agency's brutal detention and interrogation programmes in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Lawmakers approved Ms Haspel's nomination 54 to 45 on Thursday, with six Democrats voting yes and two Republicans voting no, after the agency launched an unprecedented public relations campaign to bolster Ms Haspel's chances. She will be the first woman to serve as CIA director.

Ms Haspel, the current deputy director and a career clandestine officer, takes the helm at a time of shifting alliances and intelligence threats from Iran to North Korea to Russia, and after President Donald Trump tried to cast doubt on the intelligence community's judgment as part of his broader attack on the investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

She is widely respected as a disciplined, non-political field agent. She rose to manage the global clandestine network before becoming the CIA's deputy director one year ago.

But it was Ms Haspel's past that transfixed senators - if only for a few weeks - as they grappled anew with the aggressive interrogation policies of the George W. Bush administration in the years after the terrorist attacks.

Ms Haspel supervised a secret prison in Thailand in 2002 when an Al-Qaeda suspect was waterboarded there, and senators raised fresh questions about her role in the agency's destruction of videotapes of interrogation sessions in 2005.

Democrats and a handful of Republicans pressed Ms Haspel to repudiate the programme and sought assurances that torture would not be revisited under her watch.

Ms Haspel, the current deputy director and a career clandestine officer, takes the helm at a time of shifting alliances and intelligence threats from Iran to North Korea to Russia, and after President Donald Trump tried to cast doubt on the intelligence community's judgment as part of his broader attack on the investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Ms Haspel told senators during her confirmation hearing that her moral compass was strong and that she would not revisit such a programme. And on Tuesday, under intense pressure, she went further, writing that the programme "did damage to our officers and our standing in the world".

She appears to have been helped, too, by some last-minute arm-twisting by former CIA directors John Brennan and Leon Panetta, who contacted at least five of the six Democrats who voted for her to endorse her bid to join Mr Trump's Cabinet, according to people with knowledge of the interactions.

"Congratulations to our new CIA director, Gina Haspel!" tweeted the President, who has described her as exceptionally qualified.

Mr Trump had wavered in his support for Ms Haspel, at times expressing doubt in private meetings about whether she had the support to win confirmation, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Throughout the debate over her nomination, Ms Haspel and her supporters struggled to reconcile her portrayal as a capable and forceful leader, but someone who lacked the authority to stop the interrogation programme or overrule her boss' decisions to order harsh interrogations and then destroy videotaped evidence.

Critics said she lacked the will to do so, and were unpersuaded that she had learnt a moral lesson from the agency's torture of terrorism suspects - a programme that was disbanded but that Mr Trump has said should be restarted.

Rights groups quickly condemned the vote. Ms Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch called it "the predictable and perverse by-product of the US failure to grapple with past abuses".

NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2018, with the headline 'Haspel confirmed as CIA's first female director'. Print Edition | Subscribe