WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, Ms Gina Haspel, has defended the agency's torture of terrorism suspects, as her confirmation hearing served as another reckoning of the extraordinary measures the government employed in the frantic hunt for the Sept 11 conspirators.
Ms Haspel, a 33-year CIA veteran who oversaw a secret prison in Thailand in 2002 while an Al-Qaeda suspect was waterboarded there, said at the hearing on Wednesday that she and other spies were working within the law. Though the CIA should never resume that type of work, she said, its officers should also not be judged for doing it.
"I'm not going to sit here with the benefit of hindsight and judge the very good people who made hard decisions, who were running the agency in very extraordinary circumstances," she told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
She vowed that she would not start another interrogation programme like the one developed under President George W. Bush.
Ms Haspel, 61, rejected Democrats' suggestions that she declassify more information about her background, saying that the director should be subject to agency guidelines on keeping its secrets. She pushed back on charges that the interrogation programme was immoral, and fought to describe what she said were the CIA's successes in capturing the United States' most-wanted men.
Democratic senators peppered her with confrontational questions from the outset. They repeatedly asked for details of her role in some of the most notorious episodes of the interrogation programme, including her conveyance of an order from her superior to destroy videotapes documenting 92 of the interrogations.
In her first public account of the destruction, which occurred in 2005, she said there were concerns about the "security risk" the tapes posed - that the lives of undercover officers might be put at risk if they were to become public.
Rumours have long swirled that Ms Haspel appeared in the tapes. Her answer was definitive: "I did not appear on the tapes."
Her performance appeared to persuade at least two key senators - Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican, and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.
At least one influential Republican, Senator John McCain, was unconvinced by Ms Haspel's assurances and dealt a symbolic blow to her nomination. Mr McCain, a former prisoner of war and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that "her refusal to acknowledge torture's immorality is disqualifying," and urged his colleagues to vote against her.