“From my first days in training, I had a knack for the nuts and bolts of my profession,” she said. “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.”
She also confronted her record on torture, the issue that has dominated her nomination.
“I understand that what many people around the country want to know about are my views on C.I.A.’s former detention and interrogation program,” Ms. Haspel said. “Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, C.I.A. will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”
It was not clear whether her remarks would satisfy Democrats on the committee who signaled that they wanted a clear repudiation of her role and of torture carried out by others at the agency.
She also highlighted the fact that she would be the first woman to lead the C.I.A. in the male-dominated world of spying.
Few women were in senior roles when she joined the C.I.A., and “we are stronger now because that picture is changing. I did my part — quietly and through hard work — to break down some of those barriers.”
Haspel Says She Is Not Seen on Torture Tapes
Senators immediately launched into questioning about one of the most controversial episodes of Ms. Haspel’s career — her role in the destruction of interrogation videotapes that showed the torture of Qaeda detainees. This is the first time she has given her 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 agency officers might be put in danger if the tapes were to become public.
There have long been rumors — never confirmed — that Ms. Haspel appeared in the tapes, some of which were made when she was running a C.I.A. detention facility in Thailand in 2002. Her answer was definitive: “I did not appear on the tapes,” she said.
But Senator Warner questioned the timing of the agency’s order to destroy the tapes, which came just days after the announcement of a Senate investigation into government detention programs. She said she wasn’t aware of the order.
“I knew there was disagreement about the issue of the tapes outside the agency,” she said.
Leaning Into a Long-Awaited Confrontation
It was a confrontation a long time coming, and Ms. Haspel did not flinch. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a senior California Democrat who led the committee’s torture investigation, pressed Ms. Haspel on the selective declassification of information about her record and pressed for an explanation of her role in the interrogation program.
“Given the C.I.A.’s refusal to make your record public, I am very limited in what I can say,” Ms. Feinstein began, before lamenting that despite personal affection, the hearing was “probably the most difficult hearing in my more than two decades.”
Ms. Haspel rejected that jab, insisting she thought it unwise to bend department guidelines on classification just to help her own case.
“It has been suggested to me by my team that if we tried to declassify some of my operational history, it would help my nomination,” she said. “I said that we could not do that. It is very important that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency adhere to the same classification guidelines that all employees must adhere to because there are very good reason for those classification guidelines.”
Ms. Haspel also swatted back an assertion by Ms. Feinstein that Ms. Haspel was an unidentified woman referenced as the head of the agency’s interrogation program in a memoir by John A. Rizzo, the C.I.A.’s former general counsel.
Mr. Rizzo, Ms. Haspel said, was simply wrong and Ms. Feinstein must have missed a correction he later issued.
“Senator, I did not run the interrogation department,” Ms. Haspel said. “In fact, I was not even read into the interrogation program until it had been up and running for a year.”
That assertion, however, raised its own questions. Ms. Haspel arrived in Thailand in late 2002, the year the interrogation program began, to oversee a secret prison. A Qaeda suspect was waterboarded three times while she was there.
Democrats Need Assurances to Get On Board
Democrats have indicated that they are willing to get behind Ms. Haspel’s nomination, but not without extracting serious and unequivocal commitments from her. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the panel’s top Democrat, laid out a narrow path to ‘yes’ in his opening remarks.
He said that Democrats would expect Ms. Haspel to cooperate with the committee as it tries to exercise oversight. He asked her to pledge to cooperate with the ongoing investigations into Russian election interference by both the committee and the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. And he said he would want to know how Ms. Haspel would deal with a president “who does not always seem interested in hearing, mush less speaking, the truth.”
But, as expected, Mr. Warner said he was most concerned with Ms. Haspel’s views of the brutal interrogation program she helped run in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Ms Haspel, what the committee must hear, is your own view” of the program, Mr. Warner said. “Should the United States ever permit detainees to be treated the way the C.I.A. treated detainees under the program — even if you believe it was technically ‘legal’? Most importantly, in your view — was the program consistent with American values?”
He continued: “We must hear how you would react if the president asked you to carry out some morally questionable behavior that may seem to violate a law or treaty.”
But despite their repeated efforts to pin down her views on the morality of the enhanced interrogation program and the use of torture general, many of the committee’s more liberal members made clear they were less than satisfied with her answers.
“The president has asserted that torture works,” Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, said. “Do you agree with that statement?”
“Senator, I — I don’t believe that torture works,” Ms. Haspel said. But, she added, that “valuable information” was obtained from Qaeda operatives who underwent advanced interrogation by the agency.
“Is that a yes?” Ms. Harris asked.
“No, it’s not a yes,” Ms. Haspel said. “We got valuable information from debriefing of Al Qaeda detainees, and I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”
A Veteran Spy, and a Résumé That Includes Torture
Few dispute that Ms. Haspel, a 33-year C.I.A. veteran, has the experience to run the agency. At issue is her involvement in the rendition, detention and interrogation program that the agency developed in the frantic hunt for the conspirators in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The C.I.A. long ago repudiated the program, which included waterboarding and other methods banned by law, and many senators say they are looking to Ms. Haspel to do the same.
“Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, C.I.A. will not restart such a detention and interrogation program,” she planned to say, according to excerpts from prepared remarks released by the C.I.A. on Tuesday night. She did not directly address her role in the interrogations or the torture of suspected militants by others at the agency.
In late 2002, Ms. Haspel was dispatched to oversee a secret C.I.A. prison in Thailand code-named Cat’s Eye. While she was there, C.I.A. contractors waterboarded Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Qaeda suspect accused of orchestrating the bombing of the American destroyer Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000.
Critics, including some senators on the committee, say her willingness to employ brutal methods to extract information — including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and confining prisoners in boxes — should disqualify her.
The sessions carried out at the prison in Thailand — including many conducted when Ms. Haspel was not there — were videotaped and the recordings stored in a safe at the C.I.A. station there until 2005, when they were ordered destroyed. By then, Ms. Haspel was serving at C.I.A. headquarters, and it was her name that was on the cable carrying the destruction orders. The agency maintains that the decision to destroy the recordings was made by Ms. Haspel’s boss at the time, Jose Rodriguez, who was the head of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service.
Last week, Ms. Haspel briefly considered withdrawing her nomination over fears that the White House would not fully support her because of her role in the interrogation program. She changed her mind only after Mr. Trump and top aides reassured her.
Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the interrogations and destroying evidence of them already once hindered her career. In 2013, the C.I.A. wanted to name Ms. Haspel to run clandestine operations, but Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democrat who was then the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, blocked the promotion because of her work in Thailand.
Haspel Says She Won’t Act Immorally
One aspect of the debate about the C.I.A.’s post-Sept. 11 torture program is whether it was illegal all along. Despites anti-torture laws and treaties, Bush administration officials in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel wrote secret memos that embraced a disputed and idiosyncratic view of the president’s constitutional power, as commander-in-chief, to say that it would be lawful to override those restrictions.
The Justice Department later rescinded those memos, but determined that no one could be prosecuted for taking actions that relied upon the department’s own interpretation of the law at the time; one Bush-era official deemed the memos a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” Congress has also enacted statutes further tightening laws against torture.
In her opening statement, Ms. Haspel said she would not restart a detention and interrogation program “such as” the Bush-era one, and emphasized her commitment to follow current law. But the ranking Democrat on the committee, Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, put his finger on the difficulty of the malleability of “the law,” especially in secret national-security matters. Calling her comments “legalistic,” he said he wanted to know what she would do if the Justice Department was once again willing to secretly invoke esoteric theories of presidential power to say that the president was lawfully overriding statutory restrictions on torture — or some other activity seemingly barred by statute.
“I need to at least get a sense of what your moral code says about those kinds of actions because there is the potential that this president could ask you to do something,” Mr. Warner said.
Illustrating the complexity of the law is defined, Ms. Haspel insisted that the “C.I.A. follows the law. We followed the law then. We follow the law today.” But she also said that she would refuse orders to have the C.I.A. do something she found immoral, even if it was deemed to be legal.
“I would not put C.I.A. officers at risk by asking them to undertake risky, controversial activity again,” she said, adding: “My moral compass is strong. I would not allow C.I.A. to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.”
Haspel: Torture of 9/11 Planner Cast ‘Shadow’ Over His Capture
Ms. Haspel invoked one of the greatest counterterrorism successes in the immediate years after the Sept. 11 attacks: the capture, in March 2003, of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the principal mastermind of the attacks. Over the next few weeks, Mr. Mohammed was tortured by the C.I.A. at black-site prisons in Afghanistan and Poland, including being waterboarded 183 times over 15 sessions and being deprived of sleep for about a week by being forced to stand with his arms chained over his head.
She said she was proud of her service in the frantic hunt for the Sept. 11 conspirators.
“After 9/11, I didn’t look to go sit on the Swiss desk — I stepped up,” she said. “I was not on the sidelines. I was on the front lines in the Cold War, and I was on the front lines in the fight against Al Qaeda. I am very proud of the fact that we captured the perpetrator of 9/11, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.”
She lamented that the interrogations of Mr. Mohammed and the ensuing controversy overshadowed his capture. “It has cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country,” she said.
While Ms. Haspel ran the secret prison in Thailand in late 2002 while another detainee was waterboarded, it is not publicly known what she was doing in 2003 and whether she had any connection to Mr. Mohammed’s interrogation. Notably, this week Mr. Mohammed asked a military judge at the wartime prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for permission to give the Senate Intelligence Committee six paragraphs of unspecified information about her.
Haspel Won’t Say Whether Sought Expanded Use of Brutal Interrogation Techniques
Democrats have complained that under Ms. Haspel’s control as acting director, the C.I.A. has selectively declassified aspects of her record, making information public that will help her get confirmed while keeping more controversial secrets concealed. Against that backdrop, a line of questioning by Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, was striking.
Most of the C.I.A.’s use of torture took place in the first term of the Bush administration; it is not known to have waterboarded any prisoner, for example, since 2003. But Mr. Wyden stated: “Between 2005 and 2007, the program was winding down. The CIA was capturing fewer detainees and waterboarding was no longer approved. During that time, did you ever call for the program to be continued or expanded?”
Ms. Haspel did not directly answer. Instead, she talked about how C.I.A. officials were committed to making sure that the country was not attacked again and “had been informed that the techniques in C.I.A.’s program were legal and authorized by the highest legal authority in the country and also the president. So, I believe, I and my colleagues the Counterterrorism Center were working as hard as we could with the tools that we were given to make sure that we were successful in our mission.”
Mr. Wyden noted that her answer was not responsive to his question, adding: “I would really like to have on the record whether you ever called for the program to be continued which it sure sounds to me like your answer suggests it. You said well, we were doing our job. It ought to be continued. That troubles me very much.”
Her Chances of Confirmation
After her wavering last week and in anticipation of contentious moments at her hearing, Senate Republicans urged their colleagues on Tuesday to confirm Ms. Haspel but dismissed calls from Democrats for more sensitive information about her career to be made public.
“That has never happened in the history of the C.I.A., and it’s not going to happen with Gina Haspel’s nomination,” Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters.
Several prominent members of the Republican-controlled Senate have indicated they are likely to object to Ms. Haspel’s confirmation, primarily over her role in the agency’s use of torture. They include Ms. Feinstein; Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky; and Senator John McCain, an influential Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Mr. McCain’s dissent would normally be potent, but he is being treated for brain cancer and is not expected to be in Washington to vote or to try to persuade Republican colleagues to join his objection.
That leaves at least two key members of the Intelligence Committee to watch: Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican who often breaks with Mr. Trump; and Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who has sided with the president.
If Ms. Collins indicates she is leaning against Ms. Haspel, she could provide cover for Mr. Manchin and other moderate Democratic senators to vote no, sinking her candidacy. But if Ms. Collins signals that she is satisfied with Ms. Haspel’s answers and intends vote yes, at least some Democrats — enough to secure a positive vote on the Senate floor — are likely to make a political calculation that they must follow suit.
Protests from the Gallery
Demonstrators are a familiar sight in Hart 216, the Capitol Hill hearing room where many of the Senate’s most charged hearings take place. But as Ms. Haspel offered a nuanced defense of her role in the C.I.A.’s advanced interrogation program, she was treated to a more persistent chorus than usual.
“What do you do to human beings in U.S. custody?” interjected one woman, bringing the hearing to an abrupt halt after nearly two hours of questioning. Capitol Police rushed to detain and remove the woman, but she had the floor.
“Bloody Gina, bloody Gina, bloody Gina!” she yelled. “You are a torturer.”
She picked up where another protester had left off just before the hearing started.
“Don’t reward torturers,” he yelled as he struggled with police officers and was forcibly removed from the hearing room before Ms. Haspel sat down. “What meaning does love have in this world if we allow torture?”
Mr. Burr asked only that demonstrators make their point brief.
“For the benefits of our members: Do it fast, do it early, and be gone,” he told them.