Gina Haspel secured the votes necessary to become the next CIA director Tuesday as five Democratic senators threw their support behind President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee, despite her role in the agency’s torture program after 9/11.
Senate Intelligence Committee vice-chair Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) announced his support for Haspel on Tuesday afternoon, calling it a “difficult decision” but praising Haspel as “representative of the thousands of people at the Agency and throughout the intelligence community who serve quietly, without recognition, and often at great personal risk, in order to keep our nation safe from those who wish to do us harm.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee is set to vote on Haspel’s nomination in a closed session Wednesday morning.
Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) came out in support of Haspel soon after Warner’s endorsement, putting Haspel over the whip count even with opposition from Republican Sens. John McCain (AZ) and Rand Paul (KY).
Democratic Senators Joe Donnelly (IN) and Joe Manchin (WV) had already announced their support for Haspel. Meanwhile, Republican Senators Jeff Flake (AZ) and Mike Lee (UT) are still undecided, according to Politico.
Haspel, a 30-plus year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service, ran a black site in Thailand in late 2002 where she oversaw the interrogation of a suspected Al Qaeda member using brutal techniques like water boarding — a form of controlled drowning — that critics say violated longstanding laws against torture. She later drafted a memo that authorized officials at that site to destroy videotapes of interrogations there.
Opponents in Congress, like McCain, Paul, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) fear the nomination will bee seen as a tacit endorsement of the harsh interrogation techniques, which Congress explicitly outlawed in 2008.
Supporters have pointed to Haspel’s long history at the agency and her apparent popularity among rank-and-file intelligence officials.
In open testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, Haspel vowed not to restart the CIA’s interrogation program. But she also appeared to dodge questions about whether it was immoral, raising concerns among many Democrats in Congress.
A letter from Haspel to Warner on Monday seems to have eased some of those concerns. In it, Haspel called the interrogation program “not one that the CIA should have undertaken” that “ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world.”
Speaking to reporters Monday, Warner said the letter better reflected what Haspel told the committee in a closed session after her public testimony, and what he’d heard from her in private conversations.
But the letter stopped short of calling the interrogation tactics “torture” or saying the program was immoral — a bridge many critics want Haspel to cross.
It also repeated past CIA claims that the interrogation program yielded “valuable intelligence.” The Senate Intelligence Committee found that wasn’t true in its 2014 report on the interrogation program. Former CIA Director John Brennan, who supports Haspel, also doubted this claim during his own confirmation hearing.
Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) took a direct swipe at Haspel’s letter to Warner in a statement Tuesday night announcing his opposition, saying it “has not relieved my concerns.”
“Ms. Haspel’s role in the program that conducted torture is very troubling,” Jones wrote. “[H]er refusal to acknowledge the immorality of such conduct even today with the benefit of hindsight is even more so and reflects poorly on our nation’s reputation as a moral leader in the world.”
CORRECTION: This story previously misstated Alabama Senator Doug Jones’ party affiliation on first reference. He is a Democrat.