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CIA nominee Gina Haspel defends role in enhanced interrogation, vows not to restart program

A few hours after the hearing, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., facing a tough re-election fight, told NBC News that he planned to support her nomination.

WASHINGTON — Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee for CIA director, did not apologize Wednesday for her role using enhanced interrogation techniques after the 9/11 attacks, but told a Senate panel that she would not revive those practices.

“I understand that what many people around the country want to know about are my views on CIA’s former detention and interrogation program," Haspel said in opening remarks before the Senate Intelligence Committee at her confirmation hearing, whose public session lasted three hours.

A few hours after it ended, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., facing a tough re-election fight, told NBC News that he planned to support Haspel's nomination.

Earlier, Haspel said: "I have views on this issue, and I want to be clear. 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 program."

But, she also told the committee, "we should hold ourselves to a stricter moral standard, and I would never allow CIA to be involved in coercive interrogations."

Haspel also said, in written remarks released Wednesday as the hearing began, that she believed the agency had obtained “valuable intelligence” through enhanced interrogation techniques that had helped to prevent terrorist attacks.

“In my view, a view shared by all nine former directors and acting directors, the CIA was able to collect valuable intelligence that contributed to the prevention of further terrorist attacks. That said, it is impossible to know whether the CIA could have obtained the same information in another way,” Haspel said in response to a written question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

During the hearing, however, Haspel said, "I don't believe that torture works."

Trump said during the 2016 presidential race that he would support waterboarding, saying at one rally in 2015, "Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would — in a heartbeat." Still, Haspel said Wednesday that she did not believe Trump would ask her, if she were confirmed as CIA director, to order a suspected to be waterboarded.

"I would advise anyone who would ask me about it that CIA is not the right place to conduct interrogations. We don’t have interrogators and we don’t have interrogation expertise," said Haspel, who after being pushed further to answer the question, said, "I would not restart, under any circumstances, an interrogation program at CIA, under any circumstances."

At the hearing, Haspel faced tough questions concerning her role using enhanced interrogation techniques after the 9/11 attacks and her destruction of tapes depicting those practices, actions which have drawn criticism and scrutiny on Capitol Hill since her nomination two months ago.

Democrats such as Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., ranking member on the committee, said they could not ignore the CIA's past and Haspel's involvement in it.

"What I am not willing to do, however, is to justify this dark period in our history or to sweep away the decision to engage in torture," Warner said.

Haspel declined to confirm that she oversaw waterboarding of a detainee, saying that her assignments are classified and suggested she could discuss that part of her career with senators in private. Waterboarding simulates the experience of drowning.

Haspel also received push back from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who urged his colleagues to join him in opposing Haspel’s nomination. McCain, who is battling cancer and was not at the hearing, said in a statement he understood "the urgency" behind the decision to use enhanced interrogation after 9/11, but added Haspel’s alleged role in overseeing these methods is “disturbing.”

“Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination,” McCain said.

The hearing — held in public and behind closed doors — is critical for Haspel, who would be the first woman to lead the agency if confirmed. Haspel lobbied a number of lawmakers earlier this week who remain skeptical about her ability to lead the agency and who have expressed concern about her lack of transparency. While she floated the idea of withdrawing her nomination last week, she expressed confidence Wednesday that she’s the right person for the job.

“I know CIA like the back of my hand,” she told the committee.

Haspel, who has spent 33 years at the CIA, has served as the agency's director since February 2017 and as acting director for several weeks. She was grilled Wednesday about the period in her career when she ran a CIA black site in Thailand where U.S. officials have previously told NBC News an al Qaeda detainee, allegedly the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, was waterboarded three times and confined to a small box. Haspel later drafted a cable ordering that videotapes of CIA interrogations be destroyed. Her precise role remains classified to the public.

In response to a question from Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., Haspel said that the tapes of the interrogations were made around 2002, and an issue surrounding the tapes had lingered for the next three years.

“Over time, there was a great deal of concern about the security risk posed to CIA officers who were depicted on the tapes. Those security issues centered on the threat from al Qaeda should those tapes be irresponsibly leaked,” said Haspel.

Haspel said that she followed orders from her superior to have the tapes destroyed and there were “numerous legal consultations” over the years at the agency. She said it was her understanding that there was no legal requirement to retain the tapes and no legal impediment to disposing of them, and pointed to investigations by Congress, the Department of Justice and the CIA that she said had found no fault with her actions.

Warner noted that in Nov. 2005, then-Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., had introduced legislation to create a commission that would investigate the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation — and that the tapes were were destroyed just days later. Haspel said Wednesday that Levin's legislation had not played a role in the decision to destroy the tapes.

“What I recall were the security issues surrounding the tapes. I don’t recall pending legislation,” she said.

The committee vote on Haspel's confirmation will likely be held next week behind closed doors. If her nomination advances out of committee, leadership would like to have a full confirmation vote on the Senate floor before lawmakers leave for a weeklong Memorial Day recess.

“I believe your intellectual rigor, honorable service, and outstanding judgment make you a natural fit to lead the CIA,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, in his opening statement Wednesday. “You are, without a doubt, the most qualified person the president could have chosen to lead the CIA and the most prepared nominee in its 70 year history.”

Information that's been declassified about Haspel has not satisfied some Democrats, with two of the committee's six Democrats — Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico — already announcing that they’ll oppose Haspel’s nomination.

Despite their reservations, Haspel can be confirmed with a simple majority. And as with the recent confirmation of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, the administration may look to Senate Democrats facing tough re-election races.