Senate Panel Approves Gina Haspel As CIA Chief; Confirmation Appears Likely

May 16, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 9:06 pm

The Senate intelligence committee voted 10-5 Wednesday to recommend Gina Haspel as CIA director despite the controversy surrounding her role in the agency's waterboarding program.

The full Senate now appears all but certain to confirm Haspel within the next week or so, which would make her the first woman to lead the CIA.

Her confirmation also would complete President Trump's recent shakeup of his national security and foreign policy teams.

In recent weeks, John Bolton has become the national security adviser, Mike Pompeo has become secretary of state, and Haspel looks set to replace Pompeo as CIA director.

Democratic senators on the intelligence committee grilled Haspel last week on two specific episodes in her 33-year CIA career.

One was in 2002, when she ran a black site prison in Thailand where officers carried out waterboarding and other harsh tactics to extract information out of suspected al-Qaida militants. The other was in 2005, when she was based at CIA headquarters outside Washington and wrote a cable calling for videotapes of the waterboarding to be destroyed.

In several sharp exchanges with the senators, Haspel said she would not initiate any new detention and interrogation programs as CIA director. But she did not disavow the previous program, from 2002 to 2008.

After that hearing on May 9, several senators said they needed additional information from Haspel. And in a letter dated Monday, she went beyond what she said in her public testimony.

"With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken," she wrote in a letter to Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat on the intelligence committee.

Shortly after her letter became public Tuesday, three Democratic senators, including Warner, announced their support for Haspel.

"I believe she is someone who can and will stand up to the president if ordered to do something illegal or immoral — like a return to torture," Warner said in a statement.

Five Democrats have now publicly declared their support, and almost all Republican senators are expected to vote for Haspel.

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Gina Haspel is on track to become the first woman to lead the CIA. The Senate Intelligence Committee today recommended that the full chamber confirm her. In a moment, we'll speak with a committee member, who says the decision was hard. But in the end, he gave his support to Haspel. First, let's talk about what happens next with NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.


SHAPIRO: What do we expect to happen in the full Senate?

MYRE: She's going to win. What we're seeing here is it's not entirely along party lines. You have a couple Republicans in Rand Paul and John McCain saying that she was involved in waterboarding and torture and that this disqualifies her. But she's got the support of at least five Democratic senators, several of them up for reelection this year. So we're expecting a vote possibly tomorrow, maybe next week. It does look like she's going to get through.

SHAPIRO: Of course, torture was the big sticking point in her nomination. If she is confirmed, does that effectively put the issue to rest?

MYRE: Well, she's one of a generation of CIA officers who've been involved or are linked to the program. And we saw a lot of resistance from human rights groups and former diplomats, ex-military officers. And in her hearing, she was very defensive about this. She came out and wrote a letter this week saying the - this was something the CIA should not have done, which is beyond what she did at her hearing. But the law is clear here. It - torture, waterboarding is illegal now. It's not this sort of fuzzy gray area that it was in the early 2000s.

SHAPIRO: This Haspel nomination at the CIA was part of a bigger reshuffling of President Trump's national security team, Pompeo replacing Tillerson at the Department of State, John Bolton coming in as national security adviser. Is he done now?

MYRE: For the moment.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MYRE: You probably never want to get too comfortable in your chair in Donald Trump's administration.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK.

MYRE: But we are seeing this - you know, all of this movement. I think these are people that the president feels more comfortable with. In Bolton and Pompeo, he certainly elevated a couple hard-liners. We may see that in policy, both in tone and substance. So that's something to be looking for now that he does seem to have this new team in place.

SHAPIRO: And before I let you go, Greg, I want to ask you about Russia because the Senate Intelligence Committee today again said it accepts the intelligence community's account that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. Gina Haspel was part of the intelligence community. Was she involved in this?

MYRE: As far as we can tell, probably not. In 2016, she was a station chief in Europe. So we don't know for sure that she was involved in any way. But the important thing here or interesting thing is she grew up studying the Soviet Union in the CIA, as much of the agency did back in the '80s and '90. Then she sort of transitioned to counterterrorism. But now she's sort of come full circle. She's becoming, or about to become, head of the CIA at a time when Russia's again at the forefront of the concerns.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks a lot.

MYRE: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.