CIA director nominee and acting CIA Director Gina Haspel is sworn in by Committee Chairman Richard Burr to testify at her Senate Intelligence Committee...
Alex Brandon

Haspel takes new steps to distance herself from Bush-era torture

Gina Haspel’s nomination to lead the Central Intelligence Agency is likely to succeed, but it hasn’t been without hurdles. During a confirmation hearing last week, for example, Donald Trump’s choice to lead the agency struggled with questions about her role in Bush-era torture programs, vowing not to re-embrace those tactics, but also refusing to condemn the torture as immoral.

Soon after Haspel’s testimony, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was himself tortured during his time as a Vietnamese prisoner of war, announced his opposition to her nomination and urged his Senate colleagues to reject her.

That seems unlikely to happen. Two conservative Senate Democrats – West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly – have already endorsed Haspel’s nomination, significantly improving her chances of success. That said, the CIA nominee appears to be taking fresh steps to distance herself from her Bush-era work.

[Haspel] says in a new letter that the CIA should not have conducted then-President George W. Bush’s interrogation and detention program where waterboarding and other brutal interrogation tactics were used on detainees.

In the letter to Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Haspel takes a position she wasn’t willing to state publicly last week, writing that the interrogation program “is not one the CIA should have undertaken.”

In the letter, obtained by several news organizations, including NBC News, Haspel wrote, “While I won’t condemn those that made these hard calls, and I have noted the valuable intelligence collected, the program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world. 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.”

For those concerned about her torture background, Haspel appears to be trying to find some kind of middle ground. Trump’s nominee apparently isn’t prepared to condemn the abuses, the abusers, or concede that torture is morally reprehensible, but she’s now willing to say the CIA shouldn’t have implemented the brutal program.

I suppose that’s marginally closer to what Haspel should’ve said last week – the fact that this new letter exists at all suggests she doesn’t believe her nomination is already a slam-dunk – but on a substantive level, I’m not sure this new posture should reassure senators concerned with her record.

What’s more, it’s not the only pertinent news related to Haspel’s nomination. NBC News reported yesterday:

The Democratic staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee has prepared a classified background document on President Trump’s CIA nominee that includes details some senators and aides have found disturbing, four people familiar with the document told NBC News.

The document, which has been made available to senators and cleared aides, describes Gina Haspel’s role in the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, citing cable traffic and internal CIA messages that were not discussed in her public confirmation hearing.

In theory, this could rattle some members, but I’ve heard about no senators changing their mind in response to the document.

Finally, the Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman reported this morning on Haspel’s claims about the taping of a tortured detainee, and the evidence that there were two taped detainees, not one.

We don’t yet know when Haspel’s nomination will reach the Senate floor, but the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to advance her sometime this week.

CIA and Torture

Haspel takes new steps to distance herself from Bush-era torture