WASHINGTON – The Senate confirmed on Thursday Gina Haspel as the first female director of the CIA after weeks of controversy over her links with a torture program conducted during the 2001-2009 George W. Bush administration.
In a 54-45 vote, Haspel, who has pursued a long career in US intelligence, was given the nod with several Democrats giving her their support.
Republican Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jeff Flake of Arizona voted against Haspel’s confirmation, together with the majority of the upper house’s Democrats, and that rejection was also supported by Flake’s senior colleague from Arizona, John McCain, who was tortured while a prisoner during the Vietnam War but did not attend the vote because he is very ill with brain cancer.
However, Democrats Mark Warner (Virginia), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) sided with the Republican majority to confirm Haspel.
The 61-year-old Haspel worked as an undercover agent for 33 years, and the agency only divulged certain details of her missions in recent weeks in an attempt to provide transparency for lawmakers about – and garner majority support for – President Donald Trump’s pick to head the CIA after former chief Mike Pompeo was moved to the State Department.
The nominee faced a tough confirmation hearing in the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Democrats tried to extract from her a commitment to oppose Trump if he asks her to reinstate the torture program, as he promised to do during the 2016 election campaign.
Haspel said she did not think the president would ask her to do that, to the frustration of Democratic lawmakers.
However, she did say that her “moral code” is strong and that, if Trump put her in that position, she would not restart the interrogation program launched by Bush that included techniques such as water-boarding, humiliation, sleep deprivation and beatings.
Senators were most concerned about the role that Haspel played in 2002 when she was in charge of overseeing a secret CIA prison in Thailand where two suspected Al Qaeda terrorists were interrogated: Abu Zubaida and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri.
The CIA closed that prison in 2002 and Haspel then worked for the agency’s National Clandestine Service director, Jose Rodriguez.
In 2005, at her request and without the OK of the White House, Rodriguez ordered the destruction of the 92 videotapes documenting various torture sessions.
Given that situation, Haspel had to assure lawmakers on multiple occasions that she would not support a similar program while heading the CIA, a process that delayed her confirmation.