Democratic Senators Mark Warner and Heidi Heitkamp pledged their support for nominee Gina Haspel on Tuesday, all but ensuring that the career intelligence officer would be confirmed as CIA director in her forthcoming Senate vote.
Mr Warner had been critical of Ms Haspel, a 33-year CIA veteran and the first woman nominated to lead the agency. He called the decision to support her nomination “difficult,” but said it was informed by her decades of service at the agency.
“Over the last year I’ve had the opportunity to work with Ms Haspel in her role as Deputy Director, and I have always found her to be professional and forthright with the Intelligence Committee,” said Mr Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“Most importantly,” he added, “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.”
Ms Haspel vowed in her Senate confirmation hearing never to reinstate the CIA’s interrogation programme, which employed tactics like waterboarding in the wake of 9/11. Ms Haspel briefly oversaw an American "black site" prison in Thailand where at least one prisoner was waterboarded.
Ms Haspel refused to fully disavow the programme during her hearing, dancing around questions over whether the CIA's previous methods were “immoral”. In a letter to Mr Warner this week, however, Ms Haspel said the agency should never have used those tactics.
“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, according to CNN.
Ms Haspel has held numerous one-on-one meetings with senators in recent days, and participated in a classified Senate hearing. Mr Warner told reporters that the sentiments in her letter were closer to those she had expressed in private.
But Ms Haspel’s answers at her public confirmation hearing frustrated several senators, including Republican Senator John McCain, who urged his fellow GOP legislators not to support her confirmation. Mr McCain, a US Navy veteran who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, called her public comments on the interrogation programme “disqualifying”.
Ms Heitkamp acknowledged Mr McCain’s words on Tuesday, calling Ms Haspel’s involvement in the programme “deeply troubling”. But she added that Ms Haspel had assured her that the agency should not have employed those tactics in the past, and would not do so in the future
“While I trust her word, I will also verify, helping to ensure Congress conducts robust oversight of the CIA under her leadership,” Ms Heitkamp said.
So far, four Democratic senators have said they will support Ms Haspel. Two Republican senators – Mr McCain and Kentucky Senator Paul Rand – have said they will not. One is undecided.
Ms Haspel is scheduled for a Senate Intelligence Committee vote on Wednesday, and will then proceed to a full Senate vote.
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