Politics

Gina Haspel Performs Well but Raises More Questions During Hearing

Suggests she has handled declassification decisions about her own background

Gina Haspel, nominee to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is sworn in before testifying during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Nothing Gina Haspel said during the open portion of her Senate confirmation hearing seemed likely to derail her nomination to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, and she picked up some needed Democratic support along the way. 

Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who serves on the Intelligence panel, was the first Democrat out of the gate to support Haspel.

“After meeting with Gina Haspel, discussing her extensive experience as a CIA agent, and considering her time as Acting Director, I will vote to confirm her to be our next CIA Director. I have found Gina Haspel to be a person of great character,” Manchin said in a statement.

But that doesn’t mean the current acting director of the agency is out of the woods yet, since the hearing’s open session at times generated more questions than it answered.

One such exchange was with Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats. He came away unconvinced by some of Haspel’s testimony.

“I think I shouldn’t have had to ask her four times, who was doing the classifying and declassifying. Finally, she said it was her,” King said after the hearing. “That should have been a short question and a short answer. That was the kind of thing that bothered me.”

That specific exchange revolved around which intelligence official was making decisions about which portions of Haspel’s 33-year CIA record could be declassified, with the answer seeming to be that it was Haspel herself, following existing guidelines.

Watch: Haspel Faced Protesters, Questions on Interrogation

Another somewhat perplexing exchange came with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who asked Haspel about her position on the potential public release of a document known as the Durham report.

Durham, now the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, had been tasked by then-Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey with reviewing potential criminal liability in the destruction of the much-discussed interrogation tapes from earlier in the George W. Bush administration.

“I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know,” Haspel said when asked by Wyden about potential declassification of the report, which was a Justice Department product.

As of Wednesday, DOJ had made the report available only to members of the Intelligence Committee, as well as Senate leadership. But Wyden was one of six members of the Intelligence panel who sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeking broader access for senators ahead of the Haspel confirmation vote.

“We believe this report is highly relevant to the nomination of Gina Haspel to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Justice Department provided this report to Senate leadership and the Senate Intelligence Committee, restricting its review to Committee members and limited staff. Yet we believe that no senator can consider Ms. Haspel’s nomination in good conscience without first reviewing this document,” the senators wrote.

In addition to Wyden and King, Democratic Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Dianne Feinstein of California and Kamala Harris of California signed off on the letter, which was led by Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Then there was the hypothetical question that Haspel at times seemed to struggle to address, about what she would do if given a direct order from President Donald Trump to have the CIA use an enhanced interrogation tactic, such as waterboarding, against a detainee.

Haspel testified, “I do not believe the president would ask me to do that,” when asked by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine about how she would respond to Trump in such an instance.

When Heinrich followed up on the point about restarting such a program, she sounded more direct.

“I would not restart under any circumstances [such] an interrogation program at CIA,” she said. “Under any circumstances.”

Watch: Haspel’s Confirmation Hearing Felt Like Deja Vu to 2014 Interrogation Debate

But Sen. Mark Warner, the committee vice chairman, said after the open portion of the hearing that exchanges like the one with Collins could have been handled differently.

“Many of those questions, I think she would have better served herself if she’d had more clarity,” the Virginia Democrat said.

“She was asked that question about five times by different people, and she never really gave a clear and definitive answer, in my view,” King said.

King wasn’t sure that simply stating she would follow the law was sufficient, since he noted that laws can evolve over time.

According to CNN, Collins herself reacted positively to the testimony from Haspel.

“I thought that she performed very well this morning and was responsive to the hearing questions that we all posed,” the Maine Republican said.

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