Donald Trump’s choice for head of the Central Intelligence Agency struggled on Wednesday to tell US senators how she would respond if the president asked her to reintroduce the waterboarding of terrorist suspects.
Gina Haspel, grilled about her time running a covert detention site where suspects were brutally interrogated during George W Bush’s “war on terror”, failed to explicitly condemn such techniques as immoral. Twice the hearing on Capitol Hill was interrupted by protesters, one of whom yelled: “Bloody Gina! You are a torturer,” before being dragged out by police.
Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, asked what Haspel would do as head of the CIA if Trump ordered waterboarding – which simulates drowning – on a high-value suspect. “Senator, I would advise,” she began, then restarted her answer: “I do not believe the president would ask me to do that.”
This prompted scornful laughter from the public gallery. During his presidential election campaign, Trump vowed to authorize waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse.”
After a long pause, Haspel sought to explain: “But we have today in the US government other US government entities that conduct interrogations … I would advise anyone that asked me that the CIA is not the place to conduct interrogations. We do not have interrogators and we do not have interrogation expertise.”
She added: “CIA does not today conduct interrogations, we never did historically, and we’re not getting back in that business.”
But Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, followed up, saying Haspel did not answer the question about what she would do if Trump ordered her to waterboard a detainee. Again Haspel deflected: “I would not restart under any circumstances an interrogation program at CIA, under any circumstances.”
The questions came during Haspel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate intelligence committee, on Wednesday, which precedes a Senate vote. Given her unwillingness to condemn the possibility of other government agencies carrying out such techniques, Heinrich summed up the frustration of many Democrats on the committee by responding: “You’re giving very legalistic answers to very fundamentally moral questions.”
But Haspel received a major boost when the Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced he would support her nomination. “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,” he said. “I have found Gina Haspel to be a person of great character.”
In 2002, Haspel, an undercover officer for most of her 33-year career, served as CIA station chief in Thailand, where the agency ran one of the “black sites” where suspected al-Qaida extremists were interrogated using procedures that included waterboarding.
In 2005 she supported destroying videotapes that documented the interrogations of the inmates. On Wednesday she claimed this was because of fears they could be leaked and fall into the hands of al-Qaida, endangering American lives, though she would no longer endorse such an act today.
Haspel, 61, deputy director and currently acting director of the CIA, said she did not have any social media accounts, “but otherwise I think you will find me to be a typical middle-class American” with a keen sense of right and wrong.
She said she did not wish to “trumpet” her status as the first woman nominated for director but there has been an “outpouring of support from young women at the CIA who consider it a good sign for their own prospects.”
She told the committee: “After 9/11, I didn’t look to go to the Swiss desk. I stepped up. I was not on the sidelines.” She said of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks: “Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”
But while Republican members of the committee lavished praise on her career service, Democrats asked tough questions about her record. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the committee, wondered whether the CIA’s interrogation program had been consistent with American values.
Haspel replied: “We have decided to hold ourselves to a stricter moral standard.”
Warner asked what Haspel would do if the president asked her to do something morally questionable. She insisted: “My moral compass is strong. I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that is immoral, even if it is technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.”
Warner pressed: “So you wouldn’t follow the president’s order?”
Haspel: “No, I believe that CIA must undertake activities that are consistent with American values.”
She refused to answer clearly the question from Senator Kamala Harris, another Democrat: “Do you believe in hindsight that those techniques were immoral?”
Harris then asked if Haspel agreed with Trump’s contention that torture works. The CIA veteran replied that she did not, but she noted that the CIA got valuable information from al-Qaida suspects. “I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”
A protester interrupted the session by shouting: “No, the question is what do you do to human beings in US custody? How do you treat human beings in US custody? Bloody Gina, bloody Gina, bloody Gina! You are a torturer!”
After the open session in the morning, Haspel was due to face classified questions in a closed session . Her confirmation is far from certain, with little Democratic support.
The American Civil Liberties Union condemned Haspel’s responses as unsatisfactory. Christopher Anders, deputy director of its Washington legislative office, said: “Gina Haspel said she has a moral compass, but refused to say whether the torture program she supervised was wrong. She refused to say whether she tried to keep the program going, long after Senator [John] McCain’s amendment made crystal clear that it must be shut down. She even refused to say whether she will tell Congress if President Trump orders her to restart the torture program.”
He added: “She is keeping a tight fist on her own record, telling the Senate that she alone has the power to decide which CIA documents related to her work can be made public. Haspel both thumbed her nose at calls to release her torture record and demonstrated that she did not know right from wrong when it most mattered. The Senate should not even agree to vote on this nomination until it gets full information and honesty from this nominee.”