Gina Haspel’s confirmation doesn’t resolve key issues regarding her role in overseeing torture

The 54-45 vote ends a tough confirmation fight. But questions remain.

CIA Director Gina Haspel testifies at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 9. CREDIT: Xinhua/Ting Shen via Getty Images
CIA Director Gina Haspel testifies at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 9. CREDIT: Xinhua/Ting Shen via Getty Images

The Senate voted Thursday to confirm Gina Haspel lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), despite objections from many Democrats and some Republicans about her role in the agency’s torture program after 9/11.

The 54–45 vote Thursday afternoon brings to a close a long and fraught nomination process for Haspel, who now becomes the first woman to lead the agency.

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“Perhaps the most qualified individual ever nominated for this role, Ms. Haspel has earned the respect of her peers, predecessors, and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle,” Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) said in a statement. “She is the right person to lead the brave men and women of the CIA, has a clear-eyed vision for the future of the Agency, and I look forward to working with Ms. Haspel in the years to come to keep our country safe.”

Haspel’s nomination process focused on her past. In late 2002, she oversaw a black site in Thailand where CIA contractors used brutal interrogation tactics — including water boarding, a form of controlled drowning — on a suspected Al Qaeda member. Later, in 2005, she drafted a memo that authorized the destruction of videotapes of interrogation at that same site.

The CIA made a full court press for Haspel in the weeks leading up to her confirmation, tweeting about her time as a chief of station in Africa and posting a biography on its website that includes her love of University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball and Johnny Cash — a man who famously wore black to protest the war in Vietnam.

But many questions about Haspel remained unanswered even as the Senate voted to confirm her. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week asking him to make a Department of Justice report available to the full Senate that detailed Haspel’s role in the tape destruction. Senate Democrats also asked the Justice Department to give them access to a second report on whether anyone who spoke with investigators about the tape incident lied or committed perjury.

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Last Monday, Senators and their staff briefly lost access to a memo based on the first Justice Department report, which was prepared by minority staff on the Senate Intelligence Committee. That memo cast Haspel in an unfavorable light, one source told The Intercept.

In the end, Flake voted against Haspel because he said he did not get enough information on her role in the destruction of the interrogation tapes.

“Congress needs to be able to provide fully informed oversight,” Flake said in a statement. “My questions about Ms. Hapel’s role in the destruction of videotapes relevant to discussions occurring in Congress regarding the program have not been adequately answered.”

Other senators accused the CIA of selectively declassifying information favorable to Haspel while refusing to release — the full Senate or the public — information that could harm her nomination.

As acting CIA director, Haspel held final say over what information the agency chose to declassify about her record. Pressed on the issue by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) at her confirmation hearing last week, Haspel declined to say whether she would recuse herself from that role but insisted she had not interfered with standard agency declassification processes.

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“Gina Haspel and the CIA have committed one of the most blatant abuses of power in recent history, aided and abetted by a total failure of Congressional oversight,” Intelligence Committee member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement after the vote. “I have asked again and again for some justification for Ms. Haspel’s self-serving classification decisions and every response I have received, in classified and unclassified settings, has convinced me further that those decisions have nothing to do with protecting sources and methods, and only to do with protecting her own image.”

The vote Thursday broke down largely along party lines. Six Democrats ultimately broke ranks to vote for Haspel — Sen. Joe Donnelly (IN), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Sen. Joe Manchin (WV), Sen. Bill Nelson (FL), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and Senate Intelligence Committee vice-chair Sen. Mark Warner (VA).

Meanwhile, Republican Sens. Rand Paul (KY) and Flake voted against Haspel. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is home receiving treatment for brain cancer, was not able to vote. McCain has been an outspoken critic of Haspel’s nomination and the the CIA interrogation program she participated in. He was also subjected to torture during five plus years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense,” McCain said in a statement last week. “However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”