US President Donald Trump‘s nominee to head the CIA has vowed the spy agency will “never, ever” resume a programme of harsh interrogations, often denounced as torture, under her watch.
Gina Haspel, who is facing opposition over her role at a secret CIA prison in Thailand in 2002, told her Senate confirmation hearing the spy agency learned “tough lessons” from its use of harsh detention and interrogation tactics on “terror” suspects after the September 11 attacks.
“Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation programme,” she said on Wednesday.
Haspel said US law now clearly prohibits such interrogation methods, and “I fully support the detainee treatment required by law.”
Pressed over whether she would resume an interrogation programme, and allow torture, if ordered by Trump, she said she would not.
“My moral compass is strong. I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.”
In hindsight, she added, it was clear the CIA was not prepared and did not have the expertise to use techniques such as sleep deprivation and waterboarding, which simulates drowning, to get “terror suspects” to talk.
However, she refused to condemn the 2002-2005 programme, saying it had produced “valuable information” that helped disrupt plots against the US.
“I think we did extraordinary work. To me the tragedy is that the controversy surrounding the interrogation programme … has cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country,” she said.
Haspel, an undercover agent for most of her more than 30-year career, faces what will likely be a close confirmation vote in the full Senate.
That is in part because she was chief of a base in Thailand, where the agency ran one of the secret “black” prisons where suspected al-Qaeda detainees were interrogated using methods that included waterboarding, as well as the destruction of videotapes documenting the tactics.
Trump vowed as a candidate to resume waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning previously used by CIA interrogators but now banned, and promised techniques “a hell of a lot worse”.
Republican Senator Susan Collins asked Haspel what she would do if Trump gave her a direct order to use waterboarding on a “high-value terrorism suspect.”
“I do not believe the president would ask me to do that,” Haspel said, but did not say that she would refuse.
Haspel’s testimony was interrupted by a protester who yelled, “Bloody Gina” and “You are a torturer,” before being removed by police. Before the hearing, a small group of protesters shouted, “Say ‘no’ to torture,” before also being removed.
Haspel needs 51 votes to be confirmed as the first woman director of the CIA in the 100-seat Senate, where Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a 51-49 majority.
At least one Republican, Senator Rand Paul, has said he opposes her confirmation, and others have said they will wait to see how she does at the confirmation hearing.
No Democrat has yet expressed support for Haspel, and have voiced frustration saying they have not been given more details of Haspel’s long record with the CIA, much of which remains classified.
Haspel’s critics outside Congress argue that anyone who willingly participated in one of the CIA’s darkest chapters should not head the spy agency, as it will undercut the US’ effort to champion human rights.