CIA director nominee moves closer to confirmation in the US Senate

May 8, 2018, 10:43 PM | Updated: Jun 7, 2022, 4:01 pm
The path to confirmation is easing for Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump's pick to lead the CIA....
The path to confirmation is easing for Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump's pick to lead the CIA.

(CNN) — The path to confirmation is easing for Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the CIA.

Just days after Haspel reportedly offered to withdraw her nomination, lawmakers and aides are growing increasingly confident that Haspel will have the votes she needs — a simple majority — to win support in the Senate and save the Trump administration from a nomination saga like the one that unfolded with VA secretary nominee Dr. Ronny Jackson.

“She’s had a good series of meetings and she’s looking forward to Wednesday,” said Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, a reference to Haspel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Haspel, who is currently acting CIA director, is expected to face sharp questioning about her role in the CIA’s interrogation tactics like waterboarding used in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which critics say amount to torture, as well as the destruction of CIA interrogation videos. But many Democrats have withheld final judgment.

On Tuesday evening, the CIA released excerpts of Haspel’s prepared remarks, which indicate that she plans to address questions surrounding the controversy.

“I understand that what many people around the country want to know about are my views on CIA’s former detention and interrogation program,” Haspel is expected to say, according to excerpted testimony. “I have views on this issue, and I want to be clear. 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 program.”

One Democratic aide familiar with the party’s thinking on the matter argued that the calculus for Democrats is complicated, balanced between many Democrats’ opposition to the George W. Bush interrogation and detention program and the fact that Haspel comes highly recommended from colleagues — including senior intelligence officials from the Obama administration. She also has leadership and management experience that some of Trump’s nominees for other Cabinet posts don’t have.

Republicans are looking to the same coalition of Democrats who backed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in order to get Haspel over the finish line — Democratic senators up for re-election in states Trump won in 2016.

They include West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. In addition, Republicans are hopeful Haspel will win over Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent on the Senate Intelligence Committee who voted for Pompeo, and Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat up for re-election in Montana, told CNN on Tuesday that he would vote against Haspel’s confirmation.

No Democrat has publicly come out in support of Haspel yet and some are urging more information about her to be declassified before the hearing Wednesday, but after meeting with the CIA director nominee Monday, Manchin signaled he was open to supporting her.

“She has been a true soldier and done her job,” Manchin told reporters Monday. “She truly has, everything I’ve seen. But there’s going to be other people that might have a different twist, I want to listen to them, but I believe — I hope they show her the respect.”

Haspel’s confirmation fight is a difficult one because of several points in her 33-year CIA career, 32 years of which was spent undercover.

Haspel ran a CIA “black site” in Thailand in 2002 where detainees were interrogated, and she was chief of staff to the director of clandestine operations, Jose Rodriguez, when he ordered the 2005 destruction of CIA interrogation tapes. The sharp pushback to Haspel over her record prompted her to offer to withdraw her nomination last week, though the White House has decided to push forward with her confirmation.

The CIA has actively advocated for Haspel’s confirmation, an usual step for the traditionally reserved agency, and the lobbying campaign has drawn scrutiny from at least one Democrat, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois.

“Congress is being lobbied aggressively, and we must consider whether our intelligence agencies should conduct public affairs campaigns aimed at a co-equal branch of government,” Durbin wrote the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in a letter made public Tuesday. “I urge you to consider whether the CIA’s efforts to promote this nomination are in keeping with the best interests of the intelligence community, and whether additional steps are warranted to review the public affairs postures of each component of the intelligence community.”

Democrats have demanded the CIA declassify information about her role in the interrogation program. The CIA last month made public a 2011 internal report on the destruction of the tapes that cleared Haspel of wrongdoing, and it sent a batch of classified files on her career to the Senate on Monday.

But Democrats argue the public should know more about her record. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has stayed quiet about his personal views on Haspel’s nomination, but he has pushed for more documents. He sent Haspel a letter on Monday arguing that the public disclosure to this point was “unacceptable,” urging her to remedy the situation herself as acting CIA director. The CIA has argued it will make classified information available to senators but there are security reasons to keep that information from being released publicly.

On Tuesday, Haspel was back on Capitol Hill for more meetings ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, including with Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has been among the most vocal Haspel critics, and Sen. Jack Reed, who has a seat on the intelligence panel as the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

“It is going to take place in public yet I believe as of now people will not know much of what the nominee was doing during that crucial period and will not know a number of the facts I know that relate to her record and who she really is,” Wyden said following his meeting with Haspel.

The panel’s top Republican Sen. Richard Burr has said he will support Haspel.

“I don’t have any concerns. I’ve done my homework,” Burr told reporters Monday, arguing that the CIA has “declassified what they can.”

Haspel will need at least minimal Democratic support with the 51-49 Republican advantage in the Senate because Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has announced opposition to Haspel. In addition, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain appears unlikely to be in Washington for the debate as he battles brain cancer.

Other Republicans remain on the fence as well including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Jeff Flake of Arizona, but leaders say they are confident that Haspel will have the support she needs in the end.

Sen. John Cornyn, the majority whip, said that Republicans plan to push back against any Democratic attacks against Haspel during the hearing.

“I think she’s going to be a good witness and I think we will be prepared for that and be prepared to refute any unjustified criticism,” Cornyn said.

He also joked that Republicans believe they are in a far better place with Haspel than they were with Jackson.

“I think we know a lot more about her than Dr. Jackson,” Cornyn said.

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CIA director nominee moves closer to confirmation in the US Senate