WASHINGTON (CN) – Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers Wednesday that if confirmed, she would not pledge a loyalty oath to Trump and would disobey directives she found immoral.
The CIA deputy director’s morality was the focus of questions during her confirmation hearing at the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Haspel has faced criticism from human rights advocates, Democratic lawmakers and others over her involvement in enhanced interrogation techniques used after the September 11th attacks during President George W. Bush’s administration.
Haspel, a clandestine agent for 32 of her 33 years with the spy agency, oversaw a black site prison in Thailand where terrorist suspects were water boarded.
While there, Haspel also participated in the destruction of at least 92 video tapes which documented the techniques used at the site. A declassified 2011 CIA memo absolved Haspel of responsibility for the tapes destruction, placing responsibility instead on a supervisor.
When asked, Haspel told Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., that her “moral compass is strong” and if confirmed, she would not allow the CIA “to undertake any activity that is immoral, even if it is technically legal.”
When prodded for details about her interactions with Trump, including whether or not she meets with the president alone, Haspel said director of national intelligence Dan Coats typically joins her.
Any requests for loyalty, like the one former FBI director James Comey alleged Trump requested last year, would warrant an “honor bound” response.
Haspel also defended her actions while at the black site, saying she and others at the CIA were “informed by the highest legal authority in the country,” to address terrorism during a “tumultuous” era.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., rejected the premise, noting her oversight of water boarding activities from 2005 to 2007, happened at a time a time when the practice was barred by the U.S. government.
Saying she “stepped up” and refused to take “the Swiss desk,” at the agency, Haspel responded: “The tragedy is that the controversy surrounding the interrogation program, which I fully understand, has cast a shadow to what has been a major contribution to protecting this country.”
But the morality questions persisted.
“Where was that morality years ago? I know you believe it was legal. I want to see, feel and trust you have the moral compass that you say you have. You’re giving legalistic answers to fundamentally moral questions,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.
“My parents raised me right, I know the difference between right and wrong,” Haspel said.
But the question of why she, or anyone at the agency, opted to destroy the detainee interrogation tapes instead of keeping them for the record, plagued him.
“Doesn’t that feel like a cover up?” Heinrich said.
Haspel said it was a matter of national security since the CIA feared agents could be exposed if the tapes were leaked. Several agent’s faces could be seen in the footage.
Haspel was unsure if the CIA considered blocking out the faces in favor of preserving the record.
“I’m not a technical person,” she said.
Haspel did make one commitment.
“On my watch, the CIA will not restart a detention and interrogation program,” she said.
Instead, the agency would focus on the collection and analysis of information that can leverage expertise at the agency. Interrogation of terrorism suspects was better suited for the Department of Defense or other military offshoots.
Though the promise was made under oath, distrust lingered.
Haspel’s time at the CIA is largely classified but as deputy director, Haspel has a say in what is released.
Both Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif, pushed Haspel to admit that she was responsible for blocking the information.
Haspel would not say whether she would recuse herself or if she was aware that she could.
The declassification would help answers questions critics have over her supervision of terrorist suspect Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, a Saudi Arabian citizen who allegedly masterminded the bombing of the USS Cole.
Sarah Dougherty, senior fellow of the U.S. Anti-Torture Program at Physicians for Human Rights said in an interview Wednesday that what happened to Al Nashiri was “not only unlawful at the time but morally reprehensible.”
In addition to the waterboarding, Al Nashiri was subjected to mock execution with a drill and gun while standing naked and hooded, anally raped through rectal feeding, threatened that his mother would be sexually assaulted and was lifted off ground by his arms while they were bound behind his back.
“Torture is an internationally recognized war crime … The United States, with the aid of Gina Haspel, essentially destroyed this man, with lasting suffering and harm. To promote Haspel now is to reward her for participating in torture and in shattering human beings. It sends a message to the world that the United States does not truly abide by the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture, and should not expect reciprocal standards of humane treatment,” Doughtery said.
Republicans on the committee were supportive of Haspel.
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, asked no questions but told her he would “sleep better at night” knowing she was the CIA director.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. emphasized the focus of Wednesday’s hearing was on her nomination for the top spot, not the policies of previous administrations.
“The Senate approves only those who we are assured will lead the CIA legally and morally,” he said. “You are without a doubt, the most qualified person the president could have chosen to lead the CIA. You have acted morally, legally and ethically over a distinguished career. You operated under authority granted to you by president of the United States and with legal guidance provided by the U.S. attorney general.”