White House, Rights Groups Spar Over Nominee to Head CIA

Ahead of her confirmation hearing Wednesday, the White House is defending acting Central Intelligence Agency director Gina Haspel as the best person for the job.

“She is 100 percent committed to going through this confirmation process and being confirmed as the next leader of the CIA,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Monday. 

The 61-year-old veteran agency operative offered to withdraw from consideration for the permanent position amid concerns about her involvement in previous harsh interrogation programs, but President Donald Trump — according to administration officials — has encouraged her to hold firm.

“She wants to do everything she can to make sure the integrity of the CIA remains intact, isn’t unnecessarily attacked. And if she felt that her nomination would have been a problem for that and for the agency, then she wanted to do what she could to protect the agency,” explained Sanders. 

The CIA on Monday delivered “a set of classified documents to the Senate today so that every senator could review acting director Haspel’s actual and outstanding record,” according to an agency spokesperson. “These documents cover the entirety of her career, including her time in the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center in the years after 9/11. We encourage every senator to take the time to read the entire set of documents.”

White House officials reportedly quickly went to see Haspel at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, last Friday to convince her not to withdraw from consideration. 

Trump on Monday asserted Haspel “has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists.”

Trump tweeted: “Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!” Trump said.

Tuesday morning the president reiterated his support in another tweet.

Haspel will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a partly open hearing on Wednesday. If confirmed, she would be the first woman to lead the agency, which was created by President Harry Truman in 1947. She will succeed Mike Pompeo, who was recently confirmed as Secretary of State. 

A 33-year veteran of the intelligence agency, Haspel previously ran CIA posts in four different countries and studied Russian and Turkish during her career. Most of the specifics of her background, including in which specific countries she operated undercover over the years, remain classified. 

Thailand detention center

Civil libertarians, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, and many Democrats said Haspel should be disqualified because among the known items on her resume is supervision of a secret CIA detention center in Thailand. In 2002, two Islamic terror suspects were waterboarded there — a practice that simulates drowning and critics call torture.

Haspel authored a cable three years later calling for the destruction of nearly 100 videotapes of the waterboarding (now an illegal practice) and other interrogations. 

The ACLU is calling for senators to demand that her “torture records” be declassified. 

One Republican senator, Rand Paul, who is from Haspel’s home state of Kentucky, also opposes her nomination because of her involvement in the waterboarding of detainees and has vowed to block her confirmation. 

Another Republican, Sen. Tom Cotton of the state of Arkansas, declares opposing Haspel’s nomination for political reasons “puts our national security at risk.” 

Haspel has been meeting with senators ahead of her hearing and has reportedly assured them, if confirmed, she would oppose a revival of brutal interrogation techniques. That is something she is expected to explicitly declare during Wednesday’s hearing. 

“Through the confirmation process, the American public will get to know her for the first time. When they do, we are confident America will be proud to have the deputy director as the next CIA director,” a CIA spokesperson told VOA. “She’s a tested and respected leader who will lead consistent with our mission, expertise, values, and the law.”

VOA’s Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.

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