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U.S. President Donald Trump's pick to head the country's spy agency promised lawmakers not to revive a program featuring so-called enhanced interrogations of terror suspects but repeatedly refused to condemn the practices as illegal or immoral.
Wednesday's confirmation hearing for Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director Gina Haspel, who is aiming to become the agency's first female director, gave much of the public its first look at the 61-year-old intelligence officer who has spent most of the last three decades rising through the ranks, while often working in the shadows.
Much of the hearing focused on Haspel's 2002 stint in Thailand during which she oversaw a secret CIA prison. Detainees there were subjected to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques that are frequently denounced as torture.
"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," Haspel told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"I would never, ever take CIA back to an interrogation program," she said. "I would absolutely not permit it."
Praise from Republicans
Haspel won praise from the committee's Republican lawmakers, including its chairman, Senator Richard Burr, who called her "without a doubt the most qualified person the president could have chosen."
But other senators repeatedly hammered Haspel over her record, much of which remains classified. And on several occasions, Wednesday's proceedings came to a halt as protesters, including one yelling, "Bloody Gina, you are a torturer," were escorted from the room.
"There is no greater indictment of this nomination process than the fact that you are deciding what the country gets to know about you and what it doesn't," said Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. "And, so far, the American people have only been given information that is designed to help you get confirmed."
During one exchange, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine asked Haspel what she would do if confronted with an order from the White House to engage in a practice like waterboarding, or worse.
"I do not believe the president would ask me to do that," Haspel said, adding she would not restart the enhanced interrogation program "under any circumstance."
"I think that we should hold ourselves to a stricter moral standard and I would never allow the CIA to be involved in coercive interrogation," she said.
"Where was that moral compass at the time?" countered Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.
When questioned later by Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California, Haspel again insisted the CIA's use of harsh interrogation tactics were legal.
"It's a yes or no answer," Harris said. "I'm asking do you believe they were immoral?"
"Senator, I believe that CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools that we were authorized to use," Haspel replied.
At the end of the day, Sen. John McCain, battling brain cancer at his home in Arizona, weighed in.
Like many Americans, I understand the urgency that drove the decision to resort to so-called enhanced interrogation methods after our country was attacked, the 81-year-old senator said in a statement.
Haspel, he said, was offered an opportunity to explain her involvement and account for the mistakes the country made in torturing detainees.
McCain, who had expressed reservations when Trump initially nominated her, remained unsatisfied.
I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense. However, Ms. Haspel's role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture's immorality is disqualifying.
He added, The Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.
Videotaped interrogation sessions
The current CIA deputy director is also accused of drafting a memo calling for the destruction of 92 videotapes of interrogation sessions. The videotapes were destroyed in 2005, leading to a Justice Department investigation that ended without charges.
Haspel told lawmakers Wednesday, in retrospect, the tapes should not have been destroyed despite concerns that the lives of CIA officers could be endangered should the tapes leak.
Haspel's nomination has polarized lawmakers, some of whom said they were looking for her to issue a stronger condemnation of the interrogation techniques the CIA embraced following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
She needs 51 votes in the Senate for confirmation, and Republicans hold a 51-49 majority, but already at least one Republican, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, has come out in opposition.
Haspel's nomination has been equally divisive among former intelligence, military and diplomatic officials.
Former CIA Director John Brennan, who has come out in support of Haspel, took to Twitter earlier this week urging the Senate to vote for her confirmation.
"Put country above politics," Brennan tweeted. "Don't penalize her for previous policy decisions or because DT [Donald Trump] picked her."
Other current and former intelligence officials, including current Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and former CIA directors Michael Hayden and Leon Panetta, have also issued statements of support.
Group warns against confirmation
Yet as late as Wednesday, a group of 115 former and retired diplomats sent a letter to lawmakers, warning Haspel's confirmation would be a mistake.
"If Ms. Haspel is confirmed, it is going to undercut a lot of the effort that the Department of State and other U.S. agencies make in promoting human rights," said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who signed the letter.
Ford warned that should Haspel become CIA director, other nations would point to the U.S. record on interrogations as justification for their own abuses of human rights.
"It's an outrageous allegation, but it's going to be made and it's going to stick," he said.
Some of those who have worked with Haspel believe such leaps of judgment are unfair.
"When you're doing intelligence, you're always sort of playing at the legal edge. Everything you do is vetted by U.S. law," Carol Rollie Flynn, a former executive director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, told VOA.
"She's just a really good person. She's someone who is pretty much universally respected," Flynn said. "They don't grow on trees."
Source: Voice of America