President Donald Trump's new pick to run the CIA, Gina Haspel, is a career officer who ran a secret prison in Thailand, where suspected terrorists were waterboarded after the September 11th attacks. She would be the first woman to head the agency.
Haspel, who was named the CIA's deputy director in February of last year, briefly was in charge of the prison, or CIA black site, where accused terrorist Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri was waterboarded in 2002, The Associated Press has reported. She also helped to destroy the CIA's waterboarding videos, an order that resulted in a long Justice Department investigation that ended without charges.
From 2003 to 2005, Haspel oversaw the interrogation program in which dozens of suspected terrorists also were deprived of sleep and stuffed into coffins, according to The New Yorker.
Trump has supported waterboarding, the harsh interrogation technique that simulates drowning.
Haspel, who joined the agency in 1985, would need to be confirmed as director by the U.S. Senate. She would replace Mike Pompeo, who would become secretary of state.
Haspel served as chief of station at several CIA outposts abroad, and held top senior leaderships in Washington, D.C., including deputy director of the National Clandestine Service, a section of the CIA. She was deputy director of the CIA's Russia Group and NBC News reported that, according to former colleagues, she has a conventional, hardline view of Russia as a dangerous adversary.
But she was passed over as director of the National Clandestine Service in 2013, after serving as acting director for two months, when California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein in particular raised concerns about her role in the controversial interrogation program.
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Her confirmation hearing will likely focus on that chapter in the CIA, after the Bush administration authorized the use of techniques such as waterboarding, which the U.S. government had previously regarded as torture
"It's no secret I’ve had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this," Feinstein said in a statement Tuesday. "To the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with her again."
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said that he wanted to hear about the extent of Haspel's involvement in the CIA's interrogation program, her beliefs about torture and her approach to current law.
"In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, our government squandered precious moral authority in a futile effort to produce intelligence by means of torture," he said. "We are still dealing with the consequences of that desperately misguided decision."
Any nominee for CIA director must pledge to uphold the current ban on harsh interrogation techniques, he said.
Haspel said in a statement that after 30 years as an officer with the CIA, she had been honored to serve as its deputy director alongside Pompeo for the last year.
"I am grateful to President Trump for the opportunity, and humbled by his confidence in me, to be nominated to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency," she said. "If confirmed, I look forward to providing President Trump the outstanding intelligence support he has grown to expect during his first year in office."
A former CIA director, John Brennan, praised Haspel's competence and integrity and told MSNBC that there was tremendous respect for her within the ranks. He acknowledged that she was involved in a very controversial program, a role that he predicted would receive close scrutiny during her confirmation process, but said that he thought she deserved the chance to take the helm at the CIA.
Asked if he would vouch for her, he said, "I vouch for her capabilities, her experience, her expertise, and I do have confidence that she will carry out the duties of director well. I just hope that in this administration where it seems as though loyalty seems to be the highest priority, that Gina Haspel speaks truth to power and represents the CIA in a apolitical, nonpartisan and honest and objective way."
Some Democrats, the ACLU and other civil rights advocates objected when she was named deputy director last year.
"I am especially concerned by reports that this individual was involved in the unauthorized destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes, which documented the CIA's use of torture against two CIA detainees," Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island wrote in a letter to Pompeo at the time.
Christopher Anders, deputy director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office, said in a statement Tuesday that Haspel was "up to her eyeballs in torture."
"The CIA must declassify and release every aspect of Haspel's torture record before considering the nomination," the statement added.
CORRECTION (March 16, 11:30 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Gina Haspel’s role in the interrogations of suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah. NBC News now reports that she was not present at those interrogations, according to current and former U.S. officials.