Prospective CIA head Gina Haspel promises to end 'harsh interrogation' tactics

Prospective CIA head Gina Haspel promises to end 'harsh interrogation' tactics
Gina Haspel has vowed not to use harsh interrogation techniques if she becomes head of the CIA, but her past has cast doubts on these claims.
5 min read
Gina Haspel has vowed to not use harsh interrogation if she heads the CIA [Getty]

US President Donald Trump's nominee to be the next CIA director said she would refrain from undertaking a detention and harsh interrogation programme like the one used in the rounding up of suspects following the so-called War on Terror.

The CIA released excerpts of the opening remarks Gina Haspel will make at her confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate intelligence committee.

Haspel's fate hinges on how well she fields tough questions from senators who want details of her time running a covert detention site, where terror suspects were brutally interrogated. 

They will also want to know why she wanted videos of the sessions destroyed.

"I understand that what many people around the country want to know about me are my views on CIA's former detention and interrogation programme," Haspel says in the excerpts.

"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 programme."

Haspel's vow to fight any attempt to resurrect the programme could be faced with resistance from Trump, who spoke in the campaign about toughening the US approach to fighting extremists and vowed to authorise waterboarding and a "hell of a lot worse".

Trump, however, has made no move to implement that vow since he has taken office. He has praised Haspel's three decades of intelligence experience and has said Democrats are wary of her because she has been tough on terrorists.

"This is a woman who has been a leader wherever she has gone. The CIA wants her to lead them into America's bright and glorious future!" Trump tweeted Tuesday.

In other excerpts, Haspel pledges to work closely with the Senate oversight committee.

She said she would fight to put more intelligence officers in the field abroad, emphasise foreign language proficiency, and work to strengthen partnerships with US allies.

She also said there has been an outpouring of support from young women at the CIA who hope she becomes the first female director of the agency.

"It is not my way to trumpet the fact that I am a woman up for the top job, but I would be remiss in not remarking on it - not least because of the outpouring of support from young women at CIA who consider it a good sign for their own prospects," Haspel said.

Haspel - a 61-year-old career undercover spy who has been acting CIA director since Mike Pompeo was nominated as secretary of state - has been practicing her answers at mock confirmation hearings with former top intelligence officials.

Many of them praise her 33-year tenure at the agency in foreign and domestic assignments, and she received glowing endorsements from Republican senators.

Problematic past catching up

Democrats have complained repeatedly that the CIA has failed to declassify enough information about her career, leaving the public in the dark about the person who might end up leading the CIA.

Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore. - and three of his Democratic colleagues - recently wrote a letter to Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, asking that his office, which oversees all US intelligence agencies, declassify the documents.

He cited a provision of an executive order that prohibits information from being classified "in order to conceal violations of law, inefficiency or administrative error" or "to prevent embarrassment to a person, organisation or agency".

"This is really a high-stakes hearing," Wyden said.

He warned it would set a damaging precedent "if this administration is allowed to get away with what I consider to be a secret confirmation" for the most visible official in US intelligence.

As the hearing neared, Haspel's critics outside Congress stepped up their opposition, arguing that anyone who willingly participated in one of the CIA's darkest chapters should not be at the helm of the spy agency.

They argue that having Haspel as the face of US intelligence will undercut America's effort to champion human rights.

Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Syria and fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that while US military personnel had been punished for human rights abuses such as at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, few intelligence professionals were reprimanded for their activities with the detention and interrogation programme that had been approved by the White House and reviewed and approved by the Justice Department.

A confirmation of Haspel would be interpreted overseas as implicit approval of a program of harsh detention and interrogation, Ford said.

Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who interrogated high-value terror detainees, said he has concerns about how Haspel drafted a cable ordering the destruction of 92 videotapes made at the Thailand site.

Haspel's boss, Jose Rodriguez, actually dispatched the order in 2005 to have the tapes shredded.

Soufan, who now heads a private risk-assessment firm, asked whether Haspel wanted them destroyed to protect the identities of CIA personnel who worked there or because they would discredit the agency.

Last month, the CIA released a memo showing Haspel was cleared of wrongdoing in the destruction of the videotapes.

The memo, written in 2011, summarises a disciplinary review conducted by then-CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell. He said that while Haspel was one of the two officers "directly involved in the decision to destroy the tapes," he "found no fault" with what she did.