Updated at 10:50 a.m. ET
“I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral – even if it was technically legal,” CIA nominee Gina Haspel said on Wednesday, replying to pointed questions about what her values and priorities would be as leader of America’s intelligence agency.
Haspel is being questioned by both her critics and her backers, testifying under oath at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on her nomination to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.
Haspel, the first woman nominated as the director of the CIA, hopes to succeed Mike Pompeo, who left to lead the State Department. But she’s also facing scrutiny over her role in the agency’s past interrogation program, and whether she would follow orders that might compel the CIA to cross the line into torture and other methods.
The hearing started nearly 10 minutes late, partly because of the intense media spotlight. Cameras fluttered for several moments around Haspel as she sat.
“You are without a doubt the most qualified person” that President Trump could nominate for the CIA job, said committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., in his opening remarks.
Ranking member Sen. Mark Warner agreed that Haspel is “among the most experienced people to be nominated” to lead the CIA – but, he added, “many people – and I include myself in that number – have questions about the message the Senate would be sending by confirming someone for this position who served as a supervisor in the Counter Terrorism Center during the time of the [CIA’s] Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program.”
The first question from Burr had to do with the CIA’s destruction of tape recordings of the agency’s personnel interrogating detainees, in sessions that included waterboarding and other methods that would be considered to be torture.
Haspel said that there were “security issues” about the tapes, due to CIA personnel being visible on the footage. She added that she did not appear in the tapes, despite some reports to the contrary. And she said the agency didn’t believe it was legally obligated to preserve the video records.
“The consistent legal advice – it never changed – was that there was no legal requirement to retain the tapes,” Haspel said.
She added that the agency considered its written description of the videos to be the official record of their content, and that those writings had been reviewed and determined to be accurate and complete.
Taking up where Burr left off, Warner then asked Haspel about the tapes, and whether the threat of multiple investigations played a role in their destruction. Haspel replied that the agency was focused on potential security risks.
Warner moved on to ask Haspel if she believes the CIA’s interrogation program in the early 2000s “was consistent with American values.”
Haspel began her reply by discussing how America has changed since the Sept. 11., 2001, terrorist attacks and the country’s decision to hold itself to a “stricter moral standard,” adding that she supports that standard.
Warner followed that up by asking how Haspel would respond to a request from President Trump and the White House that might run counter to her moral values.
“I would never, ever take CIA back to an interrogation program,” Haspel said. She added that she would not “put CIA officers at risk by asking them to undertake risky, controversial activity again.”
Warner asked, “If this president asked you to do something that you find morally objectionable, even if there is an [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion, what will you do? Will you carry out that order or not?”
“Senator, my moral compass is strong,” Haspel said. “I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral – even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.” Prodded again by Warner, Haspel said, “No. I believe that CIA must undertake activities that are consistent with American values.”
In his opening remarks, Warner did not say that he plans to vote “no” on Haspel’s nomination. But while noting that Haspel has said U.S. law about interrogation has changed, he said, “I appreciate that, but it is not enough.”
At the start of the hearing, after the committee’s two senior members spoke, Haspel was formally introduced — and praised — by two former senators who once sat on the intelligence panel: Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind.
With their remarks concluded, Haspel stood to be sworn in to testify.
Large parts of the nominee’s record remain classified. In the standard questionnaire for presidential nominees, one section was redacted completely: a request for Haspel to list specific sources and amounts of all income for the past five years.
Here are the basic facts about Haspel:
College: University of Louisville
Career: 33 years at CIA, including 32 undercover; 7 foreign postings
Current job: CIA acting director (former deputy director)
Foreign languages: Russian, Turkish
The toughest questions for Haspel – at the open hearing or in meetings behind closed doors – revolve around torture.
As NPR’s Greg Myre reports, “She was at a black site prison in Thailand where al-Qaida suspects were waterboarded in 2002. And in 2005, she wrote a cable calling for the destruction of videotapes that showed that waterboarding.”
Haspel says she would not bring that type of program back. In her prepared remarks for Wednesday’s hearing, the career CIA officer who has rarely spoken in public said that she understands the interest in that part of her career.
“I have views on this issue, and I want to be clear,” she said. “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 program.”
One of her biggest critics on the committee is Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who said the CIA has glossed over Haspel’s career in an attempt to get her confirmed.
“There has been a wall to wall cover-up by the agency, with respect to her background,” Wyden said on Morning Edition Wednesday.
The White House says Haspel is the best candidate for the job. It also points to her record, citing her receipt of the Intelligence Medal of Merit, a Presidential Rank Award, and the Donovan Award, as well as the George H.W. Bush Award for Counterterrorism, “for spearheading an operation that led to valuable intelligence collection and the arrest and imprisonment of two terrorists.”
Marc Short, the president’s legislative affairs director, told NPR on Tuesday, “If she’s not qualified and the best person to lead, then that’s a sad state of affairs to where the U.S. Congress is right now in their adjudication about who’s a proper fit to run the CIA.”
Of Haspel’s involvement with waterboarding, Short said, “She was conducting the work that she did in compliance with the law of the United States, approved by the United States attorney general. She followed the orders she was given.”
As for what her priorities would be as the head of the CIA, Haspel said in her prepared remarks, “Our strategy starts with strengthening our core business: collecting intelligence to help policymakers protect our country and advance American interests around the globe.”
To do that, Haspel said, she would put more officers in the field and emphasize foreign language skills.
“And, finally, it involves investing in our partnerships—both within the U.S. government and around the globe,” she said.