Her supporters and critics agree that there are few people as experienced as Gina Haspel when it comes to running the CIA — and that could be her undoing. President Donald Trump's controversial nominee, a 33-year veteran of the agency, has been clear that she believes the work she and her colleagues did after 9/11 was necessary to prevent another attack.
Wednesday's hearing showed that the biggest obstacle to her confirmation remains her role in one of the darkest chapters in the agency's history, when the US tortured terrorist suspects through so-called "enhanced interrogation tactics" such as waterboarding.
Several lawmakers expressed frustration with Haspel's reluctance to give a clear yes or no answer to several questions about her involvement in that program, although she offered her "personal commitment, clearly and without reservation" that she would not restart it.
1) Is torture immoral?
Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat who used to be a prosecutor, repeatedly asked Haspel whether she believes that the CIA's torture techniques are immoral.
Haspel avoided answering.
Harris: One question I've not heard you answer is do you believe that the previous interrogation techniques were immoral?
Haspel: Senator, I believe that CIA officers to whom you referred—
Harris: It's a yes or no answer. ... I'm asking do you believe they were immoral?
Harris: Senator, I believe that CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools—
Harris: Please answer yes or no. Do you believe in hindsight that those techniques were immoral?
Haspel: Senator, what I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves—
Harris: Can you please answer the question?
Haspel: I think I've answered the question.
Harris: No, you've not. Do you believe the previous techniques — now armed with hindsight — do you believe they were immoral, yes or no?
Haspel: Senator, I believe that we should hold ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the army field manual.
Harris: Okay. So I understand that you — you've not answered the question, but I'm going to move on.
2) Did she oversee the waterboarding of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri?
Haspel reportedly arrived at the CIA black site in Thailand in October 2002, and would have been in charge when Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi Arabian citizen alleged to be the mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole, was tortured there after arriving in November of that year.
He was threatened with a power drill, slammed against walls, and waterboarded at least three times before being transferred to another facility in December, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report.
But when pressed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who headed the Senate committee that released a report on the CIA’s torture program, to give a yes or no answer on whether she oversaw the waterboarding of al-Nashiri, she refused, although she suggested she might answer in a non-public setting.
"Senator, anything about my classified assignment history throughout my 33 years we can talk about in this afternoon's classified session," she said.
3) Did she ever advocate for expanding the CIA's torture program?
Haspel was asked by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, whether she ever pushed for her agency's interrogation program to be extended when it was winding down.
“Did you ever call for the program to be continued or expanded?” he asked.
When she sidestepped the question by repeating that she and her colleagues had been informed that the CIA’s techniques were legal and “authorized by the highest legal authority in our country and also the president,” Wyden asked again.
“Respectfully, that is not responsive to the question. … It sure sounds to me like your answer suggests it,” he said.
This led to one of the answers in which Haspel got closest to defending the program.
"To me, the tragedy is that the controversy surrounding the interrogation program … has cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country," she said.
4) If the president asked you to do something illegal, would you do it?
While she testified that she would not bring back waterboarding, Haspel did not directly answer when Sen. Susan Collins asked her what she would do if President Trump gave her a direct order to waterboard a terrorist suspect.
"I do not believe the President would ask me to do that,” Haspel said, to grim laughter in the public gallery.
During his presidential campaign, Trump vowed to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” although once he was elected he said he would defer to the Pentagon and CIA chiefs.
5) Would she tell Congress if Trump asked her for a loyalty pledge?
Haspel twice refused to say if she would notify Congress if Trump asked her to pledge loyalty to him as he reportedly asked former FBI director James Comey to do.
Sen. Jack Reed: You’ve been working with the administration now for 15 months. You have had the opportunity to brief the president. Have you ever been alone with the president?
Gina Haspel: Senator, I’m usually there with Senator Coats, a brilliant analyst who delivers the actual analytic briefing, and usually the national security adviser, the vice president.
Reed: There have been allegations — Mr. Comey, one — that while he was alone the president asked for a personal pledge of loyalty. If you were ever approached by the president and asked for a personal pledge of loyalty, what would you respond?
Haspel: Senator, my only loyalty is to the American people and the Constitution of the United States. I am honor-bound and will work very hard to deliver to this president and his administration the best performance and intelligence CIA can deliver.
Reed: And if you were approached in such a way and such a demand were made of you, would you inform this committee and the Congress that you had been so approached?
Haspel: Senator, I have worked very closely with this president. I don’t believe that such a circumstance would ever occur. CIA has been treated with enormous respect, and our expertise is valued for what we bring to the table.
Reed: If it occurred, would you inform the committee?
Haspel: Senator, it is a hypothetical. I don’t think it is going to occur. I am very confident about that.
Reed: It does not seem to be a hypothetical. People have alleged that that has happened already.
Haspel: Senator, I don’t know anything about that conversation.