Democrats have their best chance of rejecting a major Donald Trump appointment on the floor of the Senate coming up in the next few days, but Gina Haspel won’t make it easy for them. The nominee to run the CIA has apparently made a good impression in private meetings with members of the Senate in advance of her testimony today in her confirmation hearing. Haspel opened the proceedings by declaring that she will not allow the CIA to return to the use of the controversial policies and interrogation techniques that has prompted opposition to her appointment:
Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be permanent director of the CIA, will promise senators not to resume harsh interrogation techniques that critics have characterized as torture, according to excerpts of her remarks released Tuesday ahead of her confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
Haspel, 61, the CIA’s deputy director since February 2017, has been acting director since Mike Pompeo, then the agency’s director, was confirmed to succeed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state last month. …
According to the excerpts from her testimony, Haspel plans to tell the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday morning that she understands that many people would like to know her views on the interrogation techniques, which were instituted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Her actual opinion, however, isn’t included in the excerpts, but in them, she promises, “clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”
To some extent, that’s out of her control anyway. Congress passed tougher restrictions on interrogations in 2005 in the wake of revelations about waterboarding and other techniques applied to detained terror suspects and other unlawful combatants. Three years later, George W. Bush vetoed a follow-up bill that would have restricted interrogation techniques even further, limiting them only to those approved in the Army Field Manual. The next year, however, Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13491, which placed that limitation specifically on the CIA. So far, Donald Trump hasn’t issued an EO rescinding 13491, so the prohibition still stands regardless of whether Haspel agrees with it or not.
Most of the news today will come from looking backwards at Haspel’s connections to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, but David Ignatius argues that looking forward matters more. If senators want to see US intelligence take a more active and pre-emptive strategy against Russia, Ignatius writes, then they may have to get over the past and focus on the future:
Haspel’s Russia experience is the most important detail in her biography, beyond her three years of work for the Counterterrorism Center, from 2001 to 2004. She appears to have spent much of the first 15 years of her career in Russia-related operations, starting with a posting in a Soviet client-state in East Africa in 1987.
Though she never served in Moscow, former colleagues say she ran operations against Russian targets in several postings. And as deputy chief of the Russian operations group of the Central Eurasia Division from 1998 to 2000, she reviewed most sensitive operations involving Russia. Michael Sulick, who ran the division at the time, remembers she would give a balanced assessment of the risks and benefits of every potential Russian recruitment.
Haspel also learned the special tradecraft that’s required to keep agents alive in hostile “denied areas” such as Russia. These are the CIA’s most precious secrets, and Haspel is one of the few initiates. “She has a Ph.D. in the FSB, SVR and GRU,” jokes Dan Hoffman, a former Moscow station chief who worked closely with Haspel, referring to the initials of the three main Russian intelligence agencies. “That gives her a gravitas within the building and with our foreign liaison partners.” …
When people watch Haspel before the Senate Intelligence Committee, they should focus on two urgent questions: Is she so tainted by her involvement with the torture issue that it will undermine her leadership and shred America’s moral authority? And how would her special expertise on Russia help the CIA manage the Trump administration’s most delicate and potentially explosive challenge?
What makes the Haspel nomination a moral issue is that it’s a hard choice, with costs on both sides.
The problem Haspel faces is that there just may not be enough votes to win. Rand Paul has adamantly opposed her appointment, and John McCain won’t be available to cast his vote in either direction. That leaves Republicans with just 49 potential votes, and Susan Collins — who sits on the Intelligence committee — hasn’t committed to supporting Haspel at all. Mitch McConnell needs to find at least one Democrat and potentially two to get Haspel across the finish line.
That’s why the New York Times focuses on Collins as the key:
Several prominent members of the Republican-controlled Senate have indicated they are likely to object to Ms. Haspel’s confirmation, primarily over her role in the agency’s use of torture. They include Ms. Feinstein; Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky; and Senator John McCain, an influential Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Mr. McCain’s dissent would normally be potent, but he is being treated for brain cancer and is not expected to be in Washington to vote or to try to persuade Republican colleagues to join his objection.
That leaves at least two key members of the Intelligence Committee to watch: Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican who often breaks with Mr. Trump; and Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who has sided with the president.
If Ms. Collins indicates she is leaning against Ms. Haspel, she could provide cover for Mr. Manchin and other moderate Democratic senators to vote no, sinking her candidacy. But if Ms. Collins signals that she is satisfied with Ms. Haspel’s answers and intends vote yes, at least some Democrats — enough to secure a positive vote on the Senate floor — are likely to make a political calculation that they must follow suit.
Republicans seem pretty sanguine nonetheless. They believe that the vote will end up looking like the Pompeo confirmation, with red-state Democrats crossing over in support. They appear to be led by perhaps the most endangered among them:
Senate Republican leaders and White House officials are confident they will be able to confirm Gina Haspel to lead the CIA by the end of the month, barring any explosive revelation at her confirmation hearing this week.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin is considered highly likely to support her, said a White House official. The moderate Democrat up for reelection this year posed for a photo alongside Haspel after a private meeting on Monday and said he “appreciated so much, Gina coming and speaking with me.”
Manchin almost sounds like a Haspel sponsor later in Politico’s reporting:
And senators are still curious about the back story to Haspel’s offer to withdraw over the weekend, which is certain to come up at her confirmation hearing.
“I think she’s going to have a great answer for you on that one,” Manchin said.
If Collins and Manchin support her in committee, then she’ll at least get to the point where Mike Pence can push her over the finish line. She may need to hit a home run first today in the hearing. Just how angry, though, will Democratic Party activists be if Haspel gets through to confirmation? These people may be showing up in places like West Virginia and Indiana soon:
— NBC News (@NBCNews) May 9, 2018
Update: Mark Warner didn’t seem too impressed with Haspel’s opening statement:
"No one should get credit for simply agreeing to follow the law. That's the least we should expect from any nominee and certainly from the director of the CIA," Sen. Mark Warner tells CIA director nominee Gina Haspel https://t.co/jt5OFvZefF pic.twitter.com/nhmJcYjXCQ
— CBS News (@CBSNews) May 9, 2018