Haspel named first female CIA director

In this 9 May 2018, file photo, CIA nominee Gina Haspel testifies during a confirmation hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: AP
In this 9 May 2018, file photo, CIA nominee Gina Haspel testifies during a confirmation hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: AP

The US Senate on Thursday confirmed Gina Haspel as the first female CIA director, despite deep reservations among some lawmakers that her past involvement in the torture of terror suspects was a red flag.

President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency passed on a vote of 54-45, with half a dozen opposition Democrats bucking their party and supporting the controversial Haspel’s nomination.

“Congratulations to our new CIA Director, Gina Haspel!” tweeted the president, who has described her as exceptionally qualified.

Two Republicans voted against her, while Republican senator John McCain, who was tortured during years spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, also opposed her nomination but is in Arizona battling brain cancer and could not vote.

The 61-year-old Haspel, a Russia specialist who spent her career in the clandestine service, takes over from Mike Pompeo, whom Trump recently made his secretary of state.

Haspel is widely respected as a disciplined, non-political field agent. She rose to manage the global clandestine network before becoming the CIA’s deputy director one year ago.

But with her past suddenly in the spotlight, she endured a contentious confirmation process during which lawmakers criticised her work following the 11 September 2001 attacks, when she oversaw a secret prison in Thailand.

It was there that Al-Qaeda suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri were water-boarded, an interrogation technique subsequently condemned as torture.

Haspel pledged to lawmakers that she would “never ever” take the CIA back to enhanced interrogation techniques.

While she notably declined to describe the interrogation methods as “immoral” at her confirmation hearing, she wrote in a follow-up letter to lawmakers that the harsh program “is not one the CIA should have undertaken.”

‘The wrong message’?

Number two senate Republican John Cornyn said Haspel is well-liked within the CIA and will provide “objective, unbiased, and unvarnished intelligence” to the president and policymakers.

But several Democrats expressed worry that Haspel might not stand up to the president, who in 2016 told supporters that “torture works” and that he would like to see interrogation techniques “tougher than waterboarding.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a former chair of the Senate Intelligence Community who in that role worked extensively with CIA management, said confirming Haspel sends “the wrong message” that the United States has abdicated its moral authority.

“No one has ever been held accountable for the torture programme and I do not believe those who were intimately involved in it deserve to lead the agency,” Feinstein said in a statement after voting against Haspel.

“What message does it send to the world if we reward people for presiding over what is considered to be one of the darkest chapters in our history?”

The American Civil Liberties Union also attacked Haspel’s confirmation, calling it “a complete disgrace to our democracy.”

“For the first time in the history of the United States, the CIA will be led by someone with a past role in the use of torture,” Christopher Anders, deputy director of ACLU’s legislative office, said in a statement.