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Gina Haspel vows never to resume CIA interrogation as Senate presses her on moral code

Gina Haspel couldn't talk about her work for three decades. On Wednesday, she had to defend it. Haspel, who played pivotal roles in the agency's most controversial recent actions in the years after 9/11, promised to never restart brutal interrogation techniques. But Democrats wanted her to go farther. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    President Trump's nominee to head the CIA is its current acting director, Gina Haspel. She went before the Senate Intelligence Committee for her confirmation hearing this morning.

    As foreign affairs and defense correspondent Nick Schifrin reports, it was her involvement in one of the agency's most controversial activities after 9/11 that was front and center.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For three decades, Gina Haspel couldn't talk about her work. Today, she had to defend it.

  • Gina Haspel:

    I welcome the opportunity to introduce myself to the American people for the first time. It is a new experience for me, as I spent over 30 years undercover and in the shadows.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Haspel joined CIA in 1985 and has held at least 20 jobs, almost all clandestine. In the intelligence community, she's well-respected, said Florida Republican Marco Rubio.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    If someone like you cannot be confirmed to head this agency, then who can?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the protests began before she even started. Haspel's played pivotal roles in the agency's most controversial recent actions.

    After 9/11, CIA created at least six black sites for what was then called enhanced interrogation. Inside what are believed to be CIA-run buildings, detainees were subject to brutal interrogation techniques such as water-boarding, sleep deprivation, and confinement in coffin-like boxes.

    In 2014, Senate Democrats released a report saying detainees had been tortured, and the techniques were not an effective means of acquiring intelligence. By then, the program had already ended.

    Haspel promised never to restart it.

  • Gina Haspel:

    I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that, under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Democrats wanted her to go farther.

  • California’s Kamala Harris:

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    Do you believe in hindsight that those techniques were immoral?

  • Gina Haspel:

    Senator, what I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standard we have decided ourselves to hold ourselves to.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    Could you please answer the question?

  • Gina Haspel:

    Senator, I think I have answered the question.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    No, you have not.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Virginia's Mark Warner is the committee's top Democrat.

  • Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.:

    We need — I need to at least get a sense of your moral code says about those kind of actions.

  • Gina Haspel:

    I support the higher moral standard that this country has decided to hold itself to. I would never, ever take CIA back to an interrogation program

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Haspel's believed to have run a site in Thailand where Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of bombing the USS Cole in 2000, was water-boarded.

  • Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.:

    Where was that moral compass at the time?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    New Mexico's Martin Heinrich.

  • Gina Haspel:

    When you're out in the trenches at far-flung outposts in the globe, and Washington says, here is what we need you to do, this is legal, the attorney general has deemed it so, the president of the United States is counting on you to prevent another attack…

  • Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.:

    No, I know you think it's legal. You're giving very legalistic answers to very fundamentally moral questions.

  • Gina Haspel:

    In all of my assignments, I have conducted myself honorably and in accordance with U.S. law.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As a candidate, President Trump vowed to bring the interrogation program back.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I would bring back water-boarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than water-boarding.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Man:

    What would you do if the president ordered you to get back in that business?

  • Gina Haspel:

    I wouldn't restart under any circumstances an interrogation program at CIA, under any circumstances.

  • Man:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 2005, Haspel was chief of staff to counterterrorism head Jose Rodriguez. In the middle of congressional and media scrutiny, Haspel wrote a cable for Rodriguez that authorized the destruction of videos showing CIA interrogation.

    Independent Maine Senator Angus King.

  • Sen. Angus King, I-Maine:

    Was it a matter of coincidence that you — that this decision was made to destroy the tapes in same week that two major stories appeared in American newspapers?

  • Gina Haspel:

    Senator, I do not recall being aware of that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The CIA recently declassified a 2011 memo from then CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell that found no fault with Haspel's actions.

    Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton came to her defense.

  • Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.:

    Would holding you responsible for drafting a cable at your boss' direction make any more sense than holding a Senate speechwriter responsible for the boring speeches senators give on the Senate floor?

  • Gina Haspel:

    Senator, I will defer to you.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.:

    I would submit that it doesn't.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Haspel tried to walk a fine line between criticizing torture, without criticizing her colleagues who conducted it. Texas Republican John Cornyn said Haspel and her post-9/11 colleagues were being held to a double standard.

  • Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas:

    People have simply forgotten the circumstances under which they were operating at the time, and doing their dead level best to protect the country from a follow-on attack.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The committee is expected to approve her next week, but it's not clear if she will be confirmed by the entire Senate.

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