WASHINGTON ― Democrats find themselves in a conspicuous position on the nomination of Gina Haspel to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. For once, they may have the power and the moral high ground to derail one of President Donald Trump’s high-level appointments.
The question is whether they can stick together long enough to do so.
Trump last week nominated Haspel to replace Mike Pompeo, who the president in turn tapped to be his next secretary of state. Haspel, a 30-year CIA veteran widely respected by her colleagues as deputy director, would be the first woman to lead the agency if the Senate confirms her.
The nominations of both Pompeo and Haspel are expected to encounter trouble in the Senate. But Haspel is likely to face more scrutiny due to bipartisan concern over her ties to the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation measures on terrorism suspects. It’s a fight where progressive groups and human rights activists estimate they have the best chance of success.
As the head of a clandestine base in Thailand in 2002, Haspel oversaw the interrogation of one terror suspect that reportedly included techniques like waterboarding. Another suspect, Abu Zubaydah, was waterboarded 83 times in one month at the same facility, although Haspel had not been put in charge of the base yet when he was questioned.
The torture sessions were videotaped, and Haspel also reportedly played a part in the tapes’ destruction in 2005. The CIA has disputed this, saying her superior was responsible for the decision to do so.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a libertarian-leaning critic of military intervention, is the only Republican to have publicly stated his opposition to her nomination so far. “There’s no evidence that she was protesting against torture. There’s every evidence that she was covering it up,” he said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Paul’s opposition could imperil Haspel’s nomination if all Democrats join him. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a victim of torture during the Vietnam War who has called on Haspel to explain her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program, remains in his home state after being diagnosed with cancer, leaving her nomination with as few as 49 GOP votes in the Senate ― one short of the overall number she needs for confirmation.
If McCain can’t make it to Washington to vote on Haspel ― or if he decides to oppose her ― that scenario would give a united Democratic caucus substantial leverage over her nomination.
So far, however, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is not publicly urging his caucus to oppose either Haspel or Pompeo.
Republicans succeeded in peeling off Democrats on several votes in recent weeks, giving activists some reason to be nervous about party unity on the Haspel nomination.
Seventeen members of the Democratic caucus joined Republicans in passing a bill last week that would exempt 25 of America’s biggest banks from regulations created in response to the financial crisis that spurred the Great Recession a decade ago. The bill’s supporters say it would simply provide relief to regional and community banks, but the Congressional Budget Office warned that the risk of another financial crisis “would be slightly greater under the legislation.”
Ten Democrats on Tuesday also joined Republicans in defeating a motion to end U.S. military support for a Saudi-led coalition that has killed thousands of civilians in Yemen.
“Maybe it’s too much to ask certain Democrats to be loud and proud against torture,” Faiz Shakir, the national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said of Haspel’s nomination. “But at the very least, why not let John McCain do the speaking and leading for you on this?”
Haspel’s critics also want the CIA to declassify documents detailing the role she played in overseeing the practice and alleged attempts to destroy evidence of it.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, blocked Haspel’s promotion to acting head of the agency’s clandestine service in 2013 for her involvement in the torture program. Feinstein wrote in a letter last week that the American public deserves to know “the actual role the person nominated to be the director of the CIA played in what I consider to be one of the darkest chapters in American history.”
But she has also praised Haspel as a “good deputy director of the CIA.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), another member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that he had seen the relevant documents and that he, too, was urging the agency to release them.
“I’m going to the mat to make sure that members have a chance to carry out our constitutional obligations, which is to review nominees on the basis of information that they have a right to have and I believe it ought to be declassified so the public could have it,” Wyden told HuffPost.
It’s unclear, however, when or whether the documents will be released. Wyden made a nearly identical request to the CIA about Haspel’s record regarding torture over a year ago.
Last week, a coalition of 27 groups, including the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, Human Rights Watch, and the Project On Government Oversight, urged all senators in a letter to call on the CIA to declassify Haspel’s record.
“Based on already available records and public reporting, it is clear by her wrongdoing that she demonstrated disregard for the rule of law and fundamental human rights,” the groups wrote in the letter.
The ACLU singled out a number of Republicans it sees as possible “no” votes on Haspel’s nomination, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Jerry Moran of Kansas. Collins and Flake have shown a willingness to buck Trump and are both close to McCain, while Moran has often sided with libertarians in the chamber.
“I need to do a lot of work on her nomination,” Collins told HuffPost. “I believe that there will be a lot of tough questions that we will ask her at her hearing, and I look forward to seeing what she has to say.”
The CIA signaled its intention to fiercely defend Haspel during the process. In an unprecedented move, the agency on Monday released a bipartisan list of former employees and appointees who showered their former colleague with praise as an “extraordinary” leader.
The list notably included several who served under President Barack Obama ― former CIA Directors Leon Panetta and John Brennan, former National Security Director Michael Hayden and former National Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
While the Senate has not yet scheduled a hearing for Haspel, her nomination has already set off a round of sharp infighting among her critics and supporters.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, a main architect of the Iraq War, last week accused Paul of “defending and sympathizing with terrorists” for opposing Haspel to lead the agency.
The congresswoman, a fierce defender of Bush administration policies, then tweeted at McCain that the CIA interrogation program “saved lives, prevented attacks, & produced intel that led to Osama bin Laden.”
“No one should slander the brave men & women who carried out this crucial program,” Cheney added.
The comment drew a quick rebuke from McCain’s daughter in what amounted to a second-generation debate over interrogation tactics during the Iraq War, which began 15 years ago this week: