Mark Warner Let Gina Haspel Off The Hook For Covering Up Torture

CIA director nominee Gina Haspel is greeted by Sen. Mark Warner before her confirmation hearing on May 9, 2018.
CIA director nominee Gina Haspel is greeted by Sen. Mark Warner before her confirmation hearing on May 9, 2018.

At the end of Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearing last week, Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, warned Haspel ― who has since been confirmed as CIA director ― that she needed to give Americans more confidence that she wouldn’t resume the agency’s torture program.

“You have to not only earn our trust,” Warner said, noting that the members of the committee have greater access to her work history. “You also have to earn the trust of the American public,” he said.

The senator pointed out that only positive materials about her record have been declassified.

In 2002, Haspel oversaw the torture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the accused mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole. She also played a key role in efforts to destroy videotapes of the torture of al-Nashiri and another detainee ― efforts that began in 2002 and ended with the videos’ destruction in 2005, just as Congress moved to conduct an inquiry into that CIA program. Yet Haspel has refused to publicly confirm her role in al-Nashiri’s torture while finding a way to release information about meeting the late Mother Teresa.

Warner expressed regret that each of the many times Haspel had been asked to disavow the torture program during her confirmation hearing, she had dodged the question.

“As you try to gain our trust ... having clarity on these issues and having clarity on what your appointment will represent and what values you will bring to this critically important job at this moment in time is extraordinarily important,” he said.

Warner suggested that if only Haspel would condemn the torture program in clearer terms, as John Brennan had during his confirmation hearing to become CIA director in 2013, then she’d have Warner’s vote. But he said nothing in his closing statement about the destruction of the torture tapes.

As the hearing adjourned shortly after Warner’s remarks and others left the dais, he and the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, stayed there, heads bowed close, smiles on their faces.

He demolished any trust the public might have in the intelligence committee’s ability to provide real oversight of the CIA.

Having not received a clear answer while the television cameras were on, Warner asked Haspel again in written follow-up questions what she thought of torture.

“With the benefit of nearly 20 years of hindsight, and from your perspective as the nominee to be Director of the CIA, do you believe the Agency’s use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ was consistent with American values? … If the President orders you to carry out some morally questionable program, for example, but [the Justice Department] writes an opinion noting the legality of the morally questionable actions, what will you do?” Warner asked.

“I would refuse to undertake any activity that is contrary to my moral and ethical values,” replied the nominee who had repeatedly refused to say torture was immoral in the public hearing. 

Haspel also wrote that she would not condemn the “hard calls” that led the CIA to run a torture program for at least five years. She noted the damage the torture program did to the officers who conducted it and to U.S. standing in the world, but she mentioned nothing about how it led the CIA to chase down false leads and turned the military commission trying the perpetrators of 9/11 into a kangaroo court.

Haspel wrote nothing ― and Warner again said nothing ― about her role in covering up the torture program and destroying the videotapes showing torture even after two members of Congress, then-Rep. Jane Harman and then-Sen. Carl Levin, had expressed interest in studying what had really happened. Instead, Haspel wrote that it was a mistake not to “brief the entire committee at the beginning,” suggesting that if only the full intelligence committees had been briefed, they would have offered consensus support for torture.

In short, Haspel prevaricated again ― in response to a question that Warner had clearly posed to give her another chance to earn the public’s confidence. She again stopped short of declaring the program immoral and even suggested that members of Congress would have approved of waterboarding, anal feeding and extreme sleep deprivation if only they had been briefed on it.

Nevertheless, having received yet another halfhearted disavowal, Warner responded by backing Haspel. In announcing that he would vote to confirm her nomination, Warner pointed to the written answers, claiming they memorialized Haspel’s more “forthcoming” views on the torture program, even while he repeated that he wished “she had been more open with the American public during this process.” With Warner providing cover, fellow Democratic senators Heidi Heitkamp and Bill Nelson quickly followed, essentially ensuring that Haspel would become CIA director.

Amid all his talk of trust, however, Warner failed to secure any statement sufficient to convince any but the most credulous critics that Haspel would stand up to any egregious requests that President Donald Trump might ask of the CIA. More broadly, he demolished any trust the public might have in the intelligence committee’s ability to provide real oversight of the CIA.

Sen. Richard Burr (right), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, talks with Warner during Haspel's confirmation
Sen. Richard Burr (right), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, talks with Warner during Haspel's confirmation hearing.

Significantly, Warner did not back the call to release a classified report that Justice Department prosecutor John Durham completed on the destruction of the torture tapes in 2011. While Durham found there was not enough evidence to press charges against Haspel and her boss, Jose Rodriguez, public reports on his inquiry suggest that Haspel and Rodriguez short-circuited a review process that would not have approved the destruction. In fact, Haspel’s claims (in both the hearing and her follow-up answers) that torture did not appear on those tapes suggest that perhaps someone at the black site she ran had made the tapes unreadable in 2002. Even while Warner criticized Haspel’s own double standard on what can and cannot be kept secret, he engaged in the same kind of selective secrecy.

What’s worse, Warner reportedly undercut an effort to counteract Haspel’s lack of transparency. When Democratic committee staffers created a classified document providing details of Haspel’s record to be made available to the entire Senate ― the kind of transparency permitted before past votes involving classified information ― a senior aide to Warner moved to further restrict access to the document.

As Warner himself suggested in his public comments, members of Congress and the public need to have confidence in someone holding a post as powerful as CIA director. Yet when the pressure came, Warner chose to ensure that nothing that would really jeopardize Haspel’s confirmation became public.

Now, someone who oversaw torture and covered it up has been confirmed as CIA director. And that’s thanks to Mark Warner engaging in his own cover-up.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog and is the author of Anatomy of Deceit. Follow her on Twitter at @emptywheel.