Supporters of Gina Haspel, President Trump's nominee to be the next director of the CIA, have tried to portray her role in the CIA's post-Sept. 11 torture program as that of a good solider, simply following orders as the intelligence community scrambled to prevent another terrorist attack.
But that's not the way Sen. Dianne Feinstein sees it, telling The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board last week that she "very deep concerns" about Haspel's "support and enthusiasm for the program." She added, however, that "I know she deeply regrets it, and that’s important to me." Feinstein's comments came before her meeting with Haspel in Washington, D.C. Monday to discuss the nomination.
The issue of torture will be front and center during Haspel's Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday morning. And none of the nominee's questioners will be more closely watched than Feinstein, the driving force behind the Senate's 7,000-page report detailing the CIA's torture of terrorist suspects last decade. The vast majority of that 2014 report remains classified until 2026, despite the California senator's years-long push to make it publicly available.
"Given how strong an advocate she was in getting through the history of this program," Feinstein's vote on Haspel's nomination "will be a really strong signal to people," said Mieke Eoyang, vice president of the national security program at Third Way, a center-left think tank.
Haspel will need to win at least one Democratic vote to be confirmed, given that Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has already announced his opposition.
Haspel, who has spent the majority of her CIA career undercover, is facing public scrutiny for the first time. But she and Feinstein, a veteran member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that oversees American intelligence operations, are well-acquainted. Feinstein's service on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee over nearly two decades has brought her in contact with Haspel and dozens of other senior members of the intelligence community, and former aides say she has a deep respect for the CIA and it's people. Those relationships, however, make her vote on the Haspel nomination — which is broadly supported among intelligence leaders past and present — all the more difficult.
When the Trump administration announced in March it was nominating Haspel to replace Mike Pompeo as head of the CIA, some of Feinstein's Democratic colleagues reacted with outrage. "Ms. Haspel's background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director," Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said in a statement. And he accused the U.S. government of covering up "disturbing facts from her past."
Feinstein was more circumspect. "It’s no secret I’ve had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this," the senator said in a statement. But she added, "To the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director.”
Feinstein told The Bee Editorial Board that she had Haspel over to her home for dinner after the latter moved from London, where she'd served as chief of station for the CIA's Europe Division back to Washington, D.C. in 2017 to take over as deputy director of the CIA.
The concerns about Haspel center on two episodes in her career. The first was her reported time as supervisor of a so-called CIA "black site" in Thailand in late 2002, when a terrorist suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded and subject to other harsh interrogation techniques that have since been outlawed by the United States. Al-Nashiri's torture is detailed in Feinstein's 2014 report, some of which is publicly available in the 525-page summary. The names of the CIA operatives and contractors who participated in his interrogation are obscured, however, so it's not clear exactly what role Haspel played, but Feinstein, herself, has confirmed Haspel was a supervisor at the site when torture took place.
The second episode was the CIA's 2005 decision to destroy dozens of tapes of the interrogations of al-Nashiri and another alleged al Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydeh, who was waterboarded more than 80 times. Haspel, then chief of staff to CIA Director of Operations Jose Rodriguez, drafted the memo that Rodriguez signed authorizing the destruction of the tapes. The CIA recently declassified a 2011 memo that Haspel "acted appropriately" in following the orders of her boss.
The memo has not been enough to reassure Feinstein, however. She told The Bee the 92 tapes "had critical information of the torture of certain individuals" and remained disturbed by the fact that Haspel was "part of the effort…to destroy them."
And Feinstein has signed onto a series of letters and statements with liberal Sens. Wyden and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who regularly spar with the intelligence community, demanding the CIA declassify more details about Haspel's career so that all members of the Senate and the public can have a better accounting of her actions and decisions.
At the same time, Feinstein has been cautious in her public statements about Haspel and has refused to say how she will vote on her confirmation, telling The Bee she would wait until she's heard Haspel's public testimony. Asked by reporters about her meeting with the nominee on Monday, Feinstein said only, "It was fine, thank you."
That's opened the senator up to criticism from the left, including from her leading challenger in her 2018 reelection race. On Monday, state Sen. Kevin de León sent an e-mail to supporters condemning Feinstein for failing to "come out unequivocally against Trump's new pick to lead the CIA."
"Not only should she be a NO vote on Trump's CIA pick, she should also be a leading voice rallying all Democrats against this nomination," the e-mail reads. De León, a Democrat, trails well behind Feinstein in opinion polls and fundraising, but has earned the backing of several influential California labor unions as well as billionaire activist Tom Steyer.
When it comes to intelligence oversight, Feinstein has earned a reputation as a pragmatic, centrist leader. But the challenge she faces from her left in 2018 means that however she votes on Haspel, it will inevitably be viewed through a political lens. Haspel's confirmation obviously matters for the future of American intelligence and its role under President Trump, but for Feinstein, it also "matters for her political future," said Eoyang.
Leslie Clark contributed to this report