White House, Sen. Cotton blast Rand Paul for opposing CIA pick

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks during a news conference about an immigration bill on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks during a news conference about an immigration bill on Capitol Hill. AP

Sen. Rand Paul’s opposition to President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency drew fire Friday from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — first by a key Senate Republican colleague, then by the White House.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders accused Paul of conveying “incorrect information” about CIA nominee Gina Haspel and said the White House plans to set the record straight.

“As a member of the United States Senate, we hope that they take that role very seriously and get accurate information before they peddle it out in front of the American people,” Sanders said at her daily press briefing, singling Paul out for speaking “off of incorrect information.”

Earlier Friday, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, rebuked Paul via Twitter for opposing Haspel, accusing the Kentucky Republican of “undermining” the president’s national security nominees.

Paul on Wednesday announced his opposition to Trump’s decision to tap CIA Director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and elevate Pompeo’s deputy, Gina Haspel, to become the CIA’s first-ever female director.

In 2002, Haspel was sent to northern Thailand as CIA chief of a secret detention facility, known as Cat’s Eye, where terror suspects had been imprisoned and subject to then-approved use of torture techniques.

Paul accused Haspel of expressing “gleeful joy” over torture. He read from an account in a 2017 ProPublica article that said Haspel had witnessed the waterboarding of al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah.

But the site Thursday retracted the claims. It reported that at least two former colleagues of Haspel said that while she did serve as the CIA chief of the facility, she did not arrive until later in 2002, after the waterboarding of Zubaydah had ended.

A spokesman for Paul said the retraction did not change the senator’s stance.

“Regardless of the retraction of one anecdote, the fact remains that Gina Haspel was instrumental in running a place where people were tortured,” said spokesman Doug Stafford. “According to multiple published, undisputed accounts, she oversaw a black site and she further destroyed evidence of torture. This should preclude her from ever running the CIA.”

That prompted a response from Cotton, who said Paul was “wrong again” and that Haspel was cleared of wrongdoing in destruction of those tapes “by none other” than former CIA deputy director Michael Morell.

“An honest explanation for undermining @realDonaldTrump choices for national-security team would be nice for once,” Cotton wrote.

Paul, who has pledged to do everything he can from his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block the two nominations, could complicate their path to confirmation. Paul noted that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has also voiced concerns about the nomination.

If they stay opposed, and all 47 Democrats and two independents join them, Haspel’s nomination could be in trouble.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee when it investigated the CIA's torture program, called on the agency to release documents related to Haspel’s involvement.

"My fellow senators and I must have the complete picture of Ms. Haspel’s involvement in the program in order to fully and fairly review her record and qualifications,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to Pompeo and Haspel.

“I also believe the American people deserve 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,” Feinstein said.

Sanders said Friday that the White House planned to be “as cooperative as we can,” adding that “we specifically want to make sure that people actually have an accurate reflection.”

Paul said Wednesday he didn’t know if other senators would join in opposition, but said “a debate over whether or not America is a country in favor of torture or not is an important one.”

His position drew fire as well from Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., whose father, Dick Cheney was vice president during the program.

She accused Paul of "defending and sympathizing with terrorists" and said that Haspel had "spent her career defending the American people and homeland."

Paul in 2017 was the only Republican to vote against Pompeo for CIA director, citing Pompeo’s criticism of a congressional report on the CIA’s past use of torture.

Paul said Pompeo called the senators who voted to release the report “quintessentially at odds with [their] duty to [their] country.”

Paul said he “couldn’t disagree more” and said that “in the years following 9/11, we let fear get the better of our responsibility to liberty.”

Pompeo was confirmed, 66 to 32.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark