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CIA Nominee Gina Haspel To Face Tough Questioning At Confirmation Hearing

May 7, 2018
Originally published on May 8, 2018 8:58 am
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

So far, the public is familiar with very little of Gina Haspel's long career with the CIA. She spent much of it undercover. But it's enough to put her confirmation as CIA director in doubt because of her role in the waterboarding of 9/11 suspects. President Trump today continued to defend his nominee, tweeting that Haspel is under fire because, quote, "she was too tough on terrorists." NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre covers the CIA, and he joins us now to talk about her upcoming confirmation hearing. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So what are senators expected to ask Haspel on Wednesday?

MYRE: Well, they're certain to ask her hard questions about her role in the waterboarding campaigns. What we don't know is how she'll answer. I mean, this is going to be a strange hearing in a number of ways. Most anybody who comes before the Senate for confirmation has this long history, this long public profile. She was undercover 32 of her 33 years at the CIA. We don't have speeches. We don't have a written record to follow. It's going to make her appearance all the more important. In fact, it could really make her or break her. If she comes across well, she might get some senators to vote for her. If she doesn't come across well, that could put her in real jeopardy.

CORNISH: OK, so what is known about her career?

MYRE: So she joined the CIA in 1985. And at that time, it was really focused on the Soviet Union. We know she learned Russian. She went out and did tours abroad. And then around 1998, she was a station chief abroad, and two U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa - in Kenya and Tanzania - killing more than 200 people. The CIA won't tell us which country she was in - not in one of those two countries. But she helped the host country where she was arrest two al-Qaida suspects. She was rewarded for that, and she makes this transition to sort of a counterterrorism person. She asked to be transferred to the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. Her first day on the job is September 11, 2001. So she's thrown in the deep end and becomes a real senior figure in the counterterrorism world.

CORNISH: And then what happens? How did she get involved in the waterboarding controversy?

MYRE: So a year later in 2002, she goes to Thailand, where the CIA has set up its first black site prison. And she is there apparently when at least one person is waterboarded. And three years later, she writes a cable - she's back in Washington at that point - writes a cable calling for the destruction of videotapes of these waterboardings. Congress knew the tapes existed. They were furious when they found out about it. It was a big part of the Senate investigation. So these two episodes are really what she's going to have to answer for.

CORNISH: President Trump's tweets imply that her critics are complaining about her just being too tough on terrorists. Could he actually bring back waterboarding as a part of policy?

MYRE: Legally, no. President Obama banned it with an executive order. Congress has outlawed it - and not just waterboarding but other things that would be considered torture, whether it's sleep deprivation or putting people in extreme cold or slamming them up against walls, things that were done previously. The CIA says it's out of the interrogation business. It doesn't want to get back in. It caused this huge stain. And so I think that's the message Haspel will be sending. I guess I would just caution if there is a big attack, then the public mood in the country could change pretty dramatically.

CORNISH: It's early yet. What do we know about how the vote is shaping up? Is her nomination in any trouble?

MYRE: Yeah, it's going to be very close. You've got 51 Republicans. John McCain, because he's ill, is not going to be there. Rand Paul says he's going to vote against her. So that leaves - takes you down to 49. So she's probably going to need at least one Democratic vote, and no Democratic senator has come forward yet to say that he will vote for her.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thank you.

MYRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.