Gina Haspel will face a confirmation hearing Wednesday that is almost certain to tip the scales one way or the other for her embattled bid to lead President Donald Trump's CIA.
Most Senate Democrats remain resistant to Haspel, even as the three-decade CIA veteran continued to make the rounds in the chamber, but GOP leaders remain confident in her prospects for approval as soon as this month. Still, given the Senate's razor-thin partisan divide, and the already-declared opposition of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the Democratic support Haspel will need to get confirmed may well depend on her performance before the intelligence panel.
The central concern for Democrats, and some Republicans, is Haspel‘s role in the use of harsh interrogation tactics against detained terrorism suspects during the George W. Bush administration. Haspel plans to address that issue directly before Intelligence Committee senators on Wednesday, while promising that she would not restart the interrogation program if confirmed.
“I have views on this issue, and I want to be clear,“ Haspel plans to say, according to excerpts of her remarks released Tuesday night. “Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.“
Whether that vow is enough to win over her skeptics remains to be seen. The Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, has aligned with a handful of senators in the minority in urging the CIA to declassify more information about Haspel's record. However, even as he pointed on Tuesday to "a need for additional transparency," Warner said Haspel's strong ties to the CIA rank and file merit recognition.
As vice chairman of the intelligence panel, Warner said in an interview, "I do think I owe an obligation to understand the opinions of the workforce. And I think clearly the workforce is supportive."
"But I’ve also got responsibilities about what represents American values," he added. "So I can’t think of a time when a hearing is going to be, at least for me ... more important — to hear Ms. Haspel and how she responds."
Warner is one of several Democratic moderates that Haspel backers consider winnable, alongside Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the minority. King said Tuesday that he has reviewed "pretty much everything" the agency has made available about Haspel's background for senators to review in advance of her hearing but that he remained undecided.
Haspel is also set to use her Wednesday remarks to illustrate her openness to congressional oversight of the agency, teIling senators: “If we can’t share aspects of our secret work with the public, we should do so with their elected representatives.“
However, one of several liberal Democrats on the committee leading the push for further declassification of material about Haspel, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, indicated Tuesday that she would oppose confirmation.
Confirming Haspel as "head of the CIA is just to renew all the old, bad history again," Feinstein told reporters Tuesday. The "very insular agency" would benefit from an outside candidate at its helm rather than a longtime official, Feinstein added.
Republicans have pitched the 61-year-old Haspel's status as the potential first female director of the agency and her record in the CIA's clandestine service as major assets, dismissing Democratic criticism over her past involvement in the Bush-era interrogation program and the destruction of videotapes that reportedly depicted waterboarding, a form of torture later outlawed by Congress.
The White House released a memo Tuesday that pins the blame for the program on "policymakers who set up, approved, and were briefed on enhanced interrogation techniques," rather than "the CIA’s dedicated and professional officers."
The intelligence committee's GOP chairman, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, told reporters Tuesday that the CIA has already released an "unprecedented amount of information that is for members only" and parried Democratic calls for more disclosures by asserting that such a move has "never happened in the history of the CIA."
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), another member of the panel, predicted that Democrats would try to make Haspel's hearing about the Bush era while the GOP looks elsewhere.
"The thing that you will see tomorrow that will distinguish our approach from that of some of our colleagues across the aisle is they’re going to be living in the past and try to relitigate issues that have long been resolved, while we’re going to be asking about the present threats to the country," Cornyn told reporters.
For Democrats and the coalition of liberal and civil rights groups fighting Haspel's nomination, digging deeply into Haspel's past is the only way to answer the CIA's rare public efforts to promote one of its own.
"There is selective declassification, there is a public influence campaign being waged, and there is out-and-out misinformation being circulated in an effort to advance the nomination," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), another liberal member of the intelligence panel making the case against Haspel, said in an interview.
One politically vulnerable Democrat facing reelection in November, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, joined his party's Haspel opponents on Monday, a move first reported by CNN. But among the Democrats also awaiting Haspel's confirmation hearing before making up their minds is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
"Look, I'm awaiting her hearing, her public statements,” the New York Democrat told reporters Tuesday. “I think those will be very important for making [up] my mind in any way. And I think that's true about just about all of our caucus."