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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Trump on his CIA choice: ‘Too tough on terror’ for the Dems?

CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel, waves as she arrives for her meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, May 7, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
By Deb Riechmann Associated Press

WASHINGTON – CIA nominee Gina Haspel tried to convince skeptical Democrats on Monday that she’s the right person to lead the spy agency, just two days after she offered to step aside amid heavy criticism of her role in the agency’s brutal interrogation program at black sites overseas.

Haspel, who is acting CIA director, had told the White House she didn’t want to stay in contention if her bruising confirmation battle this week would jeopardize the agency. But she left no doubt on Monday that she’s in the fight to stay.

“Looking forward to Wednesday,” a smiling Haspel told reporters as she breezed into the office of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., referring to the upcoming hearing before the Senate intelligence committee.

President Donald Trump tweeted strong support, saying she was “tough on terror.” That puzzled some of her critics who think Trump’s comment won’t help, and could even hamper efforts to woo Democrats’ support. It’s Haspel’s role in the harsh treatment of terror suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks that is at the root of their concern.

“My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists,” Trump tweeted. “Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror.”

One administration official acknowledged that Trump might have strayed from agreed-to talking points, but said that reflected Trump’s frustration with Democrats and a desire to get Haspel installed as CIA director. The hope, too, is that the president’s comments will motivate Republicans to back her up at Wednesday’s hearing and the likely subsequent vote by the full Senate.

The official was not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.

Haspel is facing opposition from some Democrats and many rights groups who are critical of her activities related to the shredding of 92 interrogation videotapes in 2005 and her stint as chief of base at a covert detention site in Thailand where two detainees were waterboarded, which simulates drowning.

The CIA on Monday delivered a set of classified documents to give senators a chance to review her record. The agency said the documents, which are not available to the public, cover the entirety of her career, including her time in the years after 9/11.

Lawmakers had complained that despite repeated requests the CIA has failed to declassify information about her more than 30-year undercover career at the agency. Some lawmakers have read the 6,000-page still-classified report on the detention and interrogation program that the Senate intelligence committee issued in 2014.

“I believe what we have here is a cover-up from A to Z,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who contends the administration has only selectively declassified material and has waged a public influence campaign that has clouded the nomination process.

“I believe that it is possible to declassify much of it without in any way compromising the security and well-being of the American people,” Wyden said in an interview. “And I do believe that if the American people could see what I’ve seen I believe they would be calling their senator and urging their senator to vote against the nominee.”

Using extreme interrogation techniques to pry information from detainees currently is against the law, but some lawmakers worry that Trump will try to reinstate it and will get Haspel to go along. Trump has talked about toughening the U.S. approach to fighting extremists, including waterboarding and a “hell of a lot worse.”

In private meetings with senators, Haspel has vowed to stand firm against any effort to restart the harsh interrogations, but it’s unclear if that pledge will be enough to reassure wary Democrats.

Without Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is battling brain cancer, the Republicans hold a 50-49 majority in the Senate. Nearly all Republicans except Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky are expected to vote for Haspel, but she would need at least one Democrat to be confirmed. Vice President Mike Pence, as president of the Senate, can be called on to break a tie vote.

Administration officials are focusing on Democrats from states where Trump has strong support. Haspel backers are hoping another group of Democrats will be looking ahead, not back at one of the CIA’s dark chapters.

They hope this group will see the national security threats facing the nation and will want a nominee who has more than three decades of experience in intelligence, including counterterrorism and Russian affairs, and is well-respected in the field.

“She’s a professional,” said Manchin, who hasn’t yet said how he’ll vote. “She deserves the right for us to open-mindedly – and in a very open way – listen to her, letting her explain herself and the job that she’s done for her country.”