WASHINGTON: A key US Senate panel on Wednesday greenlighted the nomination of veteran covert operative Gina Haspel to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency, despite her involvement in the torture of Al-Qaeda detainees in the early 2000s.
The Intelligence Committee voted 10-5 to forward her nomination to the entire Senate, virtually assuring that she will earn final approval to lead the US spy agency, replacing Mike Pompeo, who is now Secretary of State.
Republican Senator John McCain, who was tortured during years spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, led a push to reject Haspel after she refused to describe the interrogation methods used after the 9/11 attacks as "immoral."
But she reiterated her opposition to the practice in a letter sent earlier this week to the committee's senior Democrat, Mark Warner, persuading him to endorse her.
"With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken," she told Warner in the letter dated Monday.
Warner's support was matched by one other unnamed Democrat in the secret vote, ensuring the closely divided Senate will also be able to pass Haspel through in a vote expected as early as this week.
It will make Haspel, a 61-year-old Russia specialist, the first-ever woman to lead the CIA, and the first director who spent an entire career in the agency's clandestine services.
"Gina Haspel is the most qualified person the president could choose to lead the CIA and the most prepared nominee in the 70-year history of the agency," committee chairman Richard Burr said in a statement.
Warner echoed that sentiment.
"I believe that she will be a strong advocate for the agency's workforce, and an independent voice who can and will stand up on behalf of our nation’s intelligence community," he said.
"Most importantly, I believe she is someone who can and will stand up to the president if ordered to do something illegal or immoral -- like a return to torture."
President Donald Trump, in a tweet, called Haspel "exceptionally qualified and the Senate should confirm her immediately. We need her to keep our great country safe!"
But Democrat Ron Wyden, one of the most strident opponents of the torture program, said he still has "grave concerns" about her suitability, rooted in still-classified matters that Haspel and the agency refused to make public.
The refusal to declassify the matters, Wyden said, has "only to do with protecting her own image."
Out of the shadows
After a lifetime spent in the clandestine service, almost nothing was known about Haspel, even what she looked like, until a sketchy official biography and a few photographs were released in the last two months.
She joined the CIA in 1985, a few years after graduating from a Kentucky university where she studied languages and journalism.
Her first position was in Africa as a case officer, an assignment she says "was right out of a spy novel. It really didn't get any better than that."
Learning Russian and Turkish, in the 1990s she worked in Eastern Europe, and was CIA station chief in a country reported as Azerbaijan.
She joined the agency's Counterterrorism Center on September 11, 2001, the day when Al-Qaeda operatives hijacked and crashed four US airliners, leaving almost 3,000 dead.
It was that period, from 2001 to 2005, that has cast a shadow both on the CIA and Haspel's resume.
Former CIA officials say Haspel oversaw a secret prison in Thailand run by the agency where Al-Qaeda suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri were water-boarded.
She has won praise from some for following orders; others criticize her for not refusing to do so. In her Senate confirmation hearing, she said agents were working under orders they understood were legal.
"We had been charged with making sure the country wasn't attacked again," she said.
Her nomination had strong support from inside the agency and across the intelligence community, where even strong opponents of Trump backed her.
"Gina Haspel is precisely the kind of truth teller you want in the room when important decisions are being made," said former CIA director Michael Hayden.