By Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu

 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's pick for CIA director was grilled by lawmakers on Wednesday over her role in the agency's past harsh interrogation system, pledging she would never restart the program or follow any morally objectionable order from Trump.

 

The U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for CIA acting Director Gina Haspel was dominated by questions about her part in the spy agency's use of methods such as waterboarding, a type of simulated drowning widely considered torture, more than a decade ago under President George W. Bush. She also was pressed about the destruction of videotapes documenting the tactics.

 

"Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program," Haspel told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

 

"My moral compass is strong. I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it," Haspel said when asked what she would do if Trump asked her to carry out an order she found "morally objectionable."

 

An undercover officer for most of her 33-year career, Haspel in 2002 served as CIA station chief in Thailand, where the agency conducted interrogations at a secret prison using methods including waterboarding. Three years later, she drafted a cable ordering the destruction of videotapes of those interrogations.

When pressed, Haspel often stuck to scripted answers or avoided questions by saying they involved secret information. She later testified at a closed-door classified session.

Republican Senator Susan Collins asked Haspel what she would do if Trump, who has advocated the return of waterboarding, gave her a direct order to use it on a "high-value terrorism suspect."

"I do not believe the president would ask me to do that," Haspel said, without directly answering the question.

Collins, a moderate Republican, said later she would vote for Haspel's confirmation.

Asked how Haspel's comments squared with Trump's belief that waterboarding works, White House spokesman Sarah Sanders said Trump would let Haspel make her own decisions.

"The president has confidence in Gina Haspel to lead the CIA and wants to see her do exactly that," Sanders told reporters.

Democratic Senator Kamala Harris asked if Haspel believed the previous interrogation techniques were immoral, and requested a "yes or no" answer. Haspel did not give it.

'DON'T BELIEVE THAT TORTURE WORKS'

Haspel said the CIA had learned "tough lessons," and in retrospect she believed it was unprepared to conduct the detention and interrogation program employed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

She also told the senators: "I don't believe that torture works."

To be confirmed as the first woman to lead the CIA, Haspel needs a majority of Senate votes. Trump's fellow Republicans hold a 51-49 majority. The agency's former deputy director, she would succeed Mike Pompeo, a former Republican congressman confirmed last month as secretary of state.

After the hearing, Haspel's chances for confirmation were boosted when Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat on the intelligence panel, announced his support. Another committee moderate, independent Angus King, announced that he would vote against.

Haspel has strong support among Republicans, but at least two, Senators John McCain and Rand Paul, said they would oppose her.

McCain, who as a prisoner of war in Vietnam was tortured by his captors, said late on Wednesday that Haspel's testimony had failed to address his concerns about the CIA's interrogation program.

McCain, however, may not be able to cast a vote. He has been undergoing treatment for brain cancer in his home state of Arizona and has been absent from the Senate for months.

Democrats pressed Haspel on the 2005 decision to destroy the interrogation videotapes when she was chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, then the CIA's clandestine service chief. Haspel acknowledged she "absolutely was an advocate" for doing so, saying she feared a leak of the video would reveal the identities of CIA agents.

Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich asked her: "Doesn't that feel like a cover-up?"

"I never watched the tapes, but I understood that our officers' faces were on them and it was very dangerous," she said.

Haspel refused to criticize or second-guess actions taken by U.S. and CIA leadership in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, including the interrogation program.

"I'm not going to sit here with the benefit of hindsight and judge the very good people who made hard decisions who were running the agency in very extraordinary circumstances at the time," she said.

Democrats expressed frustration they had not been given more details of Haspel's long record with the agency, much of which remains classified.

Protesters interrupted her testimony before being removed, yelling: "Bloody Gina" and "You are a torturer."

Rights groups panned her performance. "Gina Haspel said she has a moral compass, but refused to say whether the torture program she supervised was wrong," the American Civil Liberties Union's Christopher Anders said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Eric Beech and Doina Chiacu; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)