Mr. President, as the Senate moves to vote on the nominee to head the CIA, here’s the bottom line: while the American people have been told that Gina Haspel likes Johnny Cash and talked to Mother Teresa, Ms. Haspel has been exercising the unprecedented power to personally censor any facts that might get in the way of her confirmation.
When the Senate votes on a nomination when all the relevant information is by design kept secret, how is this any different from a cover up? This surrender of the Senate’s responsibility to conduct real oversight of this nominee means that Gina Haspel has officially been given a pass on all the key questions.
Number one, what was her opinion about the CIA’s torture program when it was happening? The Washington Post reported that unnamed officials were pushing back against accusations that she had supported torture. She said she learned about the program in 2002. But I wanted to know what her views were later, between 2005 and 2007, when the CIA itself was winding the program down. Did she call for the program to be continued or expanded? She wouldn’t directly answer the question.
Number two, what was her role in the destruction of torture videotapes? Her story is riddled with holes and key facts have been covered up.
And number three, how can the Senate possibly take seriously Ms. Haspel’s confirmation conversion on torture submitted on the eve of the vote? There has been extensive reporting in the press saying that she personally played a role in the CIA torture program. The American people deserve to know whether those reports are true. But every single question to her about them has been met with stonewalling. Instead of real responses, Ms. Haspel offered possibly the latest confirmation conversion in history — sixteen years after she first learned about the program and only just before a vote on her confirmation.
The Senate has a constitutional responsibility to engage in a meaningful vetting of nominees. That means transparency and accountability. The American people expect a public examination of the nominee’s background. They deserve to hear their representatives ask questions and get answers. What the Senate is doing now is an insult to the public and an abdication of this body’s constitutional responsibilities. It is as stark a failure of oversight as I have ever seen.
Over and over again, I and other Senators insisted that Ms. Haspel declassify information about her background. This is information that is directly relevant to her nomination and can be released without revealing sources and methods. And, every single time, Gina Haspel said no. Despite our repeated requests, Ms. Haspel decided that she would not allow the American people to know who she is or what she has done. That was when the U.S. Senate should have stood up to this blatant and self-serving abuse of power. But it did not.
In our democracy, confirmations are not supposed to take place in secret. Nominees do not get to decide what is and isn’t known about them. But these principles have been thrown out the window. Instead of standing up for the Constitution and for the American people, the Senate is rewarding Gina Haspel and the CIA for this abuse of power.
Gina Haspel has openly acknowledged that, as the Acting CIA Director, she is making the decisions about what gets declassified about herself and what does not. It is hard to imagine a more obvious conflict of interest.
The CIA, under Ms. Haspel, has also conducted an unprecedented influence campaign to promote her confirmation. This is inappropriate. It is wrong.
The CIA, like every other government agency, works for the American people. It is not supposed to use its enormous power to serve the personal interests of whoever is running it. The classification rules are there to protect the dedicated women and men who undertake dangerous missions under cover. Those rules are not there to shield a nominee for a Senate-confirmed cabinet position from scrutiny.
Gina Haspel is using the CIA she has been entrusted to lead to promote herself and to get confirmed. This is not what the CIA is supposed to be doing in the name of the American people and with their taxpayer dollars. But that is what the Senate is allowing Ms. Haspel to do.
I and a number of my colleagues have looked at classified information about Ms. Haspel’s background and have concluded that it can be released to the public without compromising sources and methods. So we asked her how she could justify keeping it secret. As best as I can tell, her answer consists of “we always protect our officers.” That makes no sense whatsoever. Of course, the CIA must protect undercover CIA officers. But Gina Haspel is not under cover. More to the point, she is asking the U.S. Senate to consider her nomination to a cabinet position. She cannot insist that she be treated like she’s under cover when she’s seeking a job as one of the most public and visible intelligence leaders in the world.
Hiding behind the protections we rightly grant undercover officers to advance her own career is not just ridiculous but insulting.
I have asked Ms. Haspel at every opportunity for some plausible justification for her self-serving classification decisions. Every response I have received, in classified and unclassified settings, has convinced me further that those decisions have nothing to do with national security and everything to do with protecting her image and getting herself confirmed.
Ms. Haspel’s classification decisions are also in violation of Executive Order. For decades, the Intelligence Community has been prohibited from keeping information classified to prevent embarrassment or to conceal violations of law or administrative error. It is clear to me these rules just don’t matter to Ms. Haspel. And what really worries me is that, if she is willing to violate the classification rules to get confirmed, and the Senate lets her get away with it, she will do it again and again as CIA director. The last thing this country needs right now is more unnecessary secrecy and more cover ups.
Most of the attention on this nomination has been about the many press reports that Gina Haspel played a role in the CIA’s torture program. Throughout this process, Ms. Haspel has outright refused to confirm or deny if had any connection to the program. How could this question possibly be classified? More than three years ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released to the public a 500-page Executive Summary of its Torture Report. The CIA released a long and detailed response. What the CIA did to all those detainees is now officially declassified. Former CIA officers have written entire books about the program and their involvement in it. How could Gina Haspel’s reported involvement in the program be classified? Simply because she said so and because she’s the boss.
The extent to which Ms. Haspel has abused her authority is mind-boggling. As a result of this cover-up, her answers to Committee questions have been unresponsive, incomplete, deliberately vague, and downright misleading. And, because of her classification decisions, Senators are prevented from pointing out all the problems in her testimony and in her responses to written questions.
At one point, I asked Ms. Haspel whether opinions about the CIA torture program expressed by CIA officers were classified. I wasn’t even asking about anyone’s involvement in the program — just what people might have thought about it. Ms. Haspel wouldn’t even answer my question. She said that even the matter of whether those opinions are classified is itself classified.
This is downright Orwellian. In a democracy, there have to be some basic rules about what is and isn’t classified. But we are seeing a replacement of those rules with the whims of unaccountable leaders. Secret law — the classification of legal interpretations rather than sources and methods — remains a serious problem, including at Ms. Haspel’s CIA. Information that does not need to be classified to protect national security is being covered up for political purposes. Now, even the classification rules themselves are classified.
I have been concerned about this tendency for years, through administrations of both parties. But I fear that, if Ms. Haspel and the CIA can get away with such a blatant disregard for classification rules, the worst is yet to come. And, this time, the Senate will have been complicit.
As I have been saying since she was nominated, my concerns about Gina Haspel are wide-ranging and are based on still-classified matters that are far broader than what has been reported in the press. Most of this information could be released to the public without in any way endangering national security.
I believe that Ms. Haspel’s background makes her unsuitable to be CIA Director. But had she not abused her position — had she released information about her background — at least we could have had an open debate that is worthy of our democracy. The American people could have learned who she is and could hold members of the Senate accountable for their votes. I believe that, had that happened, she would not have been confirmed.
But I would encourage Senators to judge for themselves. There is a classified Intelligence Committee minority memo about Ms. Haspel. Every Senator should go read it and then ask themselves: if the public actually knew about all this, how would I vote?
My underlying concerns about Ms. Haspel have only increased during this confirmation process. Her classified comments about her background have been as troubling as her public testimony and have raised more concerns in my mind about how she has, and would, lead the CIA. I have also been unsatisfied with her answers to questions about current classified programs.
When I did get unclassified responses to my questions, they were not assuring. Public discussions about the CIA have generally been about overseas operations affecting foreigners. It has been a decades since the public really focused on the danger that the CIA could violate the privacy of Americans. But the danger is there and hard questions need to be asked.
One example is Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Congress recently reauthorized. The CIA has the authority, under Section 702, to identify foreign targets and then to search through the communications of those targets for particular Americans. And the CIA can conduct these backdoor searches of Americans without a warrant. That creates a danger of reverse targeting, which is when the government — in this case the CIA — targets a foreigner to find out what an American is saying.
One way to help prevent reverse targeting is to recognize that when the government is conducting lots of backdoor searches on Americans and then sending around reports on those Americans, maybe it’s those Americans who the government is really interested in. Sounds pretty obvious. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board agrees with this approach. So does the current Assistant Attorney General for National Security. So I asked Ms. Haspel about it. What I got back was a lot of words, none of which assured me that the CIA has any system at all for guarding against reverse targeting of Americans under Section 702.
The CIA also collects a lot of intelligence under Executive Order 12333, which is going to include information about Americans. So I wanted to know whether the CIA conducts backdoor searches on Americans through all that data. The current director of the NSA told me that, when the NSA conducts searches of Americans, those searches must be approved, on a case-by-case basis, by the Attorney General. And there must be a probable cause finding, which is the standard for a court order. The NSA doesn’t actually have to go to a court, which is a concern. But these requirements create meaningful hurdles to abuse.
So what about the CIA? When can the CIA conduct backdoor searches of Americans? The response I got from Ms. Haspel is that the searches are authorized if they are designed to get information related to the CIA’s activities. That’s no standard at all.
These two unclassified examples matter because they reveal how vague the rules are and how easily the CIA could violate the privacy of Americans. That’s why we need leaders at the CIA who believe in the sanctity of Americans’ privacy and protect it. We need leaders who will protect Americans even if the lawyers say that something is technically legal. I do not believe that Gina Haspel is that kind of leader.
Mr. President, I want to return to the CIA’s torture program. There are, of course, many press reports that Ms. Haspel was deeply involved in the program. But Ms. Haspel decided that she would keep secret even the question of whether or not she was involved at all. There is no justification for this. Certainly, no sources and methods are at stake.
But since the torture program has been largely declassified, it can be discussed openly. The CIA captured innocent people. It tortured dozens of its detainees. It didn’t just waterboard people. The CIA placed detainees in ice water. It kept detainees awake for a week, forced to stand or subjected to stress positions. The CIA stuffed detainees into small boxes. The list of techniques goes on. And they were always worse than they were described to the Department of Justice or to Congress. And, throughout it all, the CIA rarely ever held anyone accountable.
The CIA also provided numerous false claims — to the Department of Justice, the Congress, and everyone else — about how they were treating detainees and how their torture techniques were supposedly working.
Much has been made of Ms. Haspel’s last-minute promises about torture. I’ve never been a big believer in confirmation conversions. Nominees will say anything to get confirmed. But Ms. Haspel’s statement has to be the most delayed, and the most grudging confirmation conversion in history. She says she learned about the CIA torture program in 2002. She had sixteen years to say something critical about it.
For example, I asked her what her views were between 2005 and 2007, when the CIA was winding down the program. This was a time when the CIA was capturing fewer people and was no longer using the waterboard. So what were her views on the program? She said she was “committed.” I asked her twice, once in the hearing and then again in a written question — whether she called for the program to be continued or even expanded. Both times she ducked the question.
That brings us to the present. Usually, nominees offer their confirmation conversations before the eve of the key vote. This one might be the slowest on record.
Ms. Haspel’s also has to be the most grudging confirmation conversion in history. The CIA shouldn’t have undertaken a torture program, she now says, because it “did damage to our officers and our standing in the world.” That’s true, of course. But at no time has Ms. Haspel expressed any regret for CIA torture. At no time has she acknowledged that it was immoral, or illegal, or ineffective. She just offered up a classic Washington apology — she’s not sorry for what the CIA did, just how it was perceived.
Worse still are some of the justifications for the torture program she is still providing. For example, she is still arguing that the CIA torture program produced “valuable intelligence.” She says now that it is — quote — “unknowable” whether the CIA’s torture techniques produced that intelligence. But, in fact, it is knowable. The intelligence that the CIA attributed to torture came from other sources. And when the Committee looked at the CIA’s own records, it found that key intelligence was provided by detainees before the CIA tortured them. It is these kinds of documented facts that make Ms. Haspel’s statements so troubling.
Why do Ms. Haspel’s equivocations about the effectiveness of torture matter? Because Donald Trump has said — quote — “torture works.” We cannot afford to have a CIA director who responds “maybe.”
On these questions — the immorality and ineffectiveness of torture — I also turn to Senator McCain.
Senator McCain announced last week that Ms. Haspel’s “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.” He urged the Senate to reject her nomination. There is no greater voice on this than Senator McCain’s. His towering authority on the subject of torture has served as a guiding light for the U.S. Senate and it is my greatest hope that his powerful and unimpeachable views will continue to be heard, today and well into the future.
Mr. President, throughout this nomination process, there was a single topic that wasn’t entirely classified — Gina Haspel’s central role in the destruction of torture videotapes. Let me be clear — there was nothing approaching actual transparency. There is much, much more to the story about Ms. Haspel and the destruction of the videotapes that remains needlessly classified. And there is important information in the report by U.S. Attorney John Durham that most U.S. Senators were not allowed to see. Like everything else about her career, the information that reflects poorly on Ms. Haspel gets covered up.
But we did learn a few things about Ms. Haspel and the destruction of the torture videotapes. For one, she wrote the cable authorizing that destruction. Second, she was an advocate for destroying the tapes and was involved in what former Acting Director Mike Morell called, quote — “efforts to press for and facilitate a resolution of the matter.” That’s a whole lot more than drafting a cable.
The problem for Ms. Haspel and for her boss, Jose Rodriguez, was that there were reservations or even outright opposition to destroying the tapes from the White House, the DNI, the CIA Director and Congress. So Mr. Rodriguez decided to go it alone, sending the cable Ms. Haspel had drafted without telling the lawyers, the CIA Director or anyone else.
Here’s where Ms. Haspel’s story really starts to run into trouble. Jose Rodriguez recently gave an interview in which he said he told Ms. Haspel in advance that he was planning on sending the cable without seeking authorization. So I asked her about that story, and she denied it. I do not know who is telling the truth, but here we are voting on this nominee without this direct contradiction in any way resolved.
Then we get to what happened after the cable was sent, but before the tapes were actually destroyed. Ms. Haspel has said that she was at her desk and could see her computer screen, so it was shortly after the cable was sent that she became aware of it. She said it was at that point that she walked over to discuss it with Mr. Rodriguez. So what did she do? She knew that the destruction of evidence had been ordered over everyone’s objections. Did she intervene to stop the destruction before it happened? Did she tell the lawyers in time for them to intervene? Did she tell the White House? Did she tell the DNI? The Department of Justice? The Congress? Or did she just let it happen?
These are central questions because they tell us what kind of leader Ms. Haspel is. In order to get confirmed, she has made all kinds of promises about standing up for what is right and rejecting inappropriate orders. But what did she do when she knew an order had been sent to destroy evidence over the objections of the lawyers and everyone else? There is no record of her doing anything to stop it.
There are many, many episodes in Ms. Haspel’s career that cause me grave concern, but they remain needlessly classified. So I offer this one small window into her background as an example of how she might react when confronted with an illegal, immoral or inappropriate direction.
This matters because of what Donald Trump himself has said about his intentions and how he views Ms. Haspel. During the campaign, he said he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Last week, when Senators raised concerns about reports that Ms. Haspel was involved in torture, Donald Trump said that it was wrong to oppose her confirmation — quote — “because she is too tough on terror.” You don’t have to be Picasso to connect the dots about what Donald Trump has in mind. And, other than a few belated promises she made to get confirmed, what do we have to go on to suggest that Ms. Haspel would really push back?
This is not just about torture. Even if we believe Ms. Haspel’s last-minute promises, there are an almost infinite number of other ways in which the CIA can go off the rails — morally or legally. That’s not a criticism of the people who work at the CIA. It’s the nature of the secret risk-taking work they do. And when something goes off the rails, it will be because there is a CIA director who sees every lawyer’s approval as a green light, and every lawyer’s warning as an annoyance. And it will be because CIA leadership decided to hide from public scrutiny information that need not be classified.
My concerns about Ms. Haspel are not just historical. I have concerns about what she is saying today, both about her background and about current programs. There is much more that the full Senate and the public should know, and I am convinced that, if they did, her nomination would be rejected. Unfortunately, Ms. Haspel and the CIA have conducted an unprecedented and entirely self-serving cover-up, and the U.S. Senate has been a willing partner. This nomination process has been a disservice to our constitutional duties, to our democratic principles and to the American people. Americans deserve better from the CIA. They deserve better from the United States Senate.
I urge my colleagues to oppose the nomination.