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The Senate might hold up Trump’s CIA pick — because of questions about torture

Senators want more information on Gina Haspel’s involvement in CIA interrogation sites.

Senate Intelligence Committee Holds Hearing On Security Clearance Reform Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

One of President Donald Trump’s picks to replace a key Cabinet post created by his sudden firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is looking in doubt.

Trump selected current CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson, and chose Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel to lead the CIA. Two days after the announcement, Haspel in particular is eliciting controversy; there are many questions about her experience directing a CIA “black site” prison in Thailand where detainees were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding. And senators of both parties want more information about her past.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to the CIA on Thursday asking that the information pertaining to Haspel’s work in the interrogation program be declassified before her confirmation hearings.

“I also believe the American people deserve to know the actual role the person nominated to be the director of the CIA played in what I consider to be one of the darkest chapters in American history,” Feinstein wrote.

It’s not just Democrats — Republicans have also sounded the alarm about Haspel’s involvement in the interrogation program after Trump’s announcement.

“The torture of detainees in US custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said in a statement earlier this week. “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process. I know the Senate will do its job in examining Ms. Haspel’s record as well as her beliefs about torture and her approach to current law.”

There’s some serious urgency in getting these positions confirmed, which senators in both parties recognized. Tillerson’s departure comes at a crucial time for US foreign policy, just a week after Trump announced he would meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for denuclearization talks in the coming months. These talks come as the US still has no ambassador to South Korea.

The sheer lack of key staff is one reason former Trump skeptic Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) voiced tepid optimism on Pompeo and Haspel’s confirmations.

“I mean, would we be better off with all of those positions filled and having a secretary, sure,” Corker said, adding he has faith in career diplomats and Washington think tanks to fill in the gaps left by Tillerson. “I still think we’ll be able to deal with it. That’s not to diminish the importance of having a secretary of state.”

Ultimately, it comes down to whether Haspel and Pompeo will be able to garner enough votes in the Senate.

Momentum is building on the torture issue in Congress

McCain, a victim of torture when he was imprisoned by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, has been especially outspoken about the use of enhanced interrogation and other torture techniques. But the Arizona senator is also currently at home receiving treatment for an aggressive form of brain cancer and therefore is unable to vote on the Cabinet post.

McCain’s absence combined with the fact that Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) recently resigned over health issues, means Republicans have an extremely thin margin to confirm Pompeo and Haspel. GOP senators may not have enough votes on their own, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) speaking up against Pompeo and Haspel’s nomination, citing their roles supporting the Iraq War.

“I think the debate over whether or not America is a country in favor of torture or not is an important one,” Paul told reporters earlier this week. “I’m going to do everything I can to block them.”

With Paul opposing, there’s a chance these nominations may not even get out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Republicans have an 11-10 advantage (although Corker could still bypass this by asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the nominations directly to the floor for a vote).

Trump himself has touted waterboarding during campaign rallies in 2016, saying he wanted to bring torture back as a means of interrogation.

“Absolutely I feel it works,” he told a crowd, despite a 2014 US Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program concluding torture often does not yield accurate information.

If Republicans can’t scrounge up the votes in their own party, they’ll need Democrats to confirm the two. But Democrats might be ready to line up behind Feinstein, who is widely respected on this issue in the Senate.

“Ms. Haspel’s background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement. “Her nomination must include total transparency about this background, which I called for more than a year ago when she was appointed deputy director. If Ms. Haspel seeks to serve at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence, the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from her past.”

Feinstein’s letter was a sudden escalation. Just two days earlier, the California Democrat sounded less critical when asked about Haspel in person.

“I have spent some time with her, we had dinner together, we had talked,” Feinstein said then. “Everything I know is that she has been a good deputy director of the CIA. I think hopefully the entire organization learns from the so-called enhanced interrogation program. I think it’s something that can’t be forgotten; I certainly can never forget it. I won’t let any director forget it.”

Tillerson kept some of the Republican caucus on Trump’s side

Trump firing Tillerson via tweet rocked the State Department. But on Capitol Hill, the prevailing mood was a lack of surprise — followed by a sense of fatigue.

“I’ve tried to shore up that relationship,” Corker told reporters, speaking of the deteriorating partnership between the president and his secretary of state.

Corker had previously named Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Chief of Staff John Kelly as Cabinet members who assuaged his concerns about Trump’s chaotic foreign policy actions. Now one of those three is out, and Kelly is rumored to be on the chopping block as well (as is National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster).

Ultimately, Corker and others in the Senate chalked up Tillerson’s sudden dismissal to vast differences in style between the two men. “Every president wants to be seen as their own foreign policy person,” Corker said.

Soon after Trump tweeted that he’d fired Tillerson, the State Department’s undersecretary for diplomacy, Steve Goldstein, released a statement saying Tillerson “did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason” he was being let go.

Trump’s capacity to shock Congress seems to be diminishing. Tillerson’s sudden ouster did not seem to faze senators, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Of the six senators Vox talked to on Tuesday, only one — Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — said he was “shocked” by the news.

Many more seemed resigned to the fact that it was just another day in Trump’s Washington.

“Would anything surprise you from this president?” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked incredulously. “The writing was on the wall months ago. [Tillerson’s] days were numbered. I think they were looking for some sort of a graceful exit, but he fell out of favor with the president months ago, and he’s been on life support politically ever since.”