Updated at 1:10 p.m. ET
President Trump’s nominee to take over the CIA faces a rocky confirmation hearing in the Senate and a narrow political path to secure the job.
Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel is a career intelligence officer widely respected within the agency but tied up inextricably with one of the ugliest chapters in its history.
She ran a secret prison in Thailand where a suspect in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks was waterboarded 83 times — and then was involved with ordering evidence about that waterboarding to be destroyed.
The CIA’s network of clandestine prisons and use of brutal interrogation techniques, which critics also call torture, has been a political ulcer for the intelligence community since the administration of President George W. Bush.
Haspel’s role in it meant that when Trump nominated her for the No. 2 job last year, critics within and outside of Congress called for her to be blocked even though she did not require Senate confirmation.
To become full director, however, she will. Haspel is up for the top job because Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday and announced he planned to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take his place.
So Haspel would need to go through what could be a bruising confirmation hearing that reopens the vault on secret prisons, torture, alleged cover-ups and accountability.
Haspel would be the first woman to lead the CIA, and Trump told reporters outside the White House that he had gotten to know her well.
Intelligence veterans call Haspel one of their own and say the time is right for her to hold the reins.
“When she was selected to be deputy director, I think the choice was enthusiastically received at CIA,” former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden told NPR’s Morning Edition on Tuesday. “In all this turmoil, I actually think CIA is going to be a bit of a calm spot with Gina now being elevated to the director position.”
Everyone at the CIA in the post-Sept. 11 era was simply doing what they were asked to do in the aftermath of a crisis, Hayden said.
Opponents, however, made clear that they believe the Senate intelligence committee should not confirm Haspel.
“During Gina Haspel’s long tenure at the CIA, she oversaw the agency’s torture and rendition program, one of the bleakest chapters in our nation’s history. No one who had a hand in torturing individuals deserves to ever hold public office again, let alone lead an agency,” said Raha Wala, director of national security advocacy for Human Rights First.
“To allow someone who had a direct hand in this illegal, immoral and counterproductive program is to willingly forget our nation’s dark history with torture,” Wala added.
Other opponents said Pompeo and Haspel should be able to go forward into new roles so long as they made a clear break with brutal interrogations and the past conduct of the CIA.
“Both nominees would have to disavow all previous statements and actions advocating this unlawful conduct if they are to be seriously considered as candidates,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
“Torture, extraordinary rendition, and indefinite detention are unacceptable, and we cannot allow human rights abuses to be condoned in the name of national security,” she said.
Many Democrats, however, may fully oppose Haspel. Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico both wrote Trump last year to say they felt she should not get the deputy director job at CIA.
Wyden said on Tuesday that he feels the same way now.
“Ms. Haspel’s background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director. Her nomination must include total transparency about this background, which I called for more than a year ago when she was appointed deputy director,” his statement read. “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.”
Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, a key voice on the intelligence committee, said on Tuesday that she would reserve judgment for now.
“I have met Gina and I know of her decades of experience at the CIA,” Collins said. “I prefer to wait to have a confirmation hearing before making a decision on her nomination. She certainly has the expertise and experience as a 30-year employee at the agency. But I’m sure there’s going to be some questions raised.”
Opponents in the wider Senate made clear there could be no correct answers to these questions.
“I voted against Mr. Pompeo’s nomination to be CIA director because he failed to express moral opposition to torture, but Ms. Haspel has done much worse,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.
“Not only did she directly supervise the torture of detainees, but she also participated in covering it up by helping to destroy the video evidence,” Duckworth said. “Her reprehensible actions should disqualify her from having the privilege of serving the American people in government ever again, but apparently this president believes they merit a promotion.”
If Democrats elect to oppose Haspel as a bloc in committee or the full Senate, Republicans will need all the votes they can get in order to confirm her, assuming the ailing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., remains absent from the chamber.
McCain said on Tuesday: “The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history. Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., opposed Pompeo as CIA director, and if he opposes Haspel as well, that could make for a narrow tightrope to walk.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, however, appeared eager to get Haspel’s nomination on his committee’s calendar.
“I know Gina personally and she has the right skill set, experience, and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies,” he said.
“I’m proud of her work, and know that my committee will continue its positive relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency under her leadership. I look forward to supporting her nomination, ensuring its consideration without delay.”
NPR correspondent Susan Davis contributed to this report