WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee voted Wednesday to advance the nomination of Gina Haspel to be CIA director, setting up a confirmation vote in the full Senate that Haspel is poised to win.
The vote was 10-5 to recommend Haspel's confirmation. The committee's eight Republicans were joined by Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The full Senate is expected to vote on Haspel's confirmation next week.
The 61-year-old Kentucky native would be the nation's first female CIA director, capping a 33-year career with the agency that has sent her to some of the world's most dangerous places as a covert agent. She became deputy director last year and has been serving as acting director since Mike Pompeo left last month to become secretary of State.
"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,” said Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C. "She has acted morally, ethically, and legally, over a distinguished 30-year career and is the right person to lead the Agency into an uncertain and challenging future."
Haspel's nomination has been controversial, with senators questioning her oversight in 2002 of a secret "black site" in Thailand where suspected terrorists were subjected to waterboarding and other torture techniques that were later banned.
Haspel also faced tough questions about her involvement in the destruction of 92 videotapes that showed prisoners being waterboarded. Waterboarding simulates the experience of drowning.
"There is a legal and moral responsibility that comes with operating in secrecy," Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., said Tuesday in announcing his opposition to Haspel. "Some of Ms. Haspel’s past actions and beliefs did not meet that standard. We must choose leaders that consistently embody our highest ideals, rather than our darkest moments."
But five other Democrats have come out in support of Haspel, joining a majority of Republicans and all but assuring her confirmation.
"As Director of the CIA, Gina Haspel will be the first operations officer in more than five decades to lead the Agency," said Warner, who is the committee's senior Democrat and vice chairman. "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. 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."
So far, three Republicans — John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rand Paul of Kentucky — have announced their opposition to Haspel. They cited her role in the torture program, which began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was later banned during the Obama administration.
"While I thank Ms. Haspel for her long and dedicated service to the CIA, as a country we need to turn the page on the unfortunate chapter in the agency's history having to do with torture," Flake said in a statement Wednesday evening.
"Congress needs to be able to provide fully informed oversight," said Flake, who had pressed the CIA to declassify more information about Haspel's records. "My questions about Ms. Haspel's role in the destruction of videotapes relevant to discussions occurring in Congress regarding the program have not been adequately answered."
The five Democrats supporting Haspel are: Warner, Manchin, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
At her confirmation hearing last week, Haspel promised the Intelligence Committee that she would not restart the CIA's torture program, even if pressured to do so by President Trump. Trump has said in the past that "torture works" and that he would consider using it again.
"I would not put CIA officers at risk by asking them to undertake risky, controversial behavior again," Haspel testified.
Haspel had strong support from former CIA directors who served in Democratic and Republican administrations, including John Brennan, who lead the agency during the Obama administration. Brennan is an outspoken critic of Trump but called Haspel "highly qualified" and urged senators to view her with an open mind.
Haspel's opponents included more than 100 retired admirals and generals, who said her role in the CIA's use of torture would encourage foreign governments to torture American soldiers and provide propaganda for extremists who want to attack the USA.
A letter from more than 100 former U.S. ambassadors said Haspel's confirmation would undermine diplomatic efforts to discourage torture by tyrants in other countries.