WASHINGTON — Gina Haspel's colleagues describe her as a seasoned veteran who would lead the CIA with integrity. Human rights advocates see her as someone who supervised torture at a secret prison.
President Donald Trump's pick to be the next — and first female — director of the clandestine agency has conflicting public reputations. If confirmed, the 61-year-old career spymaster will succeed Mike Pompeo, who is replacing ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Haspel didn't have to face a Senate confirmation hearing when she became deputy director of the agency in February 2017. To be director, she'll have to be confirmed by the Senate intelligence committee. That will likely mean questions about one of the darkest periods of the CIA's history.
Haspel had a front-row seat to the CIA's use of harsh interrogation techniques against terror suspects. Between 2003 and 2005, she oversaw a secret CIA prison in Thailand where terror suspects Abu Zubayadah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri were waterboarded, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said. Waterboarding is a process that simulates drowning and is widely considered to be a form of torture.
Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985, also helped carry out an order to destroy waterboarding videos. The order prompted a lengthy Justice Department investigation that ended without charges.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Haspel must explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA's interrogation program.
"Current U.S. law is clear in banning enhanced interrogation techniques," said McCain, who was beaten as a prisoner during the Vietnam War. "Any nominee for director of the CIA must pledge without reservation to uphold this prohibition."
Former CIA Director John Brennan declined to say what Haspel's exact role was in the interrogation program, but told NBC that she has a "lot of integrity" and has tried to carry out her agency duties "when asked to do difficult things in challenging times."
He said her activities during the interrogation program will be closely scrutinized during her confirmation hearing, but he predicted she would be confirmed. "Gina is a very competent professional who I think deserves the chance to take the seat," Brennan said.
Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate committee that will vote whether to confirm Haspel, said she has the "right skill set, experience and judgment" to lead the CIA.
While he would face steep legal and legislative hurdles to do so, Trump has said that he would reintroduce waterboarding and "a lot worse." His position has angered human rights advocates and they opposed his decision to put Haspel at the helm of the CIA.
"No one who had a hand in torturing individuals deserves to ever hold public office again, let alone lead an agency," Human Rights First's Raha Wala said Tuesday. "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."
Haspel may have to overcome some challenges with key U.S. allies.
After Haspel was named deputy CIA director, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights asked German prosecutors to issue a warrant for her arrest over her role in the interrogations. Federal prosecutors never issued the warrant because the case lacked a connection to Germany. But the rights group's allegations against Haspel remain part of a preliminary investigation that German authorities could revive at a later date if they receive evidence that any of the parties have links to Germany.
Last year, Haspel's name came up during a civil lawsuit in Spokane, Washington, filed by three men who said they suffered waterboarding, beatings and sleep deprivation in the CIA interrogation program developed by former Spokane psychologists James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.
Lawyers for the psychologists wanted to interview Haspel and another CIA official involved in the program, but government lawyers told the federal judge in the case that the officials and documents were protected under the state secrets privilege and making them public would threaten national security.
Haspel has been chief of station at CIA outposts abroad. In Washington, she has held several senior leadership positions, including deputy director of the National Clandestine Service.
In her current post, she worked with Pompeo to manage intelligence collection, analysis, covert action, counterintelligence and cooperation with the CIA's foreign counterparts.
In a brief statement, the former undercover officer said she was "humbled" by Trump's confidence in her to lead the agency.
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.