STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Oh, my goodness, busy news day. And let's talk now about Gina Haspel. She is President Trump's nominee to be director of the CIA. She is testifying today before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It's her confirmation hearing. Uppermost in the senators' questioning is her role in the CIA's torture program following the 9/11 attacks. NPR national security correspondent David Welna has been watching the hearing and is now back in our studio. Hey there, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what is she saying about her career, which has been behind closed doors up to now?
WELNA: Well, you know, Gina Haspel presented herself as a person who's totally dedicated to the CIA, an agency she said she knows like the back of her hand and one that she's worked for since 1985. But there was an elephant in the hearing room, and Haspel did acknowledge that it was there. It was the numerous reports that she's overseen a secret CIA prison in Thailand in late 2002, where waterboarding of terrorism suspects had been going on as part of the agency's detention and interrogation program. Here's Haspel.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GINA HASPEL: I want to be clear. Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment clearly and without reservation that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart a detention and interrogation program.
INSKEEP: OK, so that's Gina Haspel saying that maybe I was involved in this once upon a time in what she would describe, I think, as a peripheral way - or her defenders certainly would - but that she's not going to do this again. She doesn't want to be there. She doesn't want to go there.
WELNA: Right. Yeah, interrogation and detention really was never part of the CIA's mission until after 9/11. And she vowed during this hearing that she would get the agency back to its traditional mission of intelligence collection and analysis. And beyond that, it's already a statutory law that torture is forbidden or the enhanced interrogation techniques that were used in this program, so it really wouldn't be up to the director to decide on this. Congress would have to decide that.
INSKEEP: Let me play another piece of tape here, if I can, David Welna, because there's another part of this. In later years, after she was in command of this secret facility in Thailand, she was in a more senior position at CIA headquarters, and she was asked to draft a memo ordering the destruction of videotapes of the waterboarding.
INSKEEP: And she was asked about that by Richard Burr, the Senate intelligence committee chairman. He's a Republican. And let's listen to her explanation of what was going on.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HASPEL: We were aiming to do two things - to adhere to U.S. law, but at the same time, reach a resolution that would protect our officers. There were numerous legal consultations over a period of years at the agency. Our lawyers were very consistent in saying to us that there was no legal requirement to retain the tapes, no legal impediment to disposing of the tapes.
WELNA: Haspel later told California Democrat Dianne Feinstein that she was absolutely an advocate of destroying those tapes, saying that while she hadn't actually seen what was in them, she knew that the faces of CIA officers were visible in them and that they could be very damaging if exposed to the public.
INSKEEP: Oh, so she is saying, I have no regrets here whatsoever; this was the right choice to make.
WELNA: No regrets whatsoever.
INSKEEP: And did she get questioned about whether there was something of a conflict of interest here, given that she had some involvement at the time of the waterboarding, and then she's the person - well, what critics would say was destroying evidence - obviously, she sees it differently - but destroying things.
WELNA: Yes. I mean, one thing that's intriguing about this is that a lot of what the senators want to know about is still classified, and they're going to have a closed session where they're going to talk about those things. But Feinstein expressed frustration that she couldn't be asking her questions about what actually happened. Haspel said that the videotapes were about the interrogation of only one person. Up to now, we've thought that it was two people, and the second person was somebody who is thought to have been there while she was in charge of this facility. So if it was just one person, maybe it's the case that these videotapes were documentation of interrogations that she had not presided over. So I guess it would not be destroying evidence of her tenure.
INSKEEP: Reminder of how much we don't know and the dilemmas of a democracy where we want to have a public debate over issues, but it's an intelligence agency where not everything's going to be public. And Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon - Democrat of Oregon is among those who thinks not nearly enough is public.
RON WYDEN: There has been a wall-to-wall cover-up by the agency with respect to her background, and as of right now, this almost looks like a secret confirmation process.
INSKEEP: That's something that Wyden has said on our air. And in his questioning of Gina Haspel today, he is following up on that, essentially demanding that Haspel herself as the head of the CIA agree to declassify more material about herself.
WELNA: Yes, and she responded to requests to do so, saying, a lot of people have told me this would make my confirmation hearing easier if I did so, but it would be wrong for the director of the CIA to go against classification procedures because they're in place to protect people in the agency and how the agency does things. And she thinks or she maintained that this was all in the interests of protecting the agency, not herself.
INSKEEP: So we're having a big debate here about torture and about the CIA's past, but I don't want to fail to note that Haspel is also trying to become the first woman to run the CIA. And she talked a little bit about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HASPEL: I did my part quietly and through hard work to break down some of those barriers. And I was proud to be the first woman to serve as the No. 2 in the clandestine service. It is not my way to trumpet the fact that I'm a woman up for the top job at CIA, but I would be remiss in not remarking on it.
WELNA: Yes, and I think there's a lot of sympathy for her and that especially the Democratic women who are on the committee say they would like to support her, but there's this problem of all the things that she's been involved in.
INSKEEP: David Welna on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.