The Senate confirmed Gina Haspel on Thursday as the first female director of the CIA following a difficult nomination process that reopened an emotional debate about brutal interrogation techniques in one of the darkest chapters in the spy agency’s history.
The 54-45 vote split both parties, with six Democrats joining most Republicans in support. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who is battling brain cancer, was absent for the vote.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called president Donald Trump’s choice of Mrs Haspel to lead the agency “the right woman at the right time.”
Mr McConnell steered the confirmation swiftly past opponents, including the ailing Mr McCain, whose long-distance rejection of the nominee over her role in the CIA’s torture program hung over an impassioned debate.
Ahead of voting, Mr McConnell said Mrs Haspel “demonstrated candour, integrity, and a forthright approach” throughout the confirmation process and “has quietly earned the respect and admiration” of intelligence community leaders at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and abroad.
Supporters cited her 33-year career at the agency. Former top intelligence officials said she earned the chance to take the helm of the intelligence agency.
But Mrs Haspel’s nomination was contentious because of her role in a former CIA program to brutally detain and interrogate terror suspects at covert sites abroad following 9/11.
Her opponents said it wasn’t right to promote someone who supervised a black site in Thailand. They said the US needs to close the book forever on the program that marred America’s image with allies abroad.
Several senators said Haspel was not forthcoming in answering questions about her role in the torture program or the CIA’s decision to destroy videotaped evidence of the sessions. They also had questions about her rejection of the now-banned techniques.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said in a floor speech that Haspel “offered up almost the classic Washington non-apology.”
He asked how the Senate could take seriously her “conversion on torture.”
Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jeff Flake of Arizona were among the Republicans who voted against Mrs Haspel.
Among Democrats supporting Haspel are several who are up for re-election this fall in states where Mr Trump is popular, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Bill Nelson in Florida. Other Democrats voting yes were Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Other Trump-state Democrats, though, including Doug Jones of Alabama, opposed the nominee. Most other Democrats, including those eyeing presidential runs in 2020, voted against Haspel in what may become a defining issue for Democrats.
Mr Jones said this week that “it’s just hard to get over” the torture issue.
A protester in the Senate visitor gallery briefly disrupted speeches ahead of the vote with shouts against the CIA.
Mrs Haspel, 61, is a native of Kentucky but grew up around the world as the daughter of an Air Force serviceman. She worked undercover for nearly all her three decades at the CIA in Africa, Europe and classified locations around the globe. Mrs Haspel, who learned Turkish and Russian, was tapped as deputy director of the CIA last year. She worked under former CIA director Mike Pompeo until Mr Trump moved him to secretary of state. She has been serving as acting director.
She received robust backing from former intelligence, diplomatic, military and national security officials. Among those who supported her nomination were six former CIA directors — Porter Goss, John Brennan, Leon Panetta, George Tenet, William Webster and Mike Hayden — and three former national intelligence directors — James Clapper, Mike McConnell and John Negroponte.
On the opposing side are groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which says she should have stood up against the interrogation practices then. More than 100 former US ambassadors who served both Republican and Democratic presidents sent the Senate a letter opposing her, saying that despite her credentials, confirming her would give authoritarian leaders around the world the licence to say US behaviour is “no different from ours.”
Human rights groups also lamented the confirmation: Raha Wala at Human Rights First said the decision to confirm her was unwise. He says Human Rights First is putting Mrs Haspel on notice that Congress and the American people will hold her to her pledge to never reinstate such a program in the future.
Laura Pitter with Human Rights Watch says Mrs Haspel’s confirmation is a “perverse by-product of the US failure to grapple with past abuses.”