By Patricia Zengerle and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's nominee to head the CIA told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday "my moral compass is strong" and she would never resume the agency's harsh interrogation program, often denounced as torture, that has threatened to derail her confirmation.
Gina Haspel, currently the spy agency's acting director, told her Senate confirmation hearing she would not carry out any order from Trump she found morally objectionable, though she did not say she would refuse an order to use waterboarding, a form of simulated torture, to get answers from a terrorism suspect.
"My moral compass is strong. I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it," Haspel told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The hearing was dominated by questions about Haspel's role at the CIA in the use of harsh interrogation methods during former President George W. Bush's administration, as well as the destruction of videotapes documenting the tactics.
"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 such a detention and interrogation program," Haspel testified.
Haspel said U.S. law now clearly prohibits such interrogation methods, and "I fully support the detainee treatment required by law."
Trump vowed as a candidate to resume waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning previously used by CIA interrogators but now banned, and promised techniques "a hell of a lot worse."
Republican Senator Susan Collins asked Haspel what she would do if Trump gave her a direct order to use waterboarding on a "high-value terrorism suspect."
"I do not believe the president would ask me to do that," Haspel said, but did not say that she would refuse.
Haspel said there are "other U.S. government entities that conduct interrogations," adding, "We're not in the business of interrogating detainees" at the CIA and that she would not restart the interrogation program under any circumstances.
Public questioning of Haspel on issues such as the effectiveness of the interrogations, CIA drone strikes and agency "renditions" of suspected militants to third countries may be limited because the operations remain classified.
"CIA has learned some tough lessons," Haspel said, explaining that in retrospect the agency was not prepared to conduct the detention and interrogation program employed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants.
Haspel needs 51 votes for confirmation as the first woman director of the CIA in the 100-seat Senate, where Trump's fellow Republicans hold a 51-49 majority. The agency's former deputy director, she would succeed Mike Pompeo, a Republican former congressman confirmed last month as secretary of state.
Haspel already has the strong support of many Republicans. As he opened the hearing, the panel's Republican chairman, Richard Burr, praised Haspel.
"I believe your intellectual rigor, honorable service and outstanding judgment make you a natural fit to lead the CIA," he said, urging that the hearing not be made "a trial about a long-shuttered program."
But Haspel could face a difficult time being confirmed. At least one Republican, Senator Rand Paul, has said he opposes her, and others have said they will wait to see how she does at Wednesday's hearing. No Democrat has yet expressed support.
'MORALLY QUESTIONABLE BEHAVIOR'
Senator Mark Warner, the committee's top Democrat, has said his vote on Haspel's confirmation will largely depend on how she expresses her current views on the harsh techniques and a 2005 decision to destroy tapes of interrogations when she was chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, then the CIA's clandestine service chief.
Democrats pressed Haspel on her role in destroying videotapes of the interrogation sessions before they could be made public. Under questioning, Haspel acknowledged she "absolutely was an advocate" for destroying the tapes, saying she feared an "irresponsible leak" of the video that would reveal the identities of CIA agents and put them at risk.
Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich asked her, "Doesn't that feel like a cover-up?"
"I never watched the tapes, but I understood that our officers' faces were on them and it was very dangerous," she said.
An undercover officer for most of her more than 30-year career, Haspel in 2002 served as CIA station chief in Thailand, where the agency ran one of the secret prisons where suspected al Qaeda extremists were interrogated using procedures that included waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
Warner and other Democrats expressed frustration they have not been given more details of Haspel's long record with the agency, much of which remains classified.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said the agency was feeding "small pieces" of information to senators to bolster her nomination while keeping any damaging records under wraps.
Warner also said he would want Haspel's commitment to cooperate in investigations into Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump has called those investigations a "witch hunt."
Haspel's testimony was interrupted by a protester who yelled, "Bloody Gina" and "You are a torturer," before being removed by police. Before the hearing, a small group of protesters shouted, "Say no to torture," before also being removed.
Haspel said the United States needs to do more to address China's "overt and illicit efforts to steal" U.S. technology.
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Will Dunham)
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Updated Date: May 10, 2018 00:08 AM