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Gina Haspel courts hesitant senators in lead-up to confirmation hearing

CIA director nominee controversy

After a weekend of tumult generated by a report that CIA acting director Gina Haspel had offered to withdraw her candidacy, the nominee visited Capitol Hill for a final round of one-on-one meetings with senators ahead of her Wednesday confirmation hearing.

The usually press-averse Haspel entered the Senate Hart building in full view of waiting cameras and had a uniform message throughout the day. "Hi everyone. Looking forward to Wednesday," she said to reporters before heading into her first meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia.

Over the course of the afternoon, she also visited with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, and is expected to return to Capitol Hill to meet with Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, on Tuesday. All are crucial votes in a confirmation effort the White House has acknowledged is "close," and likely to come down to a 50-49 margin, with Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, absent.

Haspel's response upon leaving each meeting on Monday was likewise consistent – "Great," she said of her meeting with Feinstein, and "excellent," as she left Manchin.

Her arrival coincided with a delivery from the CIA of an additional set of classified documents about her career that a spokesman said covered its "entirety." The documents, wheeled in by an aide and wrapped in brown paper that had "HAND CARRY" scrawled on one side, are being made available in a secure space in the Capitol to any senator considering Haspel's nomination.

"As Acting Director Haspel promised, CIA delivered a set of classified documents to the Senate today so that every Senator can review Acting Director Haspel's actual, and outstanding record," said CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani. "These documents cover the entirety of her career, including her time in CIA's Counter Terrorism Center in the years after 9/11. We encourage every Senator to take the time to read the entire set of documents."

Much of Haspel's 30-year career at CIA was spent in the clandestine service, and remains classified. Her reported oversight of a secret "black site" in Thailand where detainees were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, in 2002 has generated widespread controversy, as has her involvement in ordering the destruction of 92 videotapes – some of which documented the interrogations – while serving as chief of staff to then-director of the clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez, in 2005.

CIA declassifies report on Gina Haspel that clears her in destruction of waterboarding tape

It's unclear whether the additional documents will satisfy senators who have called for a wholesale declassification of the details of Haspel's career, and whose most strident criticisms have centered less on Haspel herself than on what the agency appears willing to divulge about her record. In a letter reportedly sent directly to Haspel, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Virginia, called the lack of transparency surrounding her background "unacceptable."

Wyden, who has made repeated requests for broader declassification of Haspel's record, said in a phone interview with CBS News, "I've received the entire file, have reviewed everything that they have made available ... This is self-serving declassification," he said, "a cover-up from A to Z."

"It's almost as if they are treating her like a undercover person – somebody who's not going to be the most public and most visible spokesperson for the CIA," Wyden said. "I want the American people to know who this nominee is." 

After his meeting with Haspel, Heinrich likewise called for "additional transparency" from the agency and said Haspel, as its acting director, "is the person who can make that happen."

"It's important to me to have an accurate debate about this nomination and I don't think they've met that threshold yet," he said, though he acknowledged that Haspel, in their meeting, answered all his questions.

"I think she's very talented," Heinrich said. 

An intelligence official familiar with the process said any requests made directly of Haspel would trigger a conflict of interest if waiving classification requirements – even if they revealed derogatory information – ultimately served to benefit her nomination.

In an apparent effort to move beyond Haspel and the CIA, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, along with Heinrich, Feinstein and Wyden appealed late Friday to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats with a request that "all CIA information related to any involvement Gina Haspel may have had" in the Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program be declassified in advance of her nomination hearing. "We can think of no more appropriate situation for you to serve as the relevant authority," they wrote.

An ODNI spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.

Haspel's efforts to shore up support for her own candidacy have been met with vocal, albeit recent, efforts by the White House to do the same. On Monday morning, President Trump sidestepped some of the major criticisms surrounding his nominee and, in a tweet, appeared to frame the matter as a mix of national security, gender, and politics.

"My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists," the president wrote. "Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!"

"The president said he'd go a lot further than waterboarding…it's not hard to connect the dots," Wyden said, and dismissed the notion that Haspel's gender should be a mitigating factor for Democrats or anyone else. "I think it's insulting to women that it is somehow being offered up that Gina Haspel is the only qualified woman," he said. "There are scores of talented, qualified women in national security."

The issue of enhanced interrogation techniques imperiled, but did not derail, the nomination of at least one recent candidate to lead the CIA.

In 2013, Wyden initially opposed the nomination of President Obama's pick to lead the agency, John Brennan, whose reported knowledge of the use of enhanced interrogation tactics as a senior official at the CIA threatened his confirmation for a time. Wyden, along with 62 other senators, voted to confirm Brennan after memos outlining the legal justification for lethal drone strikes were released by the White House. 

On Monday, Brennan, who has been previously outspoken in his support for Haspel – and in his disdain for Mr. Trump – issued his own tweet.

"Senators: Show that you put country above politics. Gina Haspel is a competent, experienced, & highly qualified intelligence professional. Ask her tough questions, listen to her answers, & then decide," Brennan wrote, "but don't penalize her for previous policy decisions or because DT picked her."

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