Donald Trump’s pick to head the CIA oversaw the running of a secret prison in Thailand where terrorist suspects were waterboarded, and she later carried out an order to destroy videotape evidence of the torture.
Veteran undercover officer Gina Haspel will become the first woman to head the Central Intelligence Agency if her appointment is approved by the US Senate.
But her nomination faces an uncertain future, with Democrats and Republican senator John McCain questioning her suitability given her role overseeing the secret prison codenamed “Cat’s Eye”.
Two suspected members of the Al Qaeda terrorist group were subjected to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques at the “black site” prison, which is not acknowledged as existing by the US Government.
Three years later, Ms Haspel carried out an order to destroy videotapes of the waterboarding, which simulates drowning and is considered a form of torture.
Ms Haspel is generally held in high regard at the CIA, working as deputy director under Mike Pompeo, who Mr Trump picked to be the next secretary of state after firing Rex Tillerson from the post.
But her appointment could be opposed by all Democrats in the Republican-controlled Senate and will face close scrutiny in confirmation hearings.
Democrat Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Ms Haspel’s background made her unsuitable to serve as CIA director.
Senator McCain, who was himself tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said: “The torture of detainees in US custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history.”
“Ms Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process.”
In 2009, days after taking office, Democratic president Barack Obama banned “enhanced interrogation techniques”, including waterboarding, and ordered the closure of the secret detention sites.
Mr Trump defended torture of detainees during the 2016 presidential race, saying it “works”. He has not taken any action to reverse Mr Obama’s policy, but Ms Haspel’s nomination will fan concerns.
Reopening old wounds
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “This is going to reopen wounds from a decade and more ago, and also invite more oversight of both our analyses and our activities, especially if Gina is confirmed.”
Some US intelligence officials have said reports of Ms Haspel’s alleged involvement in interrogations involving torture were false. However, they did not immediately provide details.
They did not dispute her involvement in drafting orders to destroy videotapes of harsh interrogation techniques, which was reported in the book Hard Measures, by Jose Rodriguez, her boss in the agency at the time, and former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow.
A CIA spokesman had no immediate comment.
Push for speedy confirmation
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he expected a speedy confirmation of Ms Haspel and Mr Pompeo.
“Both these nominees seem perfectly well qualified. We hope they will not be subjected to undue delay which has been an enormous problem.”
The top Democrat on the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, said senators had “a lot of questions” about Ms Haspel.
“They deserve to have those questions answered, in an open hearing setting,” he said.
When pressed, he would not say whether he was concerned.