WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday to confirm veteran CIA agent Gina Haspel as the first female director in the 71-year history of the agency.
Senators voted 54-45 to confirm Haspel, who has served 33 years at the CIA, most of it as a covert agent. The vote was largely along party lines, but six Democrats voted for her and two Republicans voted against her. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who opposed Haspel, is being treated for brain cancer and was absent.
Haspel, a 61-year-old Kentucky native, had strong support from her colleagues in the CIA, who praised her service on dangerous assignments around the world. She was endorsed by former CIA directors from both Democratic and Republican administrations.
"Out of the spotlight, whether at Langley and deployed abroad, Ms. Haspel has quietly earned the respect and admiration of those who matter most — the men and women of the CIA, and distinguished current and former intelligence community leaders," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Former president George H.W. Bush tweeted that he has great confidence Haspel will continue effectively leading the men and women of the CIA in "their vitally important mission for our nation."
But Haspel also drew fierce criticism from former generals, admirals and diplomats for her role in the CIA's now-outlawed torture program, which took place during the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America.
Haspel oversaw a secret "black site" in Thailand in 2002 where suspected terrorists were tortured, and she wrote a 2005 order — at her supervisor's request — to destroy 92 videotapes that showed CIA agents waterboarding prisoners.
Haspel promised senators, at her confirmation hearing last week, that she would not restart the torture program if confirmed as CIA director, even if pressed to do so by President Trump. Trump has said in the past that "torture works" and that he would consider using it again.
"I would not restart, under any circumstances, an interrogation program at CIA," Haspel testified. However, she stopped short of calling the torture program "immoral" when pressed to do so by Democrats.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Haspel's assurances were not enough.
"No matter how you dress it up, torture is torture," Warren said. "It’s inhumane, ineffective, and un-American. Gina Haspel advocated for torture."
It became clear Wednesday that Haspel would be confirmed after she won the endorsement of the Senate Intelligence Committee by a vote of 10-5. Later that day, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire announced she would support Haspel, joining five other Democrats: Mark Warner of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Bill Nelson of Florida.
The support from the five Democrats was more than enough to counter the three Republicans who opposed her: McCain, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Republicans hold a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate, so opposition from three Republicans would have defeated Haspel if no Democrats had supported her.
"This was not an easy choice," said Warner, the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, about his decision to support Haspel. "I look forward to (Haspel's) performance convincing those who could not support her today that her long-term value to our country will make our country safer and that she will act in accordance to the principles and values of our country."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said that Americans don't really know the truth about Haspel's background because the CIA refused to declassify records that would have revealed exactly what she did. As acting director of the agency, Haspel was able to decide what documents should be made public.
"Ms. Haspel has been exercising the unprecedented power to personally censor any facts that might get in the way of her confirmation," Wyden said before the vote.
Haspel will replace Mike Pompeo, who left the CIA late last month to become Trump's new secretary of State. Haspel became deputy director more than a year ago, and has been serving as acting CIA director since Pompeo's departure.