As Gina Haspel, the first female nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, found out Wednesday, it doesn’t bode well to face Senator Kamala Harris at a congressional hearing.
Attorney-General Jeff Sessions was once so abrasively interrogated by the Democrat from California that other senators interrupted to try to call her off. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen got a similarly withering treatment from the lawmaker, as did John Kelly when he was in that security post.
Among the attributes that has put Ms. Harris, who spent her high school years in Montreal, high on the list of favourites for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president are her punishing prosecutorial skills.
The former California attorney-general comes across as cerebrally arrogant, a Barack Obama with edge. Like Mr. Obama, she’s a charismatic rookie senator of mixed ethnic background (born to Indian and Jamaican parents), and her intent is to go just as high as he did.
Many took note of her faceoff with the CIA nominee, a woman who has spent 33 years at the cloak-and-dagger agency, most of them as an undercover agent in unsavoury locales. The big obstacle to Ms. Haspel’s confirmation is that she ran a secret prison in Thailand where detainees were waterboarded. She ordered the CIA to destroy videotapes of interrogations.
“Do you believe the previous interrogation techniques were immoral?” Ms. Harris asked her at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
“Senator, I believe that CIA officials to whom you refer …”
Sensing a dodge, Ms. Harris cut in. “It’s a yes-or-no answer.”
“Senator, I believe that CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country given the legal tools that we were authorized to use.”
Witnessing a dodge, Ms. Harris cut in again. “Please answer yes or no. Do you believe these techniques were immoral?”
“Senator, what I believe sitting here today is that I support the higher moral standards we have decided to hold ourselves to.”
Getting fed up, Ms. Harris said, “Please answer the question.”
“Senator, I believe I’ve answered the question.”
At which point Kamala Harris’s eyes began to roll. “No,” she said in a rudely dismissive tone, “you’ve not.” At which point Ms. Haspel’s expression turned white. At which point Senator Harris moved on to other merciless questions.
Ms. Haspel had long confronted terror suspects but never cameras. She had other difficult moments. Senator Susan Collins asked what she would do if U.S. President Donald Trump ordered up waterboarding. “I do not believe the President would ask me to do that.” From the hearing room crowd came guffaws. They likely recalled the election campaign when Mr. Trump said he would not only allow waterboarding, he would do “a hell of a lot worse.”
Protesters twice were removed from the chamber. “Bloody Gina!” one of them shouted. “You’re a torturer!”
But Ms. Haspel, who is much admired at the agency, made many points the senators wanted to hear. “I would not restart under any circumstances an interrogation program at CIA,” she said. She talked of her strong moral compass. She supported the destruction of the waterboarding tapes, she explained, because of security concerns of agency officers. Though she didn’t oppose the interrogation techniques, they were not her call, she claimed. Nor were they unlawful.
Her appearance may have been assuring enough to get her narrowly confirmed. But it wasn’t enough for Kamala Harris, who did not get the condemnation of torture on moral grounds that she desired. She said on CNN she would vote against the nomination. Host Jake Tapper rolled the tape of her Haspel takedown.
Besides her prosecutorial style, there are other reasons for her popularity. She’s a powerful advocate for strict gun laws, for people of colour, for immigrant groups. She hasn’t been around Washington so long that her brain is addled. And she has what Democrats need most against Donald Trump – tenacity. She doesn’t back down.
Republicans looked on angrily at her interrogation of their CIA candidate. “With an eye to 2020,” said a statement from Michael Arens of the Republican National Committee, “Kamala Harris never misses an opportunity to grandstand in front of the cameras − even if it’s at the expense of a 33-year CIA veteran who has risked her life to protect this country.”