The Senate confirmed Gina Haspel on Thursday to lead the CIA, lofting the agency’s acting director into history as the first woman to head America’s top intelligence service.
Ms. Haspel, a longtime undercover officer, was approved on a 54-45 vote, but only after she, the CIA and the Trump Administration navigated a lengthy debate over the agency’s harsh interrogation programs conducted on terror suspects after 9/11, which critics called torture.
Ms. Haspel formally replaces Mike Pompeo as CIA director and will be the first career clandestine service officer to oversee the agency since Richard Helms in the 1960s and William Colby in the 1970s.
In debate before the vote, Senate Intelligence committee chairman Richard Burr praised the depth of her experience.
“She is intimately familiar with the threats facing our nation,” the North Carolina Republican said. “Where others can discuss world events, Gina Haspel has lived those events. She has no learning curve.”
But the issue that hung over Ms. Haspel’s entire nomination process, her role running a secret CIA “black site” prison in Thailand and her knowledge of interrogation tactics used there, including waterboarding, also surfaced repeatedly before Thursday’s vote.
The Senate Intelligence committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner, supported her but said, “Americans, have a duty to look squarely at our mistakes and to not sweep them under the rug, but to learn from them, and in the future do better.”
Securing the Virginia Democrat’s support was critical and came after Ms. Haspel sent him a letter denouncing the controversial interrogation program after failing to clarify her stance on the matter during a contentious public confirmation hearing last week.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, Texas Republican, and Sen. Tom Cotton, Republican Arkansas, called Democrats’ objection to her involvement in the program hypocrisy, because Ms. Haspel was only a midlevel career CIA employee when it was operational.
“And yet they [Democrats] voted in 2013 to confirm John Brennan, who was the number four ranking CIA official at that time [the program was underway],” he said.
Reports on Thursday indicated that as part of the CIA’s push for support, former directors Mr. Brennan and Leon Panetta, both of whom served President Barrack Obama, contacted several Democratic senators to lobby on her behalf.
The McCain factor wasn’t much of a factor.
While many senators focused their words on the morality of torture versus the need to prevent future attacks on America, party politics also factored into the equation.
Republicans cast only two no votes, which were more than canceled out by five Democrats who joined Mr. Warner to vote yes for Ms. Haspel.
Those five Democrats are on this fall’s ballot and running in states carried by President Trump in 2016.
One Republican objector who did not cast a vote was Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. He was absent because he was home battling cancer.
A victim of torture as a POW during the Vietnam War, Mr. McCain had urged his Senate colleagues to block Ms. Haspel’s confirmation.
During multiple floor speeches on Thursday, several Democrats said Mr. McCain’s opposition to Ms. Haspel and his longstanding and outspoken stance against torture factored in their votes.
Not long after the vote, some in the intelligence community admitted they were sharing congratulating that a career clandestine service officer was finally overseeing the CIA.
But they were just as quick to offer sober reminders that Ms. Haspel faces a world full of threats, from Iran to North Korea to Russia, and beyond.
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