Trump defends CIA nominee, says she is 'tough on terror'

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump defended Gina Haspel, his nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, on Monday, dismissing criticism of her involvement in a harsh interrogation program and arguing that Democrats want her out because she "is too tough on terror."

Haspel had offered to withdraw her nomination, administration officials said, amid concern that a debate over interrogation practices that some call torture was attracting unfavorable attention and could hurt the CIA. She would not want to stay in "if she felt her nomination would be a problem" for the CIA, but the White House has complete confidence in her, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday.

Haspel was meeting at the Capitol Monday with senators whose support could be key to her confirmation. Asked if there was any chance she would withdraw, Haspel told reporters, "Looking forward to Wednesday," when she will be questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Trump said earlier on Twitter that Haspel has "come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists."

"Win Gina!" he tweeted.

White House aides on Friday sought out additional details about Haspel's involvement in the CIA's now-defunct program of detaining and brutally interrogating terror suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks as they prepared her for the confirmation hearing. This is when she offered to withdraw, officials said.

They said Haspel, who is the acting director of the CIA, was reassured that her nomination was still on track. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The news was first reported Sunday by The Washington Post.

Haspel, who would be the first woman to lead the CIA, is the first career operations officer to be nominated to lead the agency in decades. She served almost entirely undercover, and much of her record is classified. Democrats say she should be disqualified because she was the chief of base at a covert detention site in Thailand where two terrorism suspects were subjected to waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning.

She has told lawmakers in recent weeks that she would stand firm against any effort to restart the brutal detention and interrogation program, administration officials told The Associated Press on Friday. She is expected to reiterate that publicly this week.

Haspel, one official said, was wary of suffering the same fate as failed Veterans Affairs nominee Ronny Jackson and of dredging up the CIA's troubled past. She took over last month as the acting CIA director after the previous director, Mike Pompeo, was sworn in as secretary of state.

Haspel's conversations with senators will continue ahead of Wednesday's confirmation hearing at the Senate Intelligence Committee and a later full vote in the Senate.

In addition, the CIA has sent materials to the Senate, some classified, that the lawmakers can read to better understand not only her work in the Counterterrorism Center, which oversaw the harsh interrogation program, but also other aspects of her 33-year career, including more than 30 years undercover.

She has received robust backing from former intelligence, diplomatic, military and national security officials.

On the opposing side are groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, which says she should have stood up against the interrogation practices.

Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, said, "Her nomination will not be derailed by partisan critics who side with the ACLU over the CIA on how to keep the American people safe."

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