By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, sought to withdraw over concerns about her role in the agency’s interrogation program, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Sunday.
Haspel’s offer to withdraw on Friday was prompted by growing concern among her supporters that White House staff were becoming nervous that the nomination was in trouble, the sources said.
The Washington Post first reported her offer to withdraw.
Haspel was summoned to the White House on Friday for a meeting to discuss her history in the interrogation program that employed techniques, including waterboarding, widely condemned as torture, the Post reported, citing four unidentified senior U.S. officials.
She told the White House she would step aside to avoid a brutal Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday that might damage the CIA, the officials told the Post. She then returned to agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
White House aides including legislative affairs liaison Marc Short and spokeswoman Sarah Sanders then rushed to Langley for discussions on Friday that lasted several hours but did not secure a commitment from her to stick with the nomination, the paper said.
Only on Saturday afternoon was the White House assured she would not withdraw, the Post quoted the officials as saying.
“Acting Director Haspel is a highly qualified nominee who has dedicated over three decades of service to her country,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said in response to a request for White House comment.
“Her nomination will not be derailed by partisan critics who side with the ACLU (rights organization) over the CIA on how to keep the American people safe,” he added.
Trump named Haspel, the first woman tapped to head the Central Intelligence Agency, to succeed Mike Pompeo, who became secretary of state last month.
Haspel’s nomination has encountered opposition over her role in a defunct program in which the agency detained and interrogated al Qaeda suspects in secret prisons overseas using techniques widely condemned as torture.
Former President George W. Bush authorized the Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Program after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Many details of Haspel’s work remain classified. Sources familiar with her career who requested anonymity said that at one point she was the chief of the CIA station in a country where harsh interrogations were used on at least one terrorism suspect.
Later, she served as chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, the head of CIA undercover operations. In consultation with Rodriguez in 2005, Haspel drafted a cable ordering CIA officers to destroy videotapes of al Qaeda suspects being tortured.
Haspel’s supporters argue that while she drafted the cable, Rodriguez sent it without the approval of CIA Director Porter Goss and without informing Haspel that he would do so.
The destruction of the tapes is a key issue for Senate critics of Haspel, who complain that public agency disclosures regarding its interrogation programs have been inadequate.
(The story was refiled to fix a typo in “complain” in the last paragraph)
(Additional reporting by Doina and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Sandra Maler)