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Republican Sen. Jim Risch Discusses Gina Haspel's Confirmation Hearing


President Trump's pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, has more than 30 years of experience at the CIA. But her nomination has been clouded by questions about her role in the waterboarding of detainees in the wake of 9/11 and her drafting of a memo ordering the destruction of videotapes of those interrogation sessions. Today at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Haspel said that though her actions then were legal, she would not lead the agency there again.


GINA HASPEL: Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment clearly and without reservation that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart a detention and interrogation program.

CORNISH: Senator James Risch, Republican of Idaho, serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He plans to vote in favor of Haspel's appointment.

Welcome to the program.

JAMES RISCH: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Now, I know you've known Gina Haspel for about a decade now. What qualifications are you looking for in the next CIA chief? Does she meet them?

RISCH: Well, it'd be really difficult to find someone that had more qualifications for that job than she does. Look, this is a woman who's worked 30 years in the intelligence community and specifically in the Central Intelligence Agency. She knows the agency from top to bottom. She started at the very bottom and worked her way up. She worked as a covert agent in operations. And really, you couldn't find anyone better. And I think the president picked just an outstanding person for this job.

CORNISH: She told your committee today, quote, "my moral compass is strong" and that the CIA must undertake activities consistent with American values. At the same time, she was also questioned about the controversial practices that occurred during her years there that she ran a black site prison in Thailand where waterboarding took place. Do you see an inconsistency there?

RISCH: No, not really. I think that that's - your description is a generalization that makes connotations that actually aren't there. She was never involved, as the record reflects and as she states, in any interrogation of any kind. As far as what her actual assignments were, that's all classified, of course. But she never participated in any of this at all. And I know that for a fact.

CORNISH: In 2005, Gina Haspel drafted a cable giving instructions to destroy videotapes that documented harsh interrogation methods. That fact was discussed today by Senator Dianne Feinstein.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Were you an advocate for destroying the tapes?

HASPEL: Senator, I absolutely was an advocate if we could within and conforming to U.S. law and if we could get policy concurrence to eliminate the security risk posed to our officers by those tapes and the consistent legal...

FEINSTEIN: And you were aware of what those tapes contained?

HASPEL: No, I never watched the tapes.

FEINSTEIN: No. (Unintelligible)...

HASPEL: But I understood that our officers' faces were on them and that that was very dangerous at a time when there were unauthorized disclosures that were exposing the program.

CORNISH: Senator, when you heard this exchange, what did you make of it? Did you understand the critique here about transparency?

RISCH: You know, when I heard it, I didn't make anything of it because I've known this for some time. She was the No. 2 person in that department. Her supervisor directed her to draft the cable that you're talking about. She did so. She gave the cable back to her boss. Her boss then made the decision as far as destroying the tape. So it's guilt by association. I mean, simply because she was there, to me, doesn't disqualify her at all.

CORNISH: But now that she would be No. 1, are you confident that she would be able to, for instance, say no if the president were to call for a return to it, right? He has been a vocal supporter of the idea of bringing back what he calls tougher interrogation.

RISCH: Look, we have a law against that now. People keep trying to relitigate this thing on the interrogation. This program has been dead for long before I ever got here. Nobody has ever tried it since then. Nobody's ever talked about it since then. And so we need to quit talking about that and look forward not backward. Look, those of us that sit on the committee hear things every single day that make us sleep not very well at night. Having Gina Haspel as the head of this agency is going to make me sleep a lot better.

CORNISH: I want to turn away from Gina Haspel and the nomination hearings and ask you briefly about the president's decision to essentially hit pause on U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal. What would make allies - or even Iran - come back to the negotiating table if you have a president who will back out of this deal and several others?

RISCH: Well, you know (laughter), the last president undertook this all by himself. The Constitution of the United States, Article II, Section 2, paragraph 2 - the first sentence is 25 words long. And it describes in very explicit detail and in plain English what must be done in order to make an agreement, a treaty, with another country.

President Obama refused to follow that. And we told him over and over again. We told our European allies - those of us that were opposed to what they were doing because this was such a bad deal, obviously. We told them over and over and over again, this is merely an executive agreement. It's an agreement between Barack Obama and the Iranians. It is not an agreement between the American people. It doesn't bind me. It doesn't bind you. It does not bind the American people because he refused to submit it as a treaty.

CORNISH: So has the White House told you they're going to do differently, that if there's a new agreement that Congress is going to be involved?

RISCH: We are already involved. For the eight years that Barack Obama was president, nobody called me, nobody came to see me. We'd get him in before the committee. And they treated us as if we didn't exist. They totally ignored the advice and consent provisions of the United States Constitution. And the result of that is you wound up with a bad deal badly put in place. And now President Trump is having to bear the consequences of that. And people are criticizing him for withdrawing from a deal that should have never, ever, ever been entered into in the first place.

CORNISH: So to be clear, you're saying right now you are hearing from the White House and you are looking forward to some sort of renegotiation?

RISCH: I'm not looking forward to further negotiation. That's up to the Iranians. What the international community expects of the Iranians, including U.N. sanctions that they violate regularly, is well-known to the Iranians. And they're not dealing with Barack Obama anymore.

They're dealing with a president who understands that dealing with the Iranians is like dealing with the bad boy in the classroom. The bad boy is doing a half a dozen bad things. You can't go to work on one of those bad things, as the prior administration tried to do, and say, there, it's fixed, when you've got to resolve things like the funding for terrorists. They're the largest funder of terrorism in the world. They're testing nuclear - excuse me - ballistic missiles in direct contravention of U.N. resolutions.

They're doing all kinds of things that they shouldn't be doing. And it's up to them. If they want to act the way they are, then what's going to happen is the sanctions are going back into place. And as you probably know - you've probably seen the news reports - things are very, very bad in Iran right now economically. The leadership there promised people things were going to be better. This thing is not only not working for us, it isn't working for Iran either. And when the sanctions go back, things are going to get worse. If they want to negotiate - if they want to change, you've got to have people that will act in good faith and in good faith agree to change their behavior, not have their fingers crossed behind their back.

CORNISH: That's Senator James Risch, a Republican from Idaho. He serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RISCH: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCO POLO'S "GET BUSY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.