He may be on the other side of the country, but John McCain is casting a giant shadow over Gina Haspel’s nomination to be the next director of the CIA.
The widely respected longtime Republican senator, who is battling brain cancer back home in Arizona, announced his opposition to Haspel on Wednesday evening, citing her past role in the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program and refusal to label torture as immoral during her confirmation hearing. Even though McCain likely will not be able to make it to Washington for the vote, his stance could provide political cover to senators from both parties who are skeptical of Haspel.
“I think people would be lying to you if they said it didn’t weigh on them,” said Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat facing a tough re-election campaign who is undecided on Haspel. “I can’t imagine anyone who has more authority on this subject than John McCain in the whole country.”
The main concerns about Haspel, a 33-year veteran of the CIA, stem from her oversight of a secret prison in Thailand in 2002, where an al-Qaida suspect was waterboarded, as well as her involvement in the destruction of interrogation videotapes in 2005.
During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, Haspel said that while the CIA’s interrogation program was legal at the time, she would “never, ever” bring it back. But under repeated questioning from Democratic senators, Haspel dodged on whether the practices that the agency employed during the George W. Bush era were moral.
McCain, who experienced torture as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, said Haspel’s “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.” Those comments are now weighing on his Republican and Democratic colleagues who were already on the fence about Haspel ahead of what will likely be a tight vote this month.
So far, one Republican has come out against Haspel (Rand Paul) and one Democrat has come out for Haspel (Joe Manchin) meaning that if every other senator toed the party line, she would be confirmed. But there are still some notable Republican holdouts, including Mike Lee and McCain’s fellow Arizonian, Jeff Flake.
“I obviously share his views on torture, and I always have,” Flake said of McCain. “His views mean a lot.”
Meanwhile, Republicans are continuing to pressure the other red-state Democrats who voted to confirm Mike Pompeo as secretary of State last month—Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Doug Jones, Bill Nelson, and McCaskill—to follow Manchin’s lead and support Haspel. But McCain’s position could relieve some of that pressure.
“Of course it does,” Jones, an Alabama Democrat, told National Journal when asked if McCain’s opposition affects his thought process. “He’s an important voice on issues like that. So it certainly is a significant factor.”
While McCain’s opposition will certainly be a factor, it remains to be seen if it will be the deciding one for these senators. It wasn’t enough to convince his best friend in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, who announced his support for Haspel on Thursday.
“Ms. Haspel has rejected the interrogation policies of the past,” Graham said in a statement. “She is fully committed to following the law that prevents future abuses.”
John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican and a member of the Intelligence Committee, said he continued to believe that Haspel is the most qualified candidate for the job.
“Senator McCain is obviously respected by all of us. I think his own experiences … obviously inform his own judgement on all these issues,” Cornyn told reporters. “But it is absolutely clear that Ms. Haspel acted in accordance with the best legal authority that existed and at the direction of the president and her leadership.”
Most Republicans remained confident Haspel would still be confirmed. Asked by National Journal if McCain’s opposition will affect Haspel chances, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr replied, “I don’t think it’s going to.”
Although McCain has been away from Washington for about five months, he has attempted to make his voice heard on a variety of issues with varying success. His bipartisan immigration proposal with Chris Coons failed, but he has still been running the show at the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is now preparing its annual defense spending bill. The Haspel nomination may provide the latest test for just how far McCain’s influence reaches.
“I have huge respect for Senator McCain.” said Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee who is undecided on Haspel. “But we all have to reach an independent judgment.”