WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed Gina Haspel on Thursday to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, elevating a woman to the directorship for the first time despite bipartisan misgivings about her role in the agency’s brutal detention and interrogation programs in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Ms. Haspel, the current deputy director and a career clandestine officer, takes the helm at a time of shifting alliances and intelligence threats from Iran to North Korea to Russia, and after President Trump tried to cast doubt on the intelligence community’s judgment as part of his broader attack on the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
But it was Ms. Haspel’s past that transfixed senators — if only for a few weeks — as they grappled anew with the aggressive interrogation policies of the George W. Bush administration in the years after the terrorist attacks. Ms. Haspel supervised a secret prison in Thailand in 2002 when a Qaeda suspect was waterboarded there, and senators raised fresh questions about her role in the agency’s destruction of videotapes of interrogation sessions in 2005.
Democrats and a handful of Republicans pressed Ms. Haspel to repudiate the program and sought assurances that torture would not be revisited under her watch. Ms. Haspel told senators during her confirmation hearing that her moral compass was strong and that she would not revisit such a program. And on Tuesday, under intense pressure, she went further, writing that the program “did damage to our officers and our standing in the world.”
In the end, those assurances were enough to win over a handful of skeptical senators. Two Republican no votes — and opposition from Senator John McCain of Arizona, the victim of torture in Vietnam who was not present for the vote — were more than offset by six Democrats, most of whom represent states that Mr. Trump won in 2016. Ms. Haspel also won over Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who had led the interrogation of her record.
She was confirmed 54 to 45.
Ms. Haspel is now set to take over a spy agency that has managed to keep a low profile under Mr. Trump in recent months. He was sharply critical of America’s intelligence agencies before taking office, even comparing them to Nazis at one point. But Ms. Haspel’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, who is now the secretary of state, built a warm rapport with the president.
Inside the agency, Mr. Pompeo had a more mixed reputation. He won praise for promoting agency veterans, including Ms. Haspel, who served as his deputy, and for pushing Mr. Trump to allow the C.I.A. to take on more aggressive covert operations. But Mr. Pompeo’s overt politics — he had been a firebrand Republican House member before taking over the C.I.A. — made many there uneasy that their work could be infected by political concerns.
Ms. Haspel is free of that particular baggage. Her nomination was seen by many at the C.I.A. as the best chance the agency had to avoid having a political partisan brought in as its director. Still, it remains to be seen how Ms. Haspel will get along with Mr. Trump, a president who prizes personal relationships above all else.
As a veteran clandestine officer, she lived and worked in secret and has never played any kind of public role. The C.I.A., typically reticent to draw attention to the work of its operatives, undertook an overt campaign to support Ms. Haspel’s nomination, declassifying aspects of her career to build a positive public image and authorizing a cadre of former officers to speak with reporters. Behind the scenes, former high-level officials from the agency pressed senators to get behind her nomination.
Their efforts worked.
Her confirmation “will send a signal to the current work force and to the work force of the future that a lifetime commitment to the agency can and will be rewarded,” Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said on Thursday.
Other pressing issues before the agency — including the unwinding of the Iran nuclear deal, resurgent Chinese aggression around the world, the fight against terrorism and the investigations into Russia’s election interference — got short shrift as senators homed in on Ms. Haspel’s record. Most senators asked about them only in written questions after her confirmation hearing.
Almost all details about Ms. Haspel’s record at the agency were classified, and officials there defied calls from some lawmakers to make them available to the public ahead of the vote.
As senators were preparing to vote, a military judge at the Guantánamo Bay wartime prison rejected a request by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the principal architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, for permission to give the Senate six paragraphs of information about Ms. Haspel. The ruling was not yet public, but was described by one of his lawyers, Marine Lt. Col. Derek A. Poteet.
After his March 2003 capture, Mr. Mohammed was tortured by the C.I.A. at black-site prisons in Afghanistan and Poland. It is not publicly known whether Ms. Haspel had any connection to Mr. Mohammed’s interrogation.
At her confirmation hearing, Ms. Haspel said she would obey current law and vowed never to restart a detention and interrogation program like the one she was involved in more than a decade ago. But to the frustration of many senators, she refused to condemn the program and said it had been legal at the time.
She changed course in a letter to Mr. Warner this week.
“With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the C.I.A. should have undertaken,” she wrote. “The United States must be an example to the rest of the world, and I support that.”
She continued: “While I won’t condemn those that made these hard calls, and I have noted the valuable intelligence collected, the program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world.”
The letter won over Mr. Warner and a handful of other Democrats. But liberal senators, and Republicans like Mr. McCain who adamantly oppose the use of torture, were not pacified.
“How can the Senate possibly take seriously Ms. Haspel’s confirmation conversion on torture that was submitted on the eve of a crucial vote?” Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and a leading critic of what he calls the C.I.A.’s torture program, said of Ms. Haspel’s letter.
Mr. Wyden also blasted the agency for withholding from the public key information about Ms. Haspel’s career, saying the process had amounted to a “secret nomination.”
“This has been — and it’s painful to have to say this — a stark failure of Senate oversight, and it is about as flagrant an example as I have ever seen,” he said.
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