Chairman of the (water) board

REASONABLE people can disagree about Gina Haspel’s fitness to lead the CIA. On the one hand, Ms Haspel, who has been nominated for the position by President Donald Trump and was grilled by the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 9th, has been a highly regarded member of the agency for 33 years. She would also be the first women to lead it. On the other hand, her post-9/11 role managing a secret prison in Thailand where “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as waterboarding were used on an al-Qaeda prisoner recalls a bleak episode. She was also controversially involved in destroying evidence of those interrogations. Yet Ms Haspel’s confirmation hearing was less an honest airing of this dilemma than a partisan mud-wrestle.

In her opening remarks, she sought to head off the coming Democratic assault on her interrogation record. “Having served in that tumultuous time,” she said, “I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation programme.” Yet, under questioning from Kamala Harris of California, she refused to say whether she considered that programme “immoral”. How could she? If it was not immoral, it would probably still be legal. Yet to admit its immorality would be a damning indictment of her record and deeply unpopular at the CIA. Democratic senators, most of whom will vote against Ms Haspel, may cite this as a decisive moment.

She will probably still be confirmed. Though a couple of Republicans—including Rand Paul of Kentucky and perhaps John McCain, ill at home in Arizona—may not support her, two or three Democrats will make up a majority. Joe Manchin of West Virginia says he will be one. Ms Haspel also offered a couple more reasons to welcome that. She oozed confidence in her brief. Richard Burr, the Republican committee chair, described her as the best prepared nominee to lead the CIA ever. In particular she stressed a need to improve basic intelligence-gathering skills, such as foreign languages, which sounded reassuringly sensible. This good impression also spoke well of the agency’s previous director, Mike Pompeo, now secretary of state, who must have backed her nomination.

Even so, two worries about Ms Haspel’s likely confirmation remain. One concerns the message it would send to the president, who has claimed to be a fan of torture. It is Mr Trump, not Ms Haspel, who makes her record most problematic. The second concerns the Senate Intelligence Committee. Steep growth in the CIA’s powers and responsibility have made congressional oversight of it more important than ever. The fact that Ms Haspel would be such an insiderish appointment underlines that. Yet the deepening partisanship on the committee, one of the last effective congressional bodies, puts it in doubt.