Nothing about the Central Intelligence Agency is easy for outsiders to comprehend — not the dangers faced by employees, the secrecy of the profession or even its cultural norms. Gina Haspel, who describes herself as a typical middle-class American with a strong moral compass, is also a career spy whose CIA duties, she notes, included “brush passes, dead drops (and) meetings in dusty alleys of Third World capitals.”

Haspel would have remained in the shadows, except she was extremely good at her job. She rose to become CIA deputy director and is now President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the agency. Haspel gets rave reviews from former national security officials from Democratic and Republican administrations, and is said to be strongly supported by agency employees. That might have given her an easy path to Senate confirmation as the CIA’s first female director. The question facing the Senate isn’t whether she’s qualified, but whether one part of her record should disqualify her.

The potential roadblock is some of Haspel’s work in the shadows during the perilous period after 9/11 when the United States was desperate to prevent more terrorist attacks. In 2002, Haspel oversaw a secret CIA detention site in Thailand when at least one suspected al-Qaida terrorist was waterboarded. In 2005 she drafted a memo advocating that videotapes of such incidents be destroyed to protect the identities of the interrogators.

To some senators and other critics, Haspel’s work in Thailand and her drafting of that memo are reasons to vote against confirmation. Torture is not only illegal and immoral, it’s also ineffective. That’s all true, as the American government, including the CIA, looks at the situation today. President Barack Obama banned the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation in 2009.

But it was different in the uncertain aftermath of the 2001 attacks on America. With the country vulnerable, President George W. Bush’s administration crafted legal memos that permitted harsh interrogation techniques including waterboarding. Members of Congress were briefed. A repugnant but approved form of torture was practiced by Americans in locations around the world. In 2005, Haspel drafted the cable instructing the Thailand tapes to be shredded. But it was her boss, Jose Rodriguez, former director of the National Clandestine Service, who gave the actual order.

In 2011, Obama’s deputy CIA director, Michael Morell, concluded from his investigation: “I have found no fault with the performance of Ms. Haspel. … She drafted the cable on the direct orders of Mr. Rodriguez; she did not release that cable. It was not her decision to destroy the tapes; it was Mr. Rodriguez’s.”

As part of the nomination process, Haspel does have to answer for her actions. On Wednesday, she testified publicly before the Senate intelligence committee and addressed key questions about the CIA and torture. The hearing produced no startling revelations about her. Haspel stated that, if confirmed, she would not restart the now-repudiated detention and interrogation program. “I would not allow the CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal,” she said.

And what if Haspel were ordered to waterboard a terrorism suspect? We ask because, at various times, Trump has sounded like a fan of “tough” interrogations. But Haspel made clear to the panel she wouldn’t allow the CIA to again embrace what was a desperation tactic.

Spycraft is exotic, at least as portrayed in paperbacks. It’s a coldblooded business that exists to help keep America safe. There are untidy aspects to the profession.

Haspel, who would be the first CIA director in five decades to come into the job after a career in clandestine operations, is also a proven administrator. The Senate should confirm her.

Chicago Tribune