LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Recalling her rise through male-dominated ranks, CIA Director Gina Haspel said she wants to champion diversity at the spy agency as she returned to her alma mater Monday for a public event where she outlined her priorities for the agency and disclosed a few personal details of her life.
Haspel delved into some of the United States’ toughest challenges around the world during wide-ranging comments at the University of Louisville. The CIA’s first female director also lifted the veil behind her life, listing some of her favorite Johnny Cash songs, her reading preferences when not poring through CIA briefings and her most memorable celebrity encounter. That would be Queen Elizabeth, and yes, the queen knew she was a CIA operative.
“The queen is extremely well-briefed,” Haspel told the audience.
She flashed a sense of humor, noting a real-life undercover officer would be better suited in a “beige Hyundai” than a flashy sports car as portrayed in movies. And the native of Ashland, Kentucky, revealed her fondness for Kentucky bourbon as a gift to visiting foreign officials.
“Among my greatest pleasures as director are my relationships with foreign counterparts who come to visit,” Haspel said. “And I made it a tradition that when … foreign heads of service visit Langley, Virginia, and sit with me in my office, I send them away with a bottle of very fine Kentucky bourbon. And we are moving through a number so far.”
While touting her Kentucky roots, Haspel grew up around the world as the daughter of an Air Force serviceman. She worked in Africa, Europe and classified locations around the globe and was tapped as deputy director of the CIA last year. She worked under former CIA director Mike Pompeo until President Donald Trump moved him to secretary of state.
Haspel recalled moments that helped put her career on its trajectory — her first meeting with a foreign agent who passed along intelligence during a rendezvous in a “remote and desolate place,” and the nights spent sleeping on the floor while station chief in a small “frontier post.”
The CIA was male-dominated then, she said, but she was lucky to have bosses willing to take a chance on her.
Through the years, the CIA has “become a better place to work” for all its officers, but the agency still “has a way to go,” Haspel said. One of her priorities is to champion diversity in recruiting officers of all genders, races and cultures.
“Our global mission at CIA demands that we recruit and retain America’s best and brightest, regardless of gender, race or cultural background,” she said. “And I want every officer to have equal opportunities to succeed.”
The Senate confirmed her in May to lead the spy agency. She told the Louisville audience that another top priority is to invest more heavily in collecting intelligence against nation state adversaries as well as Islamic extremists.
“Our efforts against these difficult intelligence gaps have been overshadowed over the years by the intelligence community’s justifiable heavy emphasis on counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11,” she said. “Groups such as the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida remain squarely in our sights, but we are sharpening our focus on nation state adversaries.”
Haspel said she also is working to invest in foreign-language training to make sure CIA officers are attuned to the cultures where they work. Another one of her priorities is to increase the number of officers stationed overseas.
She said the CIA also is working to beef up counter narcotics efforts abroad to address the nation’s opioid crisis.
During a question-and-answer session, she listed London and Istanbul as her favorite overseas cities and confessed to enjoying lighter reading fare during spare time. One of her most recent reads was “Hillbilly Elegy.”
She was asked about problem spots around the world. On North Korea, Haspel said she thinks Pyongyang views its nuclear weapons program as leverage and a key to the survival of its government.
“I don’t think that they want to give it up easily,” Haspel said shortly before Trump said that a second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was likely to occur “quite soon.”
Haspel said, however, that she believes the U.S. is in a better place than during North Korea’s unprecedented level of testing last year “because of the dialogue we’ve established between our two leaders.”
On China, Haspel said the CIA was monitoring Beijing’s global ambitions, including its investments in Africa, Latin America, the Pacific Islands and South Asia.
“They want to be dominant in the Asia-Pacific region, of course, and unfortunately they are working to diminish U.S. influence in order to advance their own goals in the region,” she said.
On Iran, she said the Iranian people are suffering from economic problems because their economy has been mismanaged. She said she has been surprised at the amount of money Iran is spending to prop up the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and expand its influence in Iraq.
Haspel’s appearance was part of the McConnell Center’s speaker series at UofL. The center is named for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who on Monday said Haspel’s “unrivaled expertise is helping secure America’s position on the world stage.”
Haspel’s appearance drew protests from a small group of students who chanted in the rain while huddled under umbrellas. They cited her past role supervising a covert detention site in Thailand where terror suspects were waterboarded, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.