Gina Haspel joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the waning days of the Cold War, and for the past three decades she quietly devoted herself to serving on the front lines of the Agency’s mission. She received many honors throughout her career, including the Intelligence Medal of Merit, a Presidential Rank Award, the Donovan Award, and the George H.W. Bush Award for Excellence in Counterterrorism.
Gina was born in Ashland, Kentucky, the oldest of five children. Her father served in the Air Force, having joined at 17, and she grew up on military bases overseas. But Kentucky was always her home away from home. Both her parents grew up there, and after graduating from high school in England, Gina returned home to attend the University of Kentucky, where she studied languages and majored in journalism. She remains an avid fan of Wildcat basketball even though she moved to Louisville her senior year for an internship and graduated with honors from the University of Louisville.
Her parents instilled in her a deep love of country and a commitment to public service. As a junior in high school, Gina came home and told her dad that she had figured out what she wanted to do with her life: she was going to attend West Point. Her dad had to gently break the news to her that West Point did not admit women. The pull of service and adventure, however, stayed with her.
In Search of Adventure
After college, Gina worked as a contractor with the 10th Special Forces Group at Ft. Devens in Massachusetts. She ran the library and foreign language lab. The soldiers there made an impression, especially when it came to their global mission. Some of the soldiers (including a young Mike Vickers, who went on to become Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence), mentioned the CIA to her. Gina came to understand that CIA was a place where women could serve doing clandestine work around the world.
So she studied up on CIA, typed up a letter on her college manual typewriter, and sent it off. On the outside of the envelope she wrote simply, “CIA, Washington, D.C.”
“I wanted to be part of something bigger than just me,” she says. “I think with my dad’s service in the military, I saw that as a natural affinity. I wanted an overseas adventure where I could put my love of foreign languages to use. CIA delivered.”
Gina’s first overseas assignment was as a case officer in Africa. “It was right out of a spy novel. It really didn’t get any better than that.”
Making (Secret) History
Gina Haspel arrived during the closing days of the Cold War and had a front-row seat as the struggle played out. She recalls the initial shock of witnessing grinding poverty, and the excitement of carrying out a clandestine mission amid billboards plastered with Marxist-Leninist slogans. She traveled the region, learned to recruit and handle agents, and survived a coup d’etat along the way.
Later, her facility with languages landed her a job overseas during the first Gulf War, where she worked with other government partners.
Ms. Haspel’s first posting as a Chief of Station soon followed. She ran a small Station in an exotic and tumultuous capital.
The skepticism of some of her male colleagues was obvious, with comments like, “I can’t believe they’re sending you to a place like that.” She quickly proved her doubters wrong.
One night, Ms. Haspel received word that two terrorists linked to an embassy bombing, were coming to the country where she was stationed. She swiftly put together an operation that led to the terrorists’ arrest and imprisonment, along with the seizure of computers that carried details of a terrorist plot. For her work, she received the George H.W. Bush Award for Excellence in Counterterrorism.
With the fight against al-Qa’ida heating up, Ms. Haspel requested a transfer to CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center (CTC). Her first day on the job was September 11, 2001. She walked in amid the commotion, sat down at a computer, and got to work. She didn’t let up for three years, often working seven days a week.
The Road to Leadership
Before being named Deputy Director of CIA in 2017, Gina Haspel held a series of senior jobs, including Chief of Staff to the Deputy Director for Operations, Chief of Station in the capital of a major US ally, and Deputy Director of the National Clandestine Service (now the Directorate of Operations). Through it all, she led with compassion, integrity, discipline, and humor—traits she learned from her Agency mentors.
DDCIA Haspel is a Directorate of Operations veteran, but her assignments over three decades have brought her into close partnerships with officers across the Agency. She speaks with pride about how senior administration officials, from the President down, ask to hear from CIA’s analysts before making a decision. As a former Chief of Station, she calls the work of the Directorate of Support the “gold standard” for the US Government. And she marvels at the accomplishments of the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Digital Innovation.
“Getting to work with these officers is the greatest part of the job,” she says. “They are the silent warriors who work ceaselessly to protect America.”
As the first woman to rise from the ranks to become Deputy Director—and now the first woman to be nominated as CIA Director—DDCIA Haspel says she owes her success to the colleagues she has served with over the years. They include the extraordinary sisterhood in CTC that brought their passion and drive to the fight to bring down al-Qa’ida; the mentors, role models, and close friends who supported and believed in her throughout her career.
Gina Haspel spent much of her life serving her country around the world, but she’s never forgotten where she comes from. Her office has a number of mementos from her time overseas—along with a five-foot-tall poster of Johnny Cash as a symbol of American individualism.