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Remarks for Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel - McConnell Center at the University of Louisville

September 26, 2018


On September 24, 2018, CIA Director Gina Haspel returned to her home state of Kentucky to speak at the University of Louisville, as part of the McConnell Center’s Distinguished Speaker Series. Director Haspel shared her perspective on leading the Agency and outlined her six strategic priorities.


A transcript of the Director’s speech is below.

It’s a rare pleasure to be back home in Kentucky, and truly a privilege to be back on this campus. I want to thank Senator McConnell and President Bendapudi for the gracious invitation, and I want to thank all of you for being here today and for taking an interest in our nation’s security and in the role CIA plays in protecting our country.

In the interest of full disclosure, and as Senator McConnell mentioned, I should tell you that my college years weren’t spent entirely in Louisville. Like Senator McConnell, I spent some of my time in college at a well-known university over in central Kentucky. But after finishing my junior year, the bright lights of this beautiful city beckoned, and I finished my degree as a Cardinal. Proudly so.

Because I am a proud Kentuckian and a proud U of L graduate, it is very special for me to be with you all today. I look forward to speaking with Scott Jennings a little later. Before I do, I’d like to offer some brief remarks about the remarkable organization I am honored to lead: the Central Intelligence Agency.

Over the summer, we hosted a special guest at Langley. Daniel Craig was kind enough to visit CIA Headquarters to talk about playing James Bond and how it compares to the real world of espionage.

And yes—he parked his red Aston Martin right in front of our main lobby. Which raises a couple of big contrasts between real-world espionage and the Hollywood version.

First, if you’re an undercover officer endeavoring not to be noticed, a red Aston Martin probably is not the best way to go. I’d go with a beige Hyundai.

Second, the average CIA officer can only dream of parking right in front of the main lobby. I can’t even do that!

But whatever the real CIA lacks in Hollywood glamour, it more than makes up for it in job satisfaction. Service at CIA is the opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself—to serve your country in a meaningful and compelling way. As one of my favorite former Directors, George Tenet, used to say, CIA doesn’t do easy. The hard jobs come to us. CIA officers take on the toughest assignments—at some risk—for the sake of our nation.

From my first days in the nation’s Clandestine Service and my first overseas assignment in Africa, the meaning of our work was clear to me. My training prepared me well for a moonless night in a remote and desolate place, when I conducted my first meeting with a foreign agent.

He passed me intelligence of great value to our government, and I passed him a little extra money for the men he led. It was the beginning of an adventure I could only have dreamed of as a kid. Now that I think about it, that night was the stuff of movies.

It’s fair to say that CIA back then in the late 80s and 90s was a thoroughly male-dominated organization. But I was lucky to have bosses who were willing to take a chance on me.

One of them was a tough, old-school mandarin who picked me to serve as Chief of Station at a small but crucial frontier post. After my appointment was announced, a couple of guys who had been in the running for the job weren’t very pleased. One even told me to my face that he couldn’t believe, couldn’t understand why I—a woman—was chosen to go to a place like that.

While I could have done without the many long nights I spent sleeping on the floor of that small station, that assignment surpassed even the imaginings of a Hollywood screenwriter. I was proud of the fact that we captured two major terrorists, and conducted a counterproliferation operation against a nation state bad actor that went our way.

I managed to do well as an operations officer, and I did what I could to help bring down some of the barriers that I had faced. I’m also proud of a lot of other women who have risen through the ranks, especially since the 9/11 attacks. The Agency really has become a better place to work for all its officers over the years, even though, like others, we still have a way to go.

Strategic Priorities

So it should come as no surprise that one of my top priorities since becoming Director has been to champion diversity and inclusion at CIA. Our global mission at CIA demands that we recruit and retain America’s best and brightest, regardless of gender, race, or cultural background. And I want every officer to have equal opportunities to succeed.

Another strategic priority is to invest more heavily in collecting against the hardest issues. Our efforts against these difficult intelligence gaps have been overshadowed over the years by the Intelligence Community’s justifiably heavy emphasis on counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11. Groups such as the so-called Islamic State and al-Qa‘ida remain squarely in our sights, but we are sharpening our focus on nation-state adversaries.

Closely related to the renewed emphasis on raising our investment against the most strategic intelligence gaps is our push to steadily increase the number of officers stationed overseas. That’s where our mission—as a foreign intelligence agency—lies, and having a larger foreign footprint allows for a more robust posture.

We’re also investing in foreign-language excellence as a core attribute for our officers. We’re strengthening our language training to ensure that our people are more capable and better attuned to the cultures in which they operate.

By the way, I recall very fondly first-class French literature classes at University of Louisville.

And we’re building stronger partnerships at CIA—not only with our sister agencies across the IC, but with our foreign counterparts as well. Teamwork is the only effective way of dealing with the range of complex threats we face across the globe, and CIA is working more closely than ever with our allies across the world.

Finally, no foreign challenge has had a more direct and devastating impact on American families and communities—including right here in Kentucky—than the flow of opioids and other drugs into our country. That’s why CIA is going to invest more heavily in our counternarcotics effort abroad to combat this terrible threat—one that has killed far more Americans than any terrorist group ever has.

CIA and its Role in National Security

In the lobby of our Headquarters building in Langley, Virginia, there’s an inscription from the Book of John: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

It’s a reference to CIA’s core mission: collecting the most accurate and timely intelligence to help policymakers protect our country and advance American interests around the world.

Finding the truth means operating against despotic governments and terrorist groups that fiercely and violently guard their secrets. It’s complicated, risky work.

But as I said, we don’t do easy. The hard jobs come to CIA.

Within the Intelligence Community, CIA is the keeper of the human intelligence mission. Technical forms of collection are vital, but a good human source is unique and can deliver decisive intelligence on our adversaries’ secrets—even their intent.

CIA is also the lead agency for all-source intelligence analysis—the assessments drafted by our analysts based on classified and open-source information. Much of the President’s Daily Brief consists of CIA collection and analysis.

And very often, the President relies on us to act as America’s first line of defense. We’re “first in”—collecting intelligence, moving ahead of the military, going where others can’t go, and doing things that no one else can. These are the sort of activities that fall under the heading of covert action.

Our work requires secrecy, and secrecy in turn requires a profound degree of trust from the American people. Nothing is more important to those of us at CIA than our obligation to earn the trust of our fellow citizens.

That’s why our Agency abides by and embraces an oversight structure that includes the Congressional intelligence committees, the FISA court, and our own independent Inspector General. There’s not another major intelligence agency in the world subject to oversight authority as comprehensive as our own, but that’s as it should be.

It’s what makes us accountable to the open society we serve. It’s what makes us an American intelligence service.

Ethos of CIA

In carrying out every aspect of our work, CIA officers are guided by a professional ethos that is the sum of our abiding principles, core values, and highest aspirations. These include service, integrity, excellence, courage, teamwork, and stewardship.

Sacrifice, too, is an inescapable part of our mission. One hundred and twenty-nine men and women at CIA have died in the line of duty since our founding in 1947.

My first boss in the field was killed in 1993 after volunteering for an assignment in a very dangerous and unstable place. He was brilliant, witty, and courageous—a lovely man who always wore cowboy boots and spoke excellent Russian and Turkish.

He was an inspiration to me and to everyone who served with him, and I think of him frequently.

Of the 129 heroes represented by a star on our Memorial Wall at our Headquarters, 42 have perished since September 11th, 2001. The vast majority of them were lost fighting the long war against al-Qa‘ida.

They include Johnny Micheal Spann, a brave former Marine and the first American to die in the line of duty in Afghanistan. They also include a dear friend of mine, a devoted wife and mother of three who was one of our greatest al-Qa‘ida experts. She was utterly determined to pursue the terrorists who attacked our country—even if it meant putting herself in harm’s way.

People often ask CIA Directors what keeps them up at night. Between rogue WMD programs, cyber threats, terrorist organizations, great power rivalries, and other global threats, there’s bound to be more than a single reason I’m losing sleep on any given night. But I’d like to share with you a story I keep in mind when things get tough.

I served in Africa early in my career, and one day a group of us—largely diplomats—set out to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Our guide was a wonderful man, a diplomat himself, who had been born at the base of the mountain. His approach was simple—three days up, two days down.

As we made our way up the mountain, we were passed by a group of security officials from a third country who clearly hadn’t done their homework. They were in their prime but overconfident and ascending far too quickly. In the end, they had to be stretchered off the mountain.

But our guide prepared us well for the journey. As we moved up in altitude, he would say again and again in Swahili: “po’le, po’le”—slowly, slowly. Following his advice, many of us made it to the summit safely.

The view was unforgettable. I will never forget the leadership example of our guide. While others tried to make their way up with brute force, he showed us there is no substitute for patience and expertise.

“Po’le, po’le.” I try to remember those words when faced with a difficult challenge. They remind me that in every pursuit, the tough climbs take patience, courage, creativity, and relentless determination.

CIA officers have those qualities in abundance. I couldn’t be prouder to lead them.

And for those of you who aspire to serve your country, take it from your fellow Kentuckian: Prepare yourself with a good education—and don’t do easy. Raise your hand when the hard jobs come to you.

That alone will take you most of the way to the top.

Thank you all very much.

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