Gina Haspel Makes First Public Appearance as CIA Director

CIA Director Gina Haspel addresses the audience as part of the McConnell Center Distinguished Speaker Series at the University of Louisville, on Sept. 24, 2018, in Louisville, Kentucky.
Timothy D. Easley / AP

CIA Director Gina Haspel pledged Monday that the spy agency would step up its efforts to stem the flow of opioids into the U.S., saying illegal drugs have killed more Americans than terrorists.

Haspel made the remarks in her first public appearance as director, speaking at the University of Louisville in her native Kentucky, where she earned a degree. She spoke at the McConnell center, named after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who introduced her.

Haspel’s mention of drugs, in a state whose residents have experienced a sharp uptick in drug overdoses in recent years, was an unusual note in a careful speech that emphasized general themes articulated by many of her predecessors.

In a friendly question-and-answer session afterward conducted by Scott Jennings, a former McConnell adviser, Haspel was not asked about President Donald Trump’s criticism of the intelligence community or his persistent undermining of the CIA’s assessment that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump.

Reporters attending the event were kept far away from Haspel and were not granted an opportunity to ask questions.

The CIA has a role in collecting intelligence on the drug trade, running operations targeting Mexican cartels and other transnational groups. The agency has also been regularly accused of looking the other way in its relationships with reputed drug traffickers, including the late Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of the former Afghan president. He was reported to be a CIA asset even as he was alleged to have been involved in Afghanistan’s opium trade, one of the largest sources of heroin.

“No foreign challenge has had a more direct impact on American families and communities…than the flow of opioids and other drugs into our country,” Haspel said. “That’s why the CIA is going to invest more heavily in our counter-narcotics effort abroad to combat this terrible threat, one that has killed far more Americans than any terrorist ever has.”

In her prepared remarks, Haspel also said she wants to increase the number of American spies deployed overseas, for example, and step up foreign language training, something also emphasized by her predecessor, Mike Pompeo. The CIA has been criticized by lawmakers and former officers for not having enough officers abroad, and not having many fluent in the languages of America’s adversaries, including Pashto, Dari and Arabic.

She said the CIA during her tenure will “invest more heavily in collection against the hardest issues,” which is usually code for espionage against hard targets such as North Korea, Iran, Russian and China.

“Our efforts against these difficult intelligence gaps have been overshadowed over the years” by counterterrorism, she said.

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SOURCE: NBC News, Ken Dilanian