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The CIA is returning its central focus to nation-state rivals, director says

At the University of Louisville Sept. 24, CIA Director Gina Haspel said the agency was adopting a focus on nations that challenge or threaten the United States. (Video: McConnell Center at the University of Louisville)

LOUISVILLE — The Central Intelligence Agency is rededicating itself to the kinds of missions that defined the agency for most of its seven-decade existence, focusing on foreign nations that challenge or threaten the United States, its director said here Monday.

In her first public remarks since being confirmed in May, Gina Haspel laid out her plan to return the agency to the work that was at the heart of its espionage mission before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which transformed the CIA into a paramilitary organization that conducted lethal operations against terrorists around the word.  

Haspel’s remarks amounted to public affirmation of a transformation that has been underway for the past few years as the CIA attempts to shift from a consuming focus on terrorism. 

Counterterrorism has not only absorbed much of the agency’s attention over the past 17 years but mired it in controversies over detention and interrogation. That history dogged Haspel during her confirmation process as senators and others focused on her role in the torture and brutal treatment of detainees. 

Undercover to under scrutiny: Gina Haspel to face Senate grilling

The CIA’s spies and analysts will “invest more heavily in collection against the hardest issues,” Haspel said. She didn’t name specific countries, but the agency has set up new centers to collect intelligence on Iran and North Korea and has been focusing its assets on major powers such as Russia and China, according to intelligence officials.

“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,” Haspel said. “Groups such as the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda remain squarely in our sights, but we are sharpening our focus on nation-state rivals.”

Haspel, a native of Kentucky, spoke Monday at her alma mater, the University of Louisville. She took no questions from the audience and did not speak to reporters. 

Haspel shed little new light on the state of negotiations with North Korea to suspend its development of nuclear weapons, a challenge in which she has played a leading role with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who preceded her as head of the CIA. 

But Haspel predicted that convincing North Korea to give up weapons would not be easy. 

“The North Koreans view their capability as leverage, and I don’t think that they want to give it up easily,” Haspel said in a question-and-answer session with Scott Jennings, a former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell introduced Haspel before her remarks. 

Haspel’s assessment on North Korea was slightly at odds with the sunnier picture painted by President Trump, who has said that the success of negotiations depends largely on whether he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can personally arrive at some agreement. 

Haspel didn’t contradict that idea and said that the direct contact had done some good. 

“We’re certainly in a better place than we were in 2017 because of the dialogue we’ve established between our two leaders,” she said. 

Haspel remarked briefly on the challenges posed by other major adversaries. She said the CIA is closely monitoring China’s efforts to expand its influence in developing nations in Latin America, Africa and South Asia, including by offering loans to poor countries that they cannot repay. 

China seeks “to be the dominant force” in the Asia-Pacific region, Haspel said, and is “working to diminish U.S. influence.” 

On Iran, Haspel said the regime and its proxies were the “most destabilizing” force in the region, an assessment aligned with CIA directors from previous administrations. Haspel’s predecessor set up a new mission center headed by an experienced counterterrorism officer to strengthen the CIA’s espionage operations against Iran. 

Haspel praised the Iranian people and said their government was spending huge amounts of money propping up the regime in Syria or rebels in Yemen while Iran’s own economy crumbles. 

Haspel also addressed the opioid epidemic and addiction, which she said the CIA would help combat by renewing counternarcotics efforts overseas to stem the flow of drugs into the United States.

“No foreign challenge has 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,” she said. 

Drug addiction has “killed far more Americans than any terrorist group ever has,” Haspel said. Her home state has been hit especially hard by the epidemic; in 2016, Kentucky had 989 deaths related to opioid overdoses, placing it among the 10 states with the most such deaths, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

Haspel also said that recruiting and retaining officers with foreign language expertise would be among her priorities, particularly recruits who speak Arabic, Chinese, Farsi and Turkish. And she placed particular emphasis on the agency’s efforts to recruit a more diverse workforce. 

“Our global mission demands that we recruit and retain the best and the brightest regardless of gender, race or cultural background,” Haspel said. Noting that when she joined the agency 35 years ago it was a “male-dominated” organization, she said she had risen in the ranks because of “bosses who were willing to take a chance on me.” 

“I managed to do well as an operations officer, and I did what I could to help bring down barriers that I had faced,” Haspel said. “I’m also proud of a lot of other women who have risen through the ranks, especially since the 9/11 attacks.”