In January, when CIA Director Gina Haspel and other intelligence agency leaders testified before Congress that Iran was not trying to build nuclear weapons, President Trump ridiculed his spy chiefs as “extremely passive and naive” and suggested that they “go back to school.”
But last month, as Trump and his aides made the public case for a military strike on Iran, which Trump later called off, the president trumpeted intelligence, including video footage, that showed Iranian forces planting mines on oil tankers and moving missiles around the Persian Gulf in what officials suggested were preparations to attack U.S. personnel.
Trump’s embrace of the very agencies he has disdained struck current and former officials as consistent with his treatment of the U.S. intelligence community 2 1 / 2 years into his presidency: Trump deploys information that supports his view of the world, and junks and publicly demeans what doesn’t.
Haspel, who has spent her 34-year career at the CIA working almost entirely undercover, now stands as a bulwark between Trump and the intelligence community. This week, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, who had been the public face of American espionage, tendered his resignation, capping a tumultuous tenure that often put him at odds with the president publicly and privately. To replace Coats, the president said he would nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), a three-term congressman and prominent Trump supporter who lacks significant national security experience.
Trump’s relationship with the CIA and its peers is uniquely volatile: He has questioned the accuracy of intelligence on Russia, implied he would put an end to clandestine operations against North Korea and even accused his own spies of spying on him.
On Tuesday, Trump told reporters that he wants his next intelligence director to corral what he sees as an unruly, hostile bureaucracy. “We need somebody strong that can really rein it in,” he said. “Because as I think you’ve all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They’ve run amok.”
The director of national intelligence has legal authorities over budgets and personnel. But in practice, CIA director has always been a more influential post with greater clout. Trump envisions a more aggressive national intelligence director, and one who is loyal to him politically.
Absorbing the fulminations of a president who derided U.S. intelligence agencies even before he took office is not the position Haspel envisioned for herself, said people who have known her for years. But so far, she is succeeding.
The key to her success? Keeping a low profile.
Haspel has often joined Coats and a career senior intelligence official in the Oval Office for the president’s intelligence briefings, semi-regular sessions that bear little resemblance to the deep dives on pressing issues that earlier presidents have taken. According to officials familiar with the briefings, Haspel and company boil them down to a few key points that they think Trump absolutely needs to know. Trump favors pictures and graphics over text. And Haspel is careful not to contradict the president or argue with him about his opinions.
Unlike her predecessor, now-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Haspel spends much of her time at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., running the agency day-to-day and representing it at the White House rather than cultivating a personal relationship with Trump. That has won her points with career staffers who were relieved that Trump picked one of their own, and not another politician, when Pompeo departed for a more prominent perch at the State Department.
This report is based on interviews with 26 current and former officials who have worked with Haspel in the United States, particularly when she served in senior management roles at headquarters, and in London, where Haspel served two tours as the CIA’s top representative — chief of station — a plum post that is usually the steppingstone to the agency’s highest ranks. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank or discuss sensitive operations, and to avoid causing friction between Haspel and the president.
Haspel, who declined to be interviewed for this profile, has never given an on-the-record interview to a reporter, unlike most former CIA directors, who were also known to meet informally with journalists to discuss world events with the understanding that they would not be directly quoted.
She has given few public speeches as director. One, when she accepted a lifetime achievement award at a gala dinner in Washington before a ballroom of several hundred guests, was deemed off-the-record by the event’s host, the OSS Society, which preserves the historical legacy of the agency’s World War II-era predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services.
Haspel has also made public remarks at two universities, including the University of Louisville, her alma mater, but they were brief, anodyne speeches about her broad priorities at the CIA, and she took no questions from journalists who attended. (She did respond to written questions from students at the second event, at Auburn University.)
Haspel can come across as wooden. She speaks in a monotone, but offstage, she is demonstrably at ease and evinces a dry wit.
Haspel has concluded that there is no benefit to answering questions that would probably put her at odds with Trump — on Iran, North Korea, Russia and more — and is loath to revisit her fateful role in the CIA’s notorious detention and interrogation program. Haspel was instrumental in the destruction of nearly 100 videotapes of interrogations, including waterboarding, at a secret facility in Thailand that she had once overseen. Her decision later threatened to derail her confirmation to head the CIA.
After becoming director in May 2018, Haspel, who majored in journalism, confided to a colleague that there were only two outcomes from giving an interview to a reporter: “Bad and terrible.”
But it is also not in Haspel’s nature or training to seek the spotlight, said people who have known and worked with her. As a clandestine officer, her professional success depended upon secrecy. She spent her early years recruiting spies in foreign capitals. She served overseas four times as a chief of station. As her career progressed, she helped run the CIA’s global fight against al-Qaeda.
Of the 18 jobs the CIA has publicly confirmed that Haspel held, only two were overt: director and deputy director, the No. 2 slot, which she held for one year before Trump nominated her to run the agency.
“She possesses two key qualities you need in that job — judgment and discretion,” said John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director.
And Haspel’s peers said she is smart to keep her head down.
“Your first responsibility as director is to protect your organization,” a former senior intelligence official said. “With a normal president, there is tremendous upside for the director to be out publicly, talking about what the agency is doing and being transparent with the American people. But this is not a normal president.”
Haspel’s instinct to subsume herself into her work is in keeping with her three decades at the agency, current and former officials said.
“She’s unburdened by ego and self-promotion,” said Michael Sulick, who ran the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, now the Directorate of Operations, where Haspel spent most of her career.
Several of Haspel’s colleagues remarked, unprompted, about her lack of ego, which they cautioned not to mistake for a lack of ambition and confidence.
“I’d go into her office and there was a big poster of Johnny Cash” — Haspel is a lifelong fan — “but I didn’t see any photos of herself,” said Henry “Hank” Crumpton, who hired Haspel as his deputy when he ran the CIA’s national resources division, which gathers intelligence in the United States by talking to people who have traveled overseas.
“She understands who she is, and she takes her ego out of her decision-making,” he said. “In the CIA, that’s pretty unusual.”
It is also unusual for someone with Haspel’s credentials to become the CIA director. The job rarely goes to career officers, and presidents frequently tap members of Congress or longtime political operators, particularly ones they consider allies. Haspel’s appointment was unprecedented in two respects: She is the first career clandestine officer to ascend to the top job, and the first woman.
“She was very focused. Disciplined. People told me, ‘You won’t become friends with her,’ ” said a former British intelligence official who worked closely with Haspel when she served in London.
“She wasn’t all business. But she was mostly business,” said another former British intelligence official. Haspel was not the type to head to the pub with co-workers, he said. “Gina was not a beer drinker.”
But what she lacked in after-hours sociability she made up for with deep professional ties to the upper echelon of the British security establishment. “She had access to anyone in our service,” the former British intelligence official said.
It is rare for an officer to serve twice as station chief in the same place, particularly in as coveted a post as London. Haspel has become the CIA’s linchpin to the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, its most important foreign partner. Her British colleagues say that she knows them so well — warts and all — that they call her the “honorary U.K. desk officer.”
That bond has helped Haspel stabilize the transatlantic alliance, which Trump has assailed in speeches and tweets. In addition to threatening that he might pull out of NATO, Trump has accused the United Kingdom of conspiring with American intelligence to spy on his presidential campaign.
Those accusations have rattled the British government at the highest levels. The United States and the United Kingdom share more intelligence with each other than with any other nation. And they are party to what officials describe as an inviolable agreement not to spy on each other or three other key, English-speaking allies — Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
In 2017, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer cited Fox News pundit Andrew Napolitano’s claim that three intelligence sources had told him the Obama administration used Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, to spy on Trump and avoid “American fingerprints.” GCHQ took the extraordinary step of issuing a public statement, saying the claims were “utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”
The British intended to put the White House on notice that they would not countenance such accusations, but Trump has repeated them, most recently in April, a few days after the president’s state visit to Britain was announced.
This month, the relationship was further strained when Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, resigned after the leak of diplomatic cables in which he assessed Trump as “insecure” and called his administration “inept” and “dysfunctional.” Trump called Darroch, a career diplomat who is admired by senior administration and White House officials, a “pompous fool.”
Haspel, though, has earned the trust of the British.
“We’re hard-assed operators just like the Americans,” said the former British official. “The people who score the most marks with us are straight and honest and can get access for us in Washington.”
While Haspel served in London, “the Americans gave us intelligence that let us stop terrorist plots that would have killed British people,” he continued. “You knew from talking to her, the thing that she cared most about was protecting the U.S. And the second thing she cared most about was protecting the British.”
Haspel had been on her second tour in London when she was tapped to be Pompeo’s deputy. She had five days to pack her belongings and get back to Washington, a British official who knows her said.
At word that Haspel would be deputy director, sighs of relief were issued in Washington and London. Many saw her as a welcome buffer, against not only Trump but also, potentially, Pompeo. The Kansas congressman had no background in intelligence and was best known for his hard-line opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and his tenure on the House Select Committee on Benghazi, with even some fellow Republicans feeling he went too far in blaming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally for the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya.
American and British officials worried that Trump may have sent Pompeo, a political loyalist, to punish the agency for what he perceived as a “deep state” effort to undermine him during the campaign.
But Haspel quickly formed a working relationship with Pompeo that suited both their priorities and mostly shielded the CIA, current and former officials said. While Pompeo managed his relationship with the president — often spending chunks of his day at the White House and delivering the daily briefing — Haspel effectively ran the CIA. She was a constant presence in the hallways at Langley and offered a kind of reassurance to employees, many of whom were stunned when Trump, in his first speech as president, stood in front of a hallowed wall honoring CIA officers killed in the line of duty and boasted about the size of the crowds at his inauguration.
Pompeo also earned the appreciation of some of Haspel’s longtime colleagues in the operations directorate, the former senior U.S. intelligence official said. “He didn’t require a lot of ‘Mother, may I?’ for operations.” Pompeo told career officers that he trusted them to do their jobs and promised to support their efforts.
But others faulted Pompeo for acting more as a political ally to the president, the former senior official said, particularly when he implied that Iran was not abiding by an international agreement to halt development of nuclear weapons.
“When Pompeo went out and spoke publicly, he was doing everything he could to put no space between himself and the president, even to the point of saying things that were inconsistent with what the CIA believed,” the former senior official said.
When Haspel testified in January that Iran was in compliance, it signaled to the agency that she would speak truth to power, current and former officials said.
In early July, Iran announced that it had exceeded the limit on how much nuclear fuel it is allowed to possess, as it had threatened to do after the United States withdrew from the agreement last year.
When Trump tapped Pompeo to be secretary of state, he consulted his ally on the best person to replace him. For Pompeo, Haspel was the obvious choice, people with knowledge of his recommendation said.
For many career intelligence officers, Haspel promised a return to fundamentals.
“I think the biggest fear when Trump was elected was the agency would be used in a political manner,” said one former U.S. intelligence official who, like Haspel, worked on operations and served overseas. “Gina understands: We don’t run policy. We advise.”
But Haspel has nonetheless been drawn into policy decisions, walking a thin line between advice and advocacy.
In March of last year, the United States joined nearly two dozen countries in expelling more than 100 Russian spies and diplomats in response to the poisoning in the small English city of Salisbury of a former Russian intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, who became a spy for the British.
British and U.S. officials had worked together and attributed the attack to Russian operatives, who used a military-grade nerve agent called Novichok.
British intelligence officials were devastated by the attack on one of their agents on British soil and furious that the Russians had spread the lethal substance indiscriminately. At least four others were sickened by the poison; one person died.
In meetings with Trump and other top administration officials, Haspel told the president that if he expelled a large number of Russians from the United States, Moscow would read it as a “strong” response to the attack on the United States’ closest ally, according to officials familiar with the discussions.
Her prediction was based on experience. Haspel had worked in the CIA’s “Russia House,” the center of operations against the Soviet Union. She also speaks Russian and is an expert in the tradecraft Moscow uses.
Haspel did not tell the president to take a strong action, but her use of the word appeared to have influenced Trump, officials said. Ultimately, the president threw out 60 Russians, the largest expulsion in U.S. history, and the response made clear that the Americans stood with Britain.
“I don’t think her decision to join with the British on Skripal was a function of some Anglophilia,” the former British official said. “It was a calculation.”
Last fall, Haspel again found herself at the center of an international crisis, when Saudi Arabian agents killed and dismembered Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Haspel flew to Ankara and listened to an audio recording of the murder obtained from a Turkish listening device, The Post reported. In November, the CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had probably ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
Trump was quick to dispute the CIA’s findings publicly, and some CIA officials were furious about the president’s defense of the Saudi leader, according to people familiar with the matter.
Haspel briefed lawmakers in a closed-door session. She never took issue with the president or tried to correct his statements, officials said. But after her remarks, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), then the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, described the briefing as the “clearest” intelligence presentation he had heard in 12 years in the Senate. Republican and Democratic lawmakers said there was no doubt Mohammed was responsible and called on the administration to alter its policy toward Saudi Arabia, including by abandoning support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen against Iranian-backed militants.
Since Haspel became director, the CIA has taken steps to raise its public profile and drum up recruitment. The agency started an Instagram account, aimed particularly at educating younger people about its work. Haspel’s original CIA badge photo was featured in the first post, along with a Turkish evil-eye charm that came from her office. (Early in her career, Haspel learned Turkish and served for three years as a case officer in Ankara.)
In her speech in Louisville in September, her first major address as director, Haspel said that the CIA would rededicate itself to the core mission of gathering intelligence on nations that threaten U.S. interests — with Russia, China, North Korea and Iran high on the list.
But current and former officials said they do not expect big changes while Haspel is in charge, and that suits many of them just fine. Her most important legacy may be protecting the agency from a mercurial president who continues to use the intelligence community as a political foil.
“I don’t think you’ll see any innovation from the agency while Trump is president,” said a former CIA analyst who is in touch with colleagues at headquarters. “They’ll be holding on to what’s sacred and doing what they can to make it through unscathed.”