CIA Director Haspel is quietly working hard (and smart) to keep us safe from national security threats

Quietly, without receiving much attention in the news media, CIA Director Gina Haspel is working to increase the number of intelligence officers stationed abroad to provide America more of a vital commodity known in the trade as HUMINT (human intelligence).

This is a smart move by a talented CIA director – someone I worked with for many years before I retired as a senior CIA officer in 2017.

You won’t hear much about Haspel, a 33-year CIA veteran, in the news. But you can bet she will be dealing with some of the most important foreign challenges America faces around the world in the years ahead, serving as a steady hand protecting our nation.

Haspel, who took over the top job at the CIA in May, made a rare public speech recently at the University of Louisville, her alma mater, in her home state of Kentucky.

In her speech, Haspel emphasized the crucial importance of HUMINT.

“Within the Intelligence Community, CIA is the keeper of the human intelligence mission,” Haspel said, according to her written remarks posted on the CIA’s website. “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.”

The director said she is pushing “to steadily increase the number of (intelligence) 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.”

Haspel served for over three decades in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations – the arm of the agency responsible for collecting HUMINT. So she understands the extraordinarily consequential impact of HUMINT from both firsthand experience as a line officer and years of senior management overseas, as well as at CIA headquarters.

Haspel’s focus on the CIA’s core mission stands in contrast to her predecessor, CIA Director John Brennan. He assiduously avoided the term “espionage” and appeared uncomfortable with HUMINT, which entails recruiting spies and stealing secrets.

In November 2015, Brennan told NPR that “we don’t steal secrets. We uncover. We discover. We reveal. We obtain. We solicit – all of that.”

When Brennan made these remarks, which diverged entirely from his predecessors, I was serving as a CIA station chief in South Asia. Intelligence officers serving under my command were incredulous that our director would show such disdain for our work in defense of our country.

The Brennan comment reminded me of a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson in 1929 when he abolished the department’s code-breaking agency, which successfully intercepted telegraph messages of foreign governments and cracked secret codes to learn what those governments were up to.

“Gentlemen do not read each others’ mail,” Stimson said. 

Brennan’s statement sounded almost as shocking. Fortunately, it had absolutely no impact on our work.

I told my team that we would be best served by focusing on our combat zone mission, because the U.S. military, State Department and the president needed our intelligence to make the best possible decisions to advance our national security.

We understood – in spite of Brennan’s deliberate obfuscation – that the foreign spies in our employ were in fact “stealing secrets” on our behalf. And we were well aware that other nations were engaging in the same kind of spying operations against the U.S.

Spying is a necessity today for nations around the globe. And the CIA needs to deploy its best operational tradecraft to ensure foreigners spying for us are not caught breaking the laws of their home countries. If they are, they would face prison – or worse.

America arguably is facing more complex and serious threats to our national security today than at any time in our history. Intelligence is critical to understanding these threats and to presenting policymakers with options for dealing with challenges: Iran; nuclear proliferation; cybersecurity; Russia; China; North Korea; and transnational terrorism.

Rightly focused on addressing today’s most serious challenges, the CIA under Haspel’s leadership also must devote its considerable talent to meeting tomorrow’s challenges.

This process begins with HUMINT collected overseas under the most challenging circumstances.

During her speech at Louisville, Haspel recalled her first operational act for the CIA – obtaining intelligence from a key source in Africa.

There was no question Haspel’s source had stolen the secrets. But our national security benefited greatly as a result.

Haspel also spoke at Louisville about the CIA workforce. She emphasized that “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." 

The art of intelligence is about fostering an inclusive environment, which means actively incorporating different ideas, viewpoints, and backgrounds to understand these threats and present policymakers with the best options for dealing with them. The most enlightened leaders, like Haspel, embrace this approach and swivel their judgments based on the input they actively seek.

Haspel clearly recognizes our country’s unique and rich melting pot is an exceptional competitive advantage and force multiplier for our intelligence community. Socially and ethnically diverse groups enhance creativity, innovation, and performance.

Haspel’s focus on HUMINT and her dedication to the intelligence officers charged with its collection reflect how effectively she is setting a course with a strategy for managing the CIA’s talented workforce and challenging mission.

When I served at the CIA with Haspel, I witnessed her integrity, intellectual honesty, and substantive expertise. She was relentlessly focused on ensuring our officers received the best training in operational tradecraft and foreign languages.

Having served so many years in the shadows, Haspel may find it transformational to deliver a speech like the one she gave at her alma mater. But doing so lifts the veil on her commander’s intent for CIA’s mission and workforce, which should be as much an inspiration to our citizens and allies as it is an admonition to our enemies.