LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When foreign officials visit the CIA, they sometimes leave with a fine bottle of Kentucky bourbon, newly confirmed CIA Director Gina Haspel said Monday in her first public event in which the former undercover intelligence officer disclosed a few personal details of her life and outlined her priorities for the agency.
Returning to her alma mater at the University of Louisville, Haspel delved into some of the United States' toughest challenges around the world. The spy agency's first female director also lifted the veil behind her life, discussing her affection for Johnny Cash songs, her reading preferences when not poring through CIA briefing books and her most memorable celebrity encounter. That would be Queen Elizabeth, and yes, the queen knew she was a CIA operative.
"The queen is extremely well-briefed," Haspel told the audience.
The 61-year-old native Ashland, Kentucky, also revealed that she promotes one of the bluegrass state's most famous products — bourbon — when meeting top-ranking foreign officials.
"Among my greatest pleasures as director are my relationships with foreign counterparts who come to visit," Haspel said. "And I made it a tradition that when ... foreign heads of service visit Langley, Virginia, and sit with me in my office, I send them away with a bottle of very fine Kentucky bourbon. And we are moving through a number so far."
She revealed Woodford Reserve was the brand most recently given as a parting gift.
While touting her Kentucky roots, Haspel grew up around the world as the daughter of an Air Force serviceman. She worked in Africa, Europe and classified locations around the globe and was tapped as deputy director of the CIA last year. She worked under former CIA director Mike Pompeo until President Donald Trump moved him to secretary of state.
During a question-and-answer session with political commentator Scott Jennings, she listed London and Istanbul as her favorite overseas cities and confessed to enjoying lighter reading fare during spare time. One of her most recent reads was "Hillbilly Elegy," which she enjoyed despite some initial issues with the title.
The Senate confirmed her in May to lead the spy agency. She told the Louisville audience that one of her top priorities is to invest more heavily in collecting intelligence against nation state adversaries as well as Islamic extremists.
"Our efforts against these difficult intelligence gaps have been overshadowed over the years by the intelligence community's justifiable heavy emphasis on counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11," she said. "Groups such as the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida remain squarely in our sights, but we are sharpening our focus on nation state adversaries."
Haspel said she also is working to invest in foreign-language training to make sure CIA officers are attuned to the cultures where they work. Another one of her priorities is to recruit officers of all genders, races and cultures and increase the number of officers stationed overseas.
She said the CIA also is working to beef up counter narcotics efforts abroad to address the nation's opioid crisis.
On North Korea, Haspel said she thinks Pyongyang views its nuclear weapons program as leverage and a key to the survival of its government.
"I don't think that they want to give it up easily," Haspel said shortly before Trump said that a second summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un was likely to occur "quite soon."
Haspel said, however, that she believes the U.S. is in a better place than during North Korea's unprecedented level of testing last year "because of the dialogue we've established between our two leaders."
On China, Haspel said the CIA was monitoring Beijing's global ambitions, including its investments in Africa, Latin America, the Pacific Islands and South Asia.
"They want to be dominant in the Asia-Pacific region, of course, and unfortunately they are working to diminish U.S. influence in order to advance their own goals in the region," she said.
The CIA is concerned about some of the tactics China uses, such as offering poor countries investments and loans that perhaps those countries won't be able to repay. The U.S. wants those countries to be aware of how that might jeopardize their sovereignty, she said.
On Iran, she said the Iranian people are suffering from economic problems because their economy has been mismanaged. She said that as an intelligence officer, she has been surprised at the amount of money Iran is spending to prop up the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, expand its influence in Iraq and equip and train Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are using that equipment to attack U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Haspel's appearance was part of the McConnell Center's speaker series at the University of Louisville. The center is named for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. While introducing her Monday, the Kentucky Republican said Haspel's "unrivaled expertise is helping secure America's position on the world stage."
Haspel's appearance drew protests from a small group of students who chanted in the rain while huddled under umbrellas. They cited her past role supervising a covert detention site in Thailand where terror suspects were waterboarded, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.