CIA Director Gina Haspel spoke Monday morning alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at the University of Louisville, where they both earned undergraduate degrees.
The appearance marked her first public comments since becoming director in May. She spoke about her years of clandestine service, commitment to diversity and priorities as leader of the intelligence agency.
Haspel, a Kentucky native born in the eastern town of Ashland, outlined a few areas of focus in prepared remarks.
She referred to intelligence gaps created by the agency’s attention to counter-terrorism efforts since the Sept. 11 attacks, which she said was justifiable.
“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 adversaries,” Haspel said.
She said the CIA is pushing to raise the number of officers it stations abroad, which “allows for a more robust posture.” The agency is also working to foster foreign language expertise by providing stronger language training, which Haspel said will help CIA staff better understand the cultures where they work.
And the agency will also invest more in counter-narcotics efforts, Haspel said, though she did not detail how.
“No foreign challenge has had 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.
In an on-stage, sit-down interview following the speech, Haspel answered questions from public relations executive and conservative political commentator Scott Jennings on topics ranging from the North Korean nuclear threat to her favorite bourbon and whether she plays smartphone games.
On the former, Haspel described 2017 as a difficult year based on the number and type of nuclear tests performed by North Korea.
“I believe the North Koreans view their capability as leverage and I don’t think that they want to give it up easily,” she said. “There does seem to be a suggestion that Kim Jong-Un, Chairman Kim, understands and want to take steps to improve the economic plight of the North Korean people.”
Haspel and her questioner made no mention of the controversy raised around of her confirmation related to her role in the agency’s waterboarding program.
The event, hosted by the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, is available to stream here.