LOUISVILLE, Ky. — CIA Director Gina Haspel pledged Monday that the spy agency would step up its efforts to stem the flow of opioids into the U.S., saying illegal drugs have killed more Americans than terrorists.
Haspel made the remarks in her first public appearance as director, speaking at the University of Louisville in her native Kentucky, where she earned a degree. She spoke at the McConnell center, named after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who introduced her.
Haspel's mention of drugs, in a state whose residents have experienced a sharp uptick in drug overdoses in recent years, was an unusual note in a careful speech that emphasized general themes articulated by many of her predecessors.
In a friendly question-and-answer session afterward conducted by Scott Jennings, a former McConnell adviser, Haspel was not asked about President Donald Trump's criticism of the intelligence community or his persistent undermining of the CIA's assessment that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump.
Reporters attending the event were kept far away from Haspel and were not granted an opportunity to ask questions.
The CIA has a role in collecting intelligence on the drug trade, running operations targeting Mexican cartels and other transnational groups. The agency has also been regularly accused of looking the other way in its relationships with reputed drug traffickers, including the late Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of the former Afghan president. He was reported to be a CIA asset even as he was alleged to have been involved in Afghanistan's opium trade, one of the largest sources of heroin.
"No foreign challenge has had a more direct impact on American families and communities…than the flow of opioids and other drugs into our country," Haspel said. "That's why the CIA is going to invest more heavily in our counter-narcotics effort abroad to combat this terrible threat, one that has killed far more Americans than any terrorist ever has."
In her prepared remarks, Haspel also said she wants to increase the number of American spies deployed overseas, for example, and step up foreign language training, something also emphasized by her predecessor, Mike Pompeo. The CIA has been criticized by lawmakers and former officers for not having enough officers abroad, and not having many fluent in the languages of America's adversaries, including Pashto, Dari and Arabic.
She said the CIA during her tenure will "invest more heavily in collection against the hardest issues," which is usually code for espionage against hard targets such as North Korea, Iran, Russian and China.
"Our efforts against these difficult intelligence gaps have been overshadowed over the years" by counterterrorism, she said.
The turn from a diminished but still potent terrorism threat has been ongoing. The CIA last year established a new Korean Mission Center dedicated to collecting and analyzing intelligence about one of the world's most difficult spying targets, North Korea.
The agency has been gradually rebuilding what is informally known as "Russia House," which has risen in importance in recent years after years of post-Cold War diminishment. It played a key role in collecting on Russia's 2016 election interference.
Haspel, who is the first female CIA director, also stressed workforce diversity and inclusion, which were priorities of another predecessor, John Brennan.
In the question and answer session, Haspel talked about some of America's adversaries.
China, she said, is "working to diminish us influence in order to advance their own goals in the region" and beyond. "We are concerned by some of the tactics they use offering poor countries investments and loans that perhaps those countries are not going to be able to repay," she said.
"The Iranian people are suffering," even as Iran spends money on "malign activity" to advance its geopolitical interests, she said.
"It's surprising to me as an intelligence officer the amount of money Iran is spending in places like Syria to prop up the Assad regime," she said. "We are watching very closely Iran's malign activity in the region and we'd like to push back against that activity."
On North Korea, Haspel avoided discussing recent intelligence assessments that have contradicted Trump's proclamation that the world no longer has to worry about North Korea's nuclear weapons. She did allude to the contradiction, saying that the North Korean regime views nuclear weapons as the key to its survival and is unlikely to give them up easily.
Nonetheless, she added, "I do think sitting here today in 2018 we're certainly in a better place than we were in 2017 because of the dialogue we've established between our two leaders."
Haspel did not speak in detail about Russia, except when she answered a light-hearted question about her reaction after Vladimir Putin handed Trump a soccer ball during their joint press conference after the Helsinki summit.
"I'm very confident that my brothers over in the Secret Service will have x-rayed that ball," she quipped.
Haspel, a career CIA officer, said she starts each day with a leather-bound binder filled with intelligence collected from around the world, including satellite imagery and communications intercepts.
Several times a week, she said, she goes into the Oval Office to brief the president, along with the director of national intelligence. Haspel did not elaborate on the nature of her relationship with Trump, who once compared CIA officers to Nazis.
Haspel, who spend most of her career as an undercover operations officer, talked about her first assignment in Africa, passing cash to a foreign agent in a remote location in exchange for valuable intelligence.
"That assignment surpassed even the imaginings of a Hollywood screenwriter," she said.
"I was proud of the fact that we captured two major terrorists and conducted a counter-proliferation operation against a nation state bad actor that went our way."