Ex-CIA Director Talks Intelligence, Terrorism at FPE Event

The invite-only discussion was the first visit to Wheaton by a CIA director since 1989.

In front of Armerding Hall on the night of Sept. 15, around 7 p.m., a young man was playing the hammer dulcimer and two Conservatory students were lying on the grass, conducting rhythms in the air. Inside, parents were picking up their grade school kids from music lessons. Meanwhile, in the first-floor recital hall, unbeknownst to passersby and nearly everyone else on campus, former CIA Director Gina Haspel spoke to a group of about 100 people, including undergrad political science and international relations students, current and former faculty. 

The event, which was publicized only through an invitation to political science and international relations majors, Intelligence Studies class members and students from the FPE’s summer trip, marked the third time that a former CIA director has spoken at Wheaton College. It is also the first time an official from the Trump cabinet has visited since Dan Coats ’65, who served as the director of national intelligence in the Trump administration, participated in an event at Wheaton in 2019. 

Haspel’s visit was sponsored by the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics and Economics (FPE). As part of her agreement to speak, Haspel asked that she not be quoted or recorded. For security reasons, David Iglesias, who directs FPE and facilitated the event, kept the identity of the night’s guest secret from students and faculty until Haspel arrived at his afternoon Intelligence Studies class, where she spoke to students for two hours about careers in intelligence gathering.

Former CIA Director Gina Haspel spoke to Wheaton students about her career in the CIA. Photo from David Iglesias.

Sophomore international relations major Bella Kephart, who heard Haspel speak in the Intelligence Studies class, said that the discussion in class was geared towards students’ interests in working for the government, while the evening event was more about Haspel’s place in the CIA during pivotal decades. 

Students inside and outside of that class registered for the evening event in advance and arrived at a packed recital hall alongside well-dressed alumni and former faculty, including emeritus professor of political science Mark Amstutz, who once served as a reserve naval attaché before becoming a professor. 

CIA officials do not discuss particular assignments in public, but the agency released a timeline of Haspel’s career during her confirmation process in 2018. Haspel, 65, joined the CIA in 1985, working her way up through undercover positions in Ethiopia, Central Eurasia and Turkey throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. She was a station chief—the highest-ranking CIA officer in any country—in Azerbaijan before eventually taking on senior leadership roles in the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) after 9/11. 

At the CTC she met Timothy Buch ’85 ’87, who moderated the event in Armerding. The two worked together on establishing the National Counterterrorism Center, which produces analytic assessments of terrorist threats using information from the whole of the U.S. federal government. Buch, who is now an adjunct professor of international relations, later worked under Haspel while she was a station chief in Europe.

Sitting across from her in twin sleek turquoise chairs, Buch introduced Haspel by running through her resume and calling her a peer and a dear friend. Haspel, calm and commanding at 5’7,” began the discussion by saying that since planning to visit Wheaton, she has discovered more Wheaton alumni in her own circles than she thought she knew. She worked closely with Coats when he was DNI. 

She also said she had learned during the day that Todd Beamer ’91 graduated from Wheaton, and took a moment at the beginning of the talk to pay respect to his memory. Haspel said that every CIA officer knows Beamer’s name because of his actions on 9/11, when he led passengers to retake and reroute a hijacked plane by crashing it into a field in Pennsylvania instead of its intended target in Washington. Haspel said that CIA officers all look to him as a representative of the agency’s ideals about toughness and service. 

Haspel was the first female director of the CIA, and she noted that she joined the agency at a time when it was run by men. For decades after the agency’s founding in 1947, women from accomplished educational backgrounds or even with achievements as U.S. clandestine operatives were relegated to secretarial positions or paid significantly less than their male counterparts. Haspel said that this has changed, and that the agency is now a “level playing field.” In fact, at one point during her tenure as director, all five directorates were led by women.

Haspel was appointed CIA director in 2018, after President Trump tapped Mike Pompeo, who had previously led the agency, to be secretary of state. Her confirmation was not without controversy. During Haspel’s hearing on Capitol Hill, senators including the late John McCain asked about her involvement in the post-9/11 counterterrorism operations after an investigation by the New York Times raised questions about the interrogation of prisoners, which some argued was torture, at a CIA black site in Thailand where she was base chief in 2002. In the end, Haspel was confirmed in a bipartisan vote that included six Democrats. 

Haspel addressed these accusations during her talk Thursday night. She argued that the CIA’s tactics prevented follow-up attacks after 9/11. She also said that the methods used during this counterterrorism effort were legal at the time and therefore within her own moral compass as well as the agency’s standards of operation. Since Congress changed the law in 2015, the CIA no longer uses such tactics. 

Haspel directed the CIA from 2018 to 2021. President Joe Biden nominated William Burns as her replacement.

Many students came into the event with little to no knowledge of Haspel’s background and resume, while others had a vague impression of the controversy surrounding her nomination but not the specifics. 

“I recalled that the director of the CIA wasn’t viewed very positively due to some controversies, namely over potential human rights abuses – but I didn’t make that connection immediately,” said senior political science major Jonny Watt. He said he attended the event on the recommendation of Iglesias and international relations professor Michael McKoy, both of whom Watt respects.

Lydia Kang, senior international relations major, said she had only a basic understanding of the CIA before the event. Freshman international relations major Marko Vuletic said he didn’t know “a single thing” about Haspel until Thursday night. 

Students had the chance to ask questions of Haspel directly during the afternoon class and online during the evening talk. Students asked about Haspel’s toughest decisions made during her tenure, dealing with conspiracy theories and the CIA hiring process, among other things. 

“Haspel didn’t seem to answer many questions, but that’s not surprising,” said Watt. Both Kang and Vuletic found Haspel’s answers on current national security developments particularly relevant to their US Foreign Policy and Comparative Politics courses.

This was the third visit to Wheaton by a CIA director. The first, in 1985, was then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who had been the agency’s director from 1976-77. Four years later, then-Professor Amstudz brought William Colby, director from 1973-76, to speak on campus. 

This year’s event came about as a result of Iglesias and Buch deciding to co-teach the inaugural Intelligence Studies class, and a subsequent dinner between Buch and Haspel in Washington. Haspel, who now works as a consultant at prominent DC law firm King and Spalding, rarely does public speaking events. But Buch, who has been guest lecturing at Wheaton in international relations courses since 2004, told her about the work ethic and integrity of Wheaton students and their growing interest in intelligence. 

“I said to her, ‘I think you’re going to be impressed with what you see.’ And she said, ‘You know what, I’ll do it,’” Buch said. In her day spent on Wheaton’s campus, Buch added, Haspel was “blown away” by students’ questions and the mission of Wheaton, as she observed it. 

Kephart, the intelligence studies student, said she enjoyed hearing about Haspel’s experience and the types of issues she dealt with in such a secretive agency like the CIA. “It’s a really opaque organization, and no one really knows what goes on inside,” said Kephart. “So just to be able to put a face to that was really cool.”

A security detail scouted out Armerding Hall earlier in the week and accompanied Haspel around campus along with Buch throughout the day. Recording and photography were prohibited inside the event. 

About 115 people were present, including Dean of Student Engagement Steve Ivester and Special Assistant to the President Marilee Melvin. 

“I was proud to say we have people like this who do come to Wheaton,” said Mason Laney, senior political science major. “Wheaton is still part of the [world’s] narrative, and Wheaton students have a lot to contribute to it.”

Helen Huiskes

Helen Huiskes

Helen Huiskes is a junior English Writing major with a minor in International Relations. A native of Portland, Ore., she enjoys learning languages, pasta and over-analyzing TV shows.

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