Protesters stood outside the building where CIA Director Gina Haspel spoke. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

When CIA Director Gina Haspel returned to her alma mater, the University of Louisville, Monday to speak as a part of the McConnell Center’s Distinguished Speakers Series, the talk and a Q-and-A were steered toward light-hearted topics and avoided more controversial subjects, such as her work as head of a CIA black site.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell drew laughs when he told the sold-out crowd that something shocking came out during Haspel’s confirmation process earlier this year — despite being a UofL graduate, Haspel is a University of Kentucky fan.

Inside, the crowd was welcoming, greeting both Haspel and UofL President Neeli Bendapudi with standing ovations and laughing at McConnell’s jokes and moderator Scott Jennings’ rapid-fire Kentucky questions.

Haspel, an Ashland, Ky. native, said her favorite book is “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance. The last bourbon she gave as a gift? Woodford Reserve. 

It is “truly a privilege” to be back on UofL’s campus, Haspel said.

Outside, a small group of people huddled under umbrellas in the pouring rain to protest Haspel’s visit. The group of students and professors led chants calling Haspel a war criminal and held signs saying things like “prosecute the torturers,” referencing her role in the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program.

Prisoners at a Haspel-led CIA black site in Thailand faced waterboarding and other harsh interrogations. Tapes of the interrogations were subsequently destroyed, national news outlets reported.

CIA Director Gina Haspel

Her more than 30-year career, McConnell said, reads like it is “straight out of a spy thriller.” 

“Most of her life had been spent in the shadows,” McConnell said of Haspel’s time as a clandestine agent with the CIA before her appointment as director.

Haspel was confirmed in May after a contentious 54-to-45 Senate vote. With it, she became the first female and first Kentuckian CIA director.

The torture topic never came up in the hourlong talk, which instead focused on her career, current events and the role UofL played in putting her on her career path.

Haspel credited her experience with foreign languages, including classes at UofL, with helping her begin her career. She said she gets the most compliments on her Turkish but also speaks Russian.  

“It’s deeply rewarding to know their careers started right here,” Bendapudi said of Haspel and McConnell, who also graduated from UofL. 

In front of a mostly student-filled crowd, Haspel outlined what she looks for in potential CIA recruits. Dedication to service and strong communication skills topped the list, she said. Critical language experience doesn’t hurt either. 

Like other organizations, the CIA hires accountants, lawyers and scientists. To be a part of the CIA is to be a part of something “bigger than yourself,” Haspel said

Before the event, some professors criticized the decision to bring Haspel to campus. One tweeted at Bendapudi, asking why she would sit on stage with an “unrepentant torturer.” 

Haspel ought not to be welcome at all at UofL, let alone honored in this way. She is a war criminal,” professor Avery Kolers tweeted.

Olivia Krauth
Krauth reports on education in Louisville, including JCPS, the University of Louisville and state policy.Before joining Insider Louisville, she covered technology and business as a reporter at TechRepublic. She also spent time on the data team at the Austin American-Statesman in Texas as a Dow Jones intern.Krauth graduated from UofL, where she was an award-winning editor of The Louisville Cardinal and obtained a degree in investigative journalism with a minor in Russian studies.Email Olivia at [email protected]