CIA director Gina Haspel said Thursday that President Trump had "shown a lot of wisdom" in his outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, though she sidestepped reports that emerged late Wednesday suggesting Kim observed and wanted a more "mature" interlocutor than Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
"I am very proud that we've been able to support this administration's effort to engage the North Koreans in a dialogue — and that's not to downplay the difficulty of that or the obstacles or challenges associated with it," Haspel said, speaking before a small audience of students, faculty and press at a scheduled event at Auburn University.
"But after years of failure I do think that President Trump has shown a lot of wisdom in reaching out his hand to the North Korean leader and to suggest to them that there might be a different future for the North Korean people."
She added that the CIA was "working hard to support the president, the national security team and Secretary Pompeo as they try and establish a regular and positive dialogue with the North Koreans."
But in what appeared to be the first overtly provocative step taken by Kim since the failure of the Hanoi summit in February, North Korean press announced Kim's observation of a "new-type tactical guided weapon" the evening before Haspel spoke. U.S. officials appear for the moment to have ruled out a ballistic missile test, and say the testing looks more likely to have been a new kind of artillery or tank round.
In an added blow to what have become fitful negotiations with the North, a separate report from Pyongyang later quoted a senior official from North Korea's foreign ministry who accused Secretary Pompeo of "self-indulgence" and demanded he be replaced with someone "more careful and mature."
A State Department spokesperson told CBS News the U.S. "remains ready to engage North Korea in a constructive negotiation."
Haspel, whose appearance Thursday marked the second time she has made substantive public remarks since her confirmation nearly a year ago, delivered a speech before engaging in a question-and-answer session moderated by the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess.
The event was interrupted twice by unidentified protesters who objected to the CIA's post-9/11 "enhanced interrogation" program and Haspel's known involvement in it. "Tell them who you tortured!" yelled one protester, who also called Haspel a "decrepit human being."
Haspel stood stone-faced behind a podium while the young man was removed from the auditorium. Then she said flatly, "I'll continue," and resumed her remarks.
In large part, the themes of her speech were reminiscent of one she delivered during a similarly structured public appearance at the University of Louisville last September.
"Our Russia and Iran investment has been strengthened after years of falling behind our justifiably heavy emphasis on counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11," she said. "Groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda remain squarely in our sights, but we're honing our focus and resources on nation-state rivals."
She reissued a commitment to combating the enduring opioid crisis in the United States. "[N]o foreign challenge has had a more direct and devastating impact on American families and communities than the flow of opioids and other drugs into our country," she said.
"We're taking concrete steps to increase our contribution to the president's whole-of-government approach in tackling this epidemic."
While appealing repeatedly to students present in the audience to consider a career in intelligence, she said the agency had just seen its "best recruiting year in a decade," and reiterated a commitment to bolstering diversity and inclusion. She announced a forthcoming CIA Instagram account and quipped that meal options at the agency's headquarters had improved with the hiring of a new food service.
She also noted that women now lead the operations, analysis and science and technology directorates at the CIA, whose general counsel and director of diversity and inclusion are also women.
"You might sense a conspiracy here," she joked.
Though audience members were asked to submit written questions to the moderator, Haspel was not confronted by any questions about the release, that morning, of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russia's active measures ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Nor was she asked about Attorney General Bill Barr's stated intention to scrutinize the intelligence community's role in what he said in recent congressional testimony amounted to "spying" on the Trump campaign.
Also strikingly absent from Haspel's remarks was any mention of China, which has been singled out by numerous administration, law enforcement and intelligence officials for the long-term strategic and immediate counterintelligence threats it continues to pose to the United States. The Trump administration has been locked for several months in negotiations aimed at putting an end to a protracted trade war with Beijing.
At her Louisville appearance in September, Haspel explicitly criticized the "tactics" she said China employed to mire poorer countries in unpayable debt and criticized Beijing for "working to diminish U.S. influence."
On Thursday, when asked the typically standard question of what she considered to be the greatest threat to the United States, Haspel said different intelligence agencies might identify different priorities — the NSA might cite cyberattacks, she said, while the CIA might focus on international rivalries.
"But as I thought about coming here today one of the things I wanted to make clear," she said, "I don't believe those threats are existential for the United States."
"They're serious, and we have to work against them, but our intelligence agencies, our military personnel, our law enforcement colleagues, are all working very professionally," Haspel said.
"And I have such fundamental confidence in the American system and in the American people that I sometimes worry about the emphasis on the word 'threat.'"