Former CIA spokeswoman talks security, politics intersection

Marie Harf spoke at a Thursday Master’s Tea about her experience tran- sitioning from working at the CIA to Obama for America.
Marie Harf spoke at a Thursday Master’s Tea about her experience tran- sitioning from working at the CIA to Obama for America. Photo by Sara Miller.

Spectators should be skeptical of portrayals of the Central Intelligence Agency in popular television shows such as “Homeland” and “24,” according to former CIA media spokeswoman and Middle East analyst Marie Harf.

Harf, who after leaving the CIA served as the associate policy director for national security at Obama for America and spokeswoman for newly appointed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during his confirmation process, addressed a crowd of roughly 50 students at a Davenport College Master’s Tea on Monday. At the event, Harf detailed specific experiences in her career that have shaped her view that U.S. foreign policy is intertwined with partisan politics.

“There’s a common belief that national security is beyond politics, which we all know is untrue,” Harf said. “Barack Obama was the first candidate who talked politically about national security the way I wanted him to.”

According to Harf, opposition to Hagel during his confirmation was “political theater at its best.” Her frustration with the hearing developed because U.S. senators were questioning Hagel exclusively about his support for Israel instead of other national security issues, she said. If she had a child fighting in Afghanistan, Harf said, she would have been deeply offended that the group of senators neglected to ask sufficient questions about Hagel’s stance on ongoing wars.

Harf said one of the key moments in her career that revealed the intersection of politics and national security was the response to the Benghazi attack. She said she was furious when Mitt Romney’s campaign released a statement accusing Obama of sympathizing with the perpetrators of the 2012 Benghazi attack.

“There are national security issues that go above politics, and you don’t get to say whatever you want just because you’re running a presidential campaign,” Harf said.

Harf told the audience that those hoping to find successful careers in politics need certain “intangibles” in addition to a core set of political and communications skills, such as the ability to deliver blunt feedback to high-profile clients such as Hagel and former CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Harf said after she transitioned from the CIA to her position at Obama for America, she missed having access to classified national security information.

“One of the benefits of working at the CIA is that you have access to the kinds of information you never knew even existed,” Harf said. “But then sometimes I watch shows like ‘24’ and ‘Homeland,’ and it’s funny everything that they think we can do here at the CIA. I wish we could do everything they think we can.”

Audience members said they enjoyed Harf’s informed perspective on major national news, from the capture of Osama bin Laden to the release of the CIA-focused film “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Josh Clapper ’16 said he was inspired by her story of serving the country through her work at the CIA, but his experience as part of Yale’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps made him question some of Harf’s assertions.

“It was interesting to hear how she felt the need to respond after 9/11 and help her country by working for the CIA,” Clapper said. “At the same time, she seemed to take for granted this idea that national security and politics are connected. As someone in ROTC, I’m not sure that’s true. Soldiers don’t get to have a say over national security policy.”

The Master’s Tea was co-sponsored by the Gaddis Smith Seminar Series of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

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