The Girl Who Became Spymaster

Gina Walker in 1974 (Credit: Lakenheath American H.S.)

When Gina Haspel, director of the CIA, gave her first public speech last fall at the University of Louisville, she mentioned in passing that she had gone to boarding school in England.

Where? I wondered.

The formative years of spies can illuminate the trajectory of their otherwise shadowy careers.

James Angleton, the legendary chief of counterintelligence from 1954 to 1974, attended Malvern College, an exclusive secondary school in England as young man. He absorbed the class prejudices of the English upper class which blinded him to the fact that his great good friend in British intelligence, Kim Philby, was a Soviet spy.

William Colby, CIA director from 1973 to 1975, was Angleton’s nemesis. He grew up as an itinerant Army brat who attended public high school in Vermont. He became one of the agency’s most democratic (small “d”) directors. Colby dragged the agency, kicking and screaming, into the modern era in which it had to submit to congressional oversight.

Gina Haspel
Gina Haspel, CIA director

Gina Haspel’s education, it seems, had both exclusive and democratic elements.

A friendly source informs me that Haspel attended Lakenheath American High School, located on a U.S. air base northeast of London. Then calling herself Gina Walker, she graduated in 1974.

A co-educational school with 430 students today, Lakenheath American is one of 164 accredited institutions run by the Pentagon’s public school system, known as Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA).

All of the students at Lakenheath are children of U.S. officers, enlisted personnel or support staff. The school is not open to British students.

Another Spy

Lakenheath American, according to alumnus Joe Pinatubo on Facebook, “has produced, half a dozen astronauts, a Miss America, the band, America, countless fighter pilots and another famous CIA agent notoriously known for being the only CIA agent to successfully defect to USSR.”

That would be Edward Howard. a CIA who spied for the Soviet Union and fled there in 1985 when he was on the verge of arrest.

The school’s 1974 yearbook shows that Haspel joined the drama club, and perhaps she learned didn’t like it. “She’s not somebody who I think relishes the spotlight,” a former deputy director, Avril Haines, said recently.

School photographs from the period show a racially mixed student body adorned with the inimitable hairstyles of the 1970s.

Frank Kelley, a Lakenheath alumnus in the 1960s, describes the school as “top notch” academically with mandatory study halls and a “great camaraderie” among the students.

Lakenheath American
Alma mater of a spymaster (Credit: Lakenheath American High School Alumni).

Foreshadowed

Haspel was born in Ashland, Kentucky, the daughter of an Air Force enlisted man. She had lived in many places before landing at Lakenheath. Given rapid rotation of U.S. military, Gina Walker may have only attended the school for her senior year. It’s not clear whether she was a day student or a boarder.

Did Lakenheath foreshadow her controversial career? Her education would have been insulated, demanding and militarized. was liberal, challenging, and, even in a foreign land, all-American.

As a counterterrorism officer, Haspel helped capture suspected terrorists and supervised the torture of at least one of them in 2002. When the Justice Department began to investigate, she advocated destruction of the videotaped evidence of the waterboarding sessions.

As director, Haspel has not shied from stating agency’s positions at odds with the president’s. She broke with Trump on the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. She verified Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

Perhaps Lakenheath was a place where a girl learned she could be as tough as the boys, a place where a young woman learned how to hold her own and make her way in a male-dominated institution. Only Haspel could say for sure.

Upon graduation Gina Cheri Walker returned to the United States to attend University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, where she graduated with honors in 1978. She went to work as a bank teller, tutor, librarian, and paralegal. Along the way, she married and divorced.

In January 1985, she applied for a job at the CIA. Later that year Lakenheath alumnus Edward Howard fled to the Soviet Union, the most embarrassing CIA defection ever. Her rise to spymaster had just begun.

[This article has been corrected based on new information. See: “Gina Haspel’s Classmates Set the Record Straight on Lakenheath High.


13 Replies to “The Girl Who Became Spymaster”

  1. I attended Lakenheath the same time she did. I didn’t know here personally but my older sister did. The comment in your piece “Did Lakenheath foreshadow her controversial career? Her experience would have been insulated, demanding and militarize”,could not be more wrong. The DOD schools in Europe and England at the time generally had rather progressive teachers compared to teachers and staff in many parts of the US today.
    The DOD schools like Lakenheath were rather liberal compared to state side public schools in the south and midwest, and far from insulated or militarized. Some teachers were somewhat conservative and some rather liberal. In fact, one of my liberal Democrat teachers went on to be principle of a DOD school in Germany, then later became head of all European DOD schools till she retired about 10 years ago.
    The play I was in at Lakenheath in 1975 was Inherit the Wind, about the Scopes Monkey Trial. A play that my kids public high school in Gulf Breeze, FL would never allow.

  2. I also went to Lakenheath American H.S. The same time as Gina. She was a senior during my Junior year. I did not know her personally. But as for the school, Bill Paul was right. Nothing military about it except for the location (on an Air Force base) and there was a Jr ROTC program at the school for those that were interested in it. I was a dormitory student Monday thru Friday. We came in from other bases and stayed all week and went home for the weekends. There was no mandatory study hall except for in the dormitories. The study hall was mandatory if you did not make the A-B honorary role for the last semester. Then it was usually from 7-8:30pm on Monday thru Thursday nights. I never saw or heard anything that was military while I attended the school for two years except for the jets that flew over day and night at times. There were no demands from the school other than the same wishes from any other school wanting the best from the kids that attended there, their best effort to do good and graduate.

  3. What an utter load of crock! As an alumni, I can tell you nothing was insulated, demanding or militarize (sic) about LAHS. The school was on base, but most students lived off base, and even the on base housing area wasn’t on the fenced-in portion of the base. Not very conducive to insulation when you live off base in another country. Since the legal drinking age off-base was 16 for beer and wine, you can bet we mingled too! Not really a demanding school either- I skated by rarely doing homework or classwork , while my more studious classmates did more. Militarized? That’s the funniest of them all! Lots of long-haired, cigarette smoking slackers! While most British schools had mandatory uniforms at the time, blue jeans and t-shirts were a staple at Lakenheath. A two minute conversation with anyone who attended would have put such nonsense to bed. You obviously have zero clue about the subject.

  4. I attended Feltwell Jr.High and Lakenheath High School from 1973 to 1976. The DoD education far out ranked the level of teaching in the American public school system. The DoD teachers had to continue their training and update their certifications to continue. I came back to Schertz,Texas public school and Washington DC private Catholic school and realized these schools behind and lower standard than the DoD schools. This was back in the late 70’s. Nothing has changed by today’s standards.

  5. Insulated? Demanding? MILITARIZED??? My school was far from these things! We experienced more in the few years we had there than our counterparts in the US. We had the world view on the telly, every night. We had the pleasure of hearing our aircraft every day, and knowing our parents were there for a reason. We were ordinary kids, in an extraordinary place. And we are still proud of our experiences there.

  6. Bill Paul’s assessment is accurate. I attended Lakenheath High School for three years in the mid 1970s, and it was a marvelous experience in most respects. The hallmark of the school was the superior faculty. In the main, they were talented, highly qualified, caring instructors. Perhaps the fact that they chose to be ex-pats made them more curious and adventuresome than their stateside compatriots.

    They also taught in a traditional liberal fashion; the school wasn’t “militarized” iorbunduky disciplined in any sense, other than it sponsored a small ROTC program. The school and its students were largely isolated from the military operations.

    What made the school and community so very different was how transient and dispersed its students were. Many would come and go within a year or two. And students came from all over East Anglia—Lakenheath, Mildenhall, Feltwell,, Alconbury, Bentwaters, Woodbridge, and others. Despite the best efforts intentions of students, it was inevitably more difficult than in other environments to forge lasting bonds.

    The other principal cultural difference from many stateside communities was the diversity of the student population and the narrowness of the socio-economic band. Everyone had a mother and father, and every father had a job, but no one had money. The sargent’s kid enjoyed the same opportunities as the colonel’s kid. The school also was comprised of sizable African- American, Hispanic, and white populations, with smatterings of South Pacific, Asian, and other students. In this sense, the community was both ideal and well ahead of its time.

    The final defining characteristic is that living in England allowed us to evaluate how we as Americans do things through the prism of another culture. Of course, that’s hardly unique to Lakenheath, but it is a virtue of growing up overseas.

  7. I was quoted; “Frank Kelley, a Lakenheath alumnus in the 1960s, describes the school as “top notch” academically with mandatory study halls and a “great camaraderie” among the students.” I stated we had mandatory study hall for the dorm students.

  8. I was class of ’73. Yes, the dorms had two hour study hall weeknights. Doors open, no lying on beds. 15 minute break to smoke, grab a Coke and Baby Ruth, and chew the fat. Lights out was 10 p.m. But Mr. Morley’s representation of student life is so poorly researched and laughably incorrect — it makes the masthead at the top of the page hilarious!

  9. Are you kidding me…I know you are all teasing or the strict brain washing that they did worked. I was so militaristic and bent back I just don’t know…I was straight as an arrow for fear of being shot by firing squad…Turk Jay and I were such good students and so military they always came to us to solve their many problems with all of you out of hand heathons…
    What a bunch of bull shit that they write these days…glad to see that an alum made something of herself…more than likely her experience at the heath is why she got the position…

  10. Lakenheath was great!! Even though I wanted to go back to “Cali” ASAP!! Maybe the dorms had
    Mandatory study time?
    I believe mostly, the people skills and manners we were taught were priceless!!

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