WASHINGTON – As former CIA Director David Petraeus recently told the House Intelligence Committee about the needs of the agency's workforce, one of the committee’s youngest members flashed a knowing smile and began to nod.
Abigail Spanberger spent almost a decade as a CIA operations officer. Now, she’s a third-term Democratic congresswoman from Virginia who was just named to one of two committees that oversees the work of America's spy agencies.
The relationship between Congress and the U.S. intelligence services can be uneasy and is often adversarial. That's especially true now as lawmakers demand answers about classified documents found in the private possession of two presidents and the Biden administration's response to a suspected Chinese spy balloon.
Spanberger, 43, is part of a small group of former intelligence officers to have been elected to Congress. Like others with access to America's top secrets, she will be called on to review intelligence matters in private and explain what she can to fellow lawmakers and the public.
“I know the lingo. I know the language. I know the culture,” Spanberger told The Associated Press in a recent interview in her office. “I hope that helps me do my job better. But I’m sure there will be points of frustration probably for me and for them, frankly speaking.”
She rejects talk of a “deep state” and called on other lawmakers not to promote conspiracy theories about intelligence or the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
“The reality is other countries perceive that and they perceive that in a way that can't be good,” she said. "As a former intelligence officer, I know that countries are watching us. I know because I wrote up those reports — you know, ‘there’s fighting with these two factions and this is what it means.'”
At least two other former CIA officers became members of the committee — Republicans Will Hurd of Texas and Porter Goss of Florida, who was chairman before being named CIA director in 2004 under President George W. Bush.
In an interview, Goss described his experience with overseeing intelligence while in Congress as “frustrating.”
“The tensions are greater than when I was there,” he said, blaming polarization both in Congress and within the spy agencies. "Most of the intelligence community doesn't understand Congress and most of Congress doesn't understand the intelligence community.”
Spanberger's background in intelligence and her moderate politics representing a swing district south and west of Washington will be assets on the committee, Goss and Hurd said.
“She's trustworthy,” said Hurd, who left Congress after the 2020 election. “Even when you don't agree on something, you're able to build trust with her, which is something I always appreciated. She's someone that works hard and is focused on the mission. She doesn't get overwhelmed by stuff.”
The daughter of a nurse and a federal law enforcement officer who also served in the Army, she says she was drawn to national service and the idea of learning new languages and cultures. Spanberger was a postal inspector before joining the CIA in 2006.
As an operations officer, Spanberger worked on cases ranging from counterterrorism to nuclear proliferation. The specifics of her cases remain classified.
Charlotte McWilliams met Spanberger when they were trainee officers before going to the CIA's academy in rural Virginia known as “The Farm.” They were both sent on to overseas postings — Spanberger in Europe, McWilliams in Africa — and bonded over their shared experiences doing clandestine work while becoming new mothers at the same time.
“It was wonderful to have this dear friend who was working hard to kick butt as much as she could, professionally and personally at the same time," McWilliams said in an interview.
After eight years, Spanberger had several choices for her next posting, from Kenya to Costa Rica. She says it was her daughter, then in kindergarten, who asked them if they could move back to Virginia. She decided ultimately to leave the CIA.
A few years later, during the 2016 presidential election, she started to discuss with her friends the possibility of running for office.
She ultimately targeted the congressional seat held by then-Rep. Dave Brat, who had stunned House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the GOP primary four years earlier. Part of what informed her decision, she said, was her experience of “always being the one who believed that somebody somewhere was using the information I was collecting in really a productive way.”
“I said I want to be the one who’s making good, informed decisions for the district,” she said.
But not everyone felt she should run for Congress. When Spanberger went to a Democratic Party event to recruit and train future women candidates, McWilliams says, she was told by officials in Washington and Richmond, Virginia, that she should consider running a smaller race, perhaps for school board.
“She did have to listen to her gut,” McWilliams said. “Even in that place where the whole point is they're experts and they're going to guide you, she had to advocate for herself.”
Spanberger defeated Brat in 2018, winning a hotly contested race in which Republicans questioned her national security credentials and a stint as a substitute teacher at a school funded by the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington. A previous application she submitted for a security clearance was obtained by a conservative political group and shared with the press.
She's since won two more close races and been raised as a possible candidate for Virginia governor. She has cut a centrist profile and criticized more liberal Democrats who have identified themselves as “socialist.”
In the weeks since she was named to the intelligence committee, Spanberger says she's already recognizing some of the names and programs in the classified materials she's receiving. As a case officer, one of her responsibilities was to help inform the briefers who went before Congress.
She intends to push for more support for current and former officers who have reported illnesses consistent with a possible directed energy attack, in what's broadly become known as “Havana syndrome.” The CIA last year deemed it unlikely that Russia or another adversary mounted a campaign to attack American officials with microwaves or other energy. Investigations are ongoing, as are stepped-up efforts to identify and compensate people who have reported cases.
Marc Polymeropoulos is a fellow former operations officer who retired after suffering symptoms consistent with Havana syndrome. He says Spanberger brings an insider's knowledge of the challenges faced by the CIA and other agencies, from recruitment and retention to whether U.S. intelligence agencies are developing enough Chinese speakers and evolving how they does business in a world of advanced technologies and the ubiquitous surveillance of cellphones.
He says Spanberger shouldn't be assumed to reflexively defend the agencies because she worked for one.
“If you want to be a plumber, you've got to know about plumbing,” he said. “She'll know how to fix things.”