Funny. Snarky. Pretty. There are just some of the adjectives bandied about when people talk about Asha Rangappa. A familiar face for most following the tumult that is the nature of America’s politics today, Rangappa, as a CNN national security analyst, stands out in a crowded field of talking heads. Fluent and no-nonsense, she brings her full experience to bear while speaking.
The Indian American analyst was raised in the army town of Hampton, Virginia, where her father, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Karnataka, worked at the base as an anesthesiologist and her mother as an accountant. Rangappa doesn’t have stories to narrate of being singled out as the only Indian in school or what being brown meant at the time. Instead, the high achiever went on to become a cheerleader, participated in beauty pageants, and became an FBI agent.
She got her bachelor’s degree in public and international affairs from Princeton. Interested in the drug trade, she interned at the State Department’s Colombia desk and when she won a Fulbright, Rangappa headed to that country. This stint helped hone her Spanish skills further and was to play a role of significance in her career’s trajectory.
While a student of law at Yale, she applied to the FBI. Arguably, she became the first ever Indian American female recruit. In 2005, at age 31, Rangappa quit the FBI, wed a fellow agent and became the dean of admissions at Yale Law School. She shot to the public’s notice when she reacted to an absurd Donald Trump tweet charging former President Barack Obama of wiretapping him. This was in 2017. CNN read her piece and put her on the air.
Rangappa spoke to India-West in the manner familiar to CNN viewers: briskly and not given to embellishing anything she said.
Today, she handles admissions and teaches national security law at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale. She makes her home in Hamden, Conn., with her two children. Excerpts from her chat with India-West:
Q: How close to reality was the show “Quantico”?
A: (Laughing softly) Ahhh….I couldn’t get through an episode. Mostly because it was nothing like how it really is! I think doctors might feel the same when they watch a show that revolves around hospitals or medicine.
Q: What interested you in counterintelligence? Your stint in Bogota?
A: Actually, I did not decide to be in counterintelligence. I was in the third year of law school, it was 1999, when I knew government service had more appeal for me than legal work. Up until then I had thought I was going to be a prosecutor. That summer I interned at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Baltimore and I met some FBI agents. My application languished for a while as the selection process is a slow and lengthy one. Then, 9/11 happened. Because I had foreign language skills (Spanish) my application was expedited and emphasis was placed on national security.
Q: What was the reaction of your parents when, with an Ivy League education, you chose public service?
A: They thought it was a waste of a degree! They were disappointed and didn’t get it. It was part of their Indian cultural experience where government service was not considered the greatest thing. They came around when they talked to non-Indians and heard people discuss public service as ‘noble’ and realized that prestige is unrelated to salary. They are proud of me now.
Q: What was it like growing up Indian and Hindu in Virginia?
A: I was the only Indian person in school. Kind of exotic! We were vegetarian and spoke a different language. It was a typical immigrant experience. In retrospect I am grateful to not have had too many Indians around as I then had to get along with many. I am proud of being Indian but don’t define myself that way. Neither that nor being a woman defined my going to the FBI.
Q: Can you tell us about a time in your FBI work when America came out looking good?
A: Most things don’t see the light of day. Learning about your adversary and keeping it secret is good espionage! In 2010, the FBI arrested 10 illegal Russians posing as Americans. They had been monitored for 10 years. We were able to swap them for our people.
Q: Robert Mueller was your boss. Can you connect what you know of the man to the recent report?
A: I did not know him personally. He did things by the book and wanted the work to speak for itself. If you read the 9/11 commission report, it reads like a story. They hired professionals so they could convey it and everyone could understand. The Mueller report is thorough but it does not translate anything. He wrote the report not for the average person but for the legal process. It reflects who he is.
Q: Why is the Ukraine situation different from the Russia investigation?
A: The Mueller investigation became so politicized, no matter what the Democrats said they would have been accused of being partisan. Donald Trump has given them a gift. The Ukraine situation has been framed in a way that everyone gets it. People get that it is corrupt.
Q: At the ground level how is counterintelligence work affected when the president mouths off comments on international situations?
A: Mostly the work is pretty apolitical and your case is disconnected from policy decisions. But when Donald Trump says the FBI is corrupt it has an effect. The bread and butter of the job is talking to people and for that public trust is needed. If they start believing what is being said, how will a jury believe the FBI when they testify in court against criminals? It affects everyday cases. In counterintelligence work, there is reliance on getting people to be sources. Bluntly put, we are asking them to commit treason. In exchange for that we promise protection. What he has done, instead, is threaten to declassify documents endangering sources and give our secrets to other governments.
Q: With your training can you tell when our president is lying?
A: With lying there are certain characteristics. This president has certain tell, like the nameless people he invokes. He makes factually incorrect and demonstrably false statements. The problem is he does this with such frequency it’s impossible to keep up and the lie can get halfway around the world becoming someone’s version of the truth.
Q: In the current climate of Ukraine, Turkey, Russia and China, what is it that you fear most will happen to America?
A: That we sell democracy to the highest bidder. With the primary discussion about a foreign government funneling money here in the last election, it is a real issue. In modern times we have been tested twice as a nation. In the Bush vs. Gore case, there were questions if George Bush had won legitimately but we understood there was a process and abided by it. What we have now is the worst situation. The belief that there is corruption can create distrust in the public mind, in the overall process. As a nation we don’t have any chances left. The damage has been great but I think it can be repaired.
Q: Your wish for the upcoming presidential elections?
A: Anyone besides Trump. I don’t care if it is a Republican or a Democrat.
We can get the guy from CVS next door, he would still be better than what we have now.
“Quantico” or “Miss Congeniality”: Miss Congeniality.
Favorite Bollywood movie: Does “Bride and Prejudice” count? Don’t watch Bollywood.
Favorite food: Mexican.
Favorite hobby: Acting
Favorite news anchor: John Berman. Really smart.
Favorite President: Bill Clinton.