Acceptance of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor
Forum Club Lunch
George Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence
November 6, 1997
Thank you. I am deeply moved to receive the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. When I look at this medal, I will always think of the two people who earned the right for me to wear it, my father and mother.
My father left Greece and entered this country through Ellis Island just before the Great Depression. Starting out with nothing, he made a success of the 20th Century Diner in Queens. He taught me to value hard work, to honor this great country, and to take nothing for granted, least of all family. He is gone now, but the strength of his influence on my life is undiminished.
At the end of World War II, My mother fled Southern Albania on a British submarine to escape communism - never to see her family again. She had the courage to rebuild home and family in this country. She is a constant source of inspiration to me. She is a real hero, in my life.
One of the gifts that my family gave me is perspective. If you look around today at a list of seminars that we offer to the employees of large corporations, you will see usually a title such as "coping with change." The seminar usually addresses the great impact of organizational and technological change.
My parents, and millions of other emigrants from around the globe somehow managed to cope with change without ever attending such a seminar. Change in the things that are at the base of a person's existence - family, home, culture and language. They lost those nearest and dearest to them. They left behind their property and jobs. They lost the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of their birthplace. In the midst of these harrowing changes, they didn't lose themselves, but instead proved that individuals are greater than the sum of all these things. I salute my parents and your parents and all of those who came so far and worked so hard to become American citizens.
At the Central Intelligence Agency, too, this has been a year of looking back with great gratitude to the people who built our heritage. We celebrated our fiftieth anniversary in September. As part of the celebration, we chose 50 people to be honored as, what we call CIA Trailblazers. These were people who made a difference in Agency history and in American history.
The awards ceremony was a very moving event. As each award winner stood, the master of ceremonies read a short list of sanitized, because most of their work was secret, sanitized description of his or her accomplishments. Some of the honorees were very old, going back to OSS days, pre CIA, the end of World War II, they stood with difficulty. Family members came to represent many who had passed away. The list of names included, men and women you may not know but let me just mention a few:
* Scientific and technical visionaries, like Richard Bissell, the man behind the development of the U-2 and the first reconnaissance satellites - systems that revolutionized intelligence collection and made it impossible for the Soviet Union to hide its military capabilities.
* Brilliant analysts, like Sherman Kent, longtime head of the Board of National Estimates, who was instrumental in developing the art of intelligence analysis and setting rigorous standards of professionalism and objectivity.
* And courageous operations officers like a woman named Eloise Page, who started out in World War II as the secretary to Wild Bill Donavan, the head of the Office of Strategic Services and went on to become a CIA case officer, a real spy, the first female chief of station, that CIA ever had and the first woman to reach the senior ranks of the agency.
The people of CIA, the men and women who I work with are quite use to having their mistakes tallied up in the press everyday. I dare say that no one at that ceremony had ever heard such a catalog of our accomplishments read out loud. When the event was over, many in the audience of Agency employees were misty-eyed.
I mention these trailblazers to give you some perspective of the talent, dedication, and commitment of men and women of CIA and in our Intelligence Community. People ask, what motivates these people who work in secret and work in very dangers places and try to protect the United States?
The motivation, quite frankly, is the same today as it has been for 50 years: patriotism and courage anxious to be put to the test, an eagerness to attempt the undoable and the persistence to carry through, willingness to forgo public recognition in an age where media dominates, quite frankly a streak of eccentric genius unparalleled to anywhere in the world.
During the Cold War, the people of the Central Intelligence Agency knew that learning the details of Soviet military capabilities and discovering Soviet intentions was vital to our survival. The information and analysis that they provided helped our leaders avoid a nuclear war.
Today, the information and analysis that we provide is still vital perhaps more vital then ever before to protect the lives of Americans all over the world.
Our work in Bosnia today insures the safety of thousands of men and women in armed forces who served are working against terrorism has saved lives and averted tragedies.
Our work against drug trafficking has made it more difficult for drug kingpins to ply their trade in the United States.
Our work against the proliferation has prevented the shipment of the materials and components of weapons of mass destruction to hostile countries and it has made it more difficult for those countries to hide their weapons programs from international scrutiny, much of what we are doing in Iraq today.
Our work in analyzing and anticipating geopolitical trends has helped our country remain a world leader and given success of American presidents utilatteral event. In sum, our work each and every day is focused on keeping Americans safe, its that simple and also to defend the values that allowed my mother and father to come to this country and build their lives and raise their family. I am proud to be a part of that agency and I think the American people that receive men and women at that Agency whey would be proud as well for what they do each and every day.
Let me also say in closing that I am very proud to receive this award. Nowhere in the world, could the son of a immigrant stand before you as the Director of Central Intelligence. This is simply the greatest country on the face of the earth. While I have achieved a few things in my life none of it would have been possible without my great family. This is really a very emotional and special day for me. I will never forget it. Thank you all very very much .