Does America Need the CIA?
George Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence
Gerald R. Ford Library
Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 19, 1997
Thank you very much, President Ford, for that kind introduction. I
am delighted to be with you and the distinguished panelists you have
assembled here today.
You have chosen as your topic the question of whether America still needs the CIA. I think this is the first time I've ever been asked to keynote a conference where the stated objective is deciding whether I should bother coming in to work in the morning.
You will doubtless hear many views on the CIA during this conference. In stating mine, let me break the suspense and say that my answer to your question -- does America still need the CIA -- is an unambiguous "yes". I imagine that is what you would expect to hear from me. But let me be equally clear about why I say it. In a nutshell, it flows from my conviction that the compelling factors behind the creation of the CIA are still present in the world that America must live in today.
The CIA was created by President Truman as an insurance policy against the kind of surprise that caught America off guard in World War II. He was also annoyed by the confused and conflicting nature of the reports landing on his desk from various departments. He wanted someone to make sense of them -- someone who had no policy axe to grind and someone whose exclusive mission was to work for him, and to ensure that he was not taken off guard by dangerous developments overseas.
As I look at the world today, it is clear to me that the potential for dangerous surprise is as great as ever.
That is true whether I look at terrorist groups whose sole purpose is to harm American interests, the biological weapons that Saddam Hussein is still trying to build and to hide in Iraq, or the programs Iran has for building intermediate range missiles and nuclear weapons.
It is true when I look at the ethnic tensions that make life dangerous for US forces in Bosnia, the build up of North Korean forces near the DMZ, or the vast and unfinished transformations underway in countries with large nuclear arsenals, such as Russia and China.
Against that backdrop, we can debate whether or not CIA should exist, but I must tell you that I have no doubt about what the American people expect of us as long as we do. They want us to:
Protect the lives of Americans everywhere;
Protect our men and women in uniform and ensure that they dominate the battlefield whenever they are called and wherever they are deployed.
They want us to protect Americans from threats posed by terrorists, drug traffickers or weapons of mass destruction.
They want intelligence to arm our diplomats with critical insights and foreknowledge that can help them advance American interests and avert conflicts.
They want us to focus not just on threats but also on opportunities -- opportunities to act before danger becomes disaster and opportunities to create circumstances favorable to America's interests.
They want us to track and give advance warning about major geopolitical transformations in the world.
And, they want our reporting and analysis to add real value to what they already know about the toughest problems facing the United States.
To live up to these expectations, we need to do four things very well.
We need to produce outstanding all-source analysis that is timely, prescient, and persuasive.
We need to mount imaginative and sophisticated clandestine human and technical operations in order to get vital information our nation cannot get in any other way.
We need to be vigilant on the counterintelligence front.
And, we need to sharpen CIA's capacity to effectively employ covert action on those occasions when our nation's leaders conclude that an important aim can be achieved through no other means.
These are essentially the 4 core mission areas of our business that I do not believe can be replicated anyplace else in our government.
It is against this backdrop, however, that we must address the key question of your conference because it is an important one. So let's talk about CIA:
What does CIA bring to the table?
Why is it important?
What difference does it make?
Is it an investment worth making?
And perhaps most important, can the American people trust us to carry out our responsibilities in a manner consistent with the values of our democratic society?
If we cannot answer these questions in a compelling and thoughtful way, then we should not exist.
If we cannot prove to the President that we are making progress against the most difficult and enduring threats to our national security, then we should not exist.
If we cannot prove that we will attack these targets with the highest standards of professional integrity, professional performance and dispassionate objectivity, then again we should not exist.
I believe we will meet these tests and, at the end of the day, we in the business of intelligence must have the courage and foresight to understand that this is precisely the kind of dialogue we must have with the American people.
For my part, I do not intend to spend a lot of time discussing the past. As in any endeavor, we must learn from the past and never shy away from confronting mistakes. But as I said in my confirmation hearings, my gaze is fixed on the future, and on the task of creating the best intelligence service for the 21st century. Moreover, focusing on the past assumes that the CIA of yesterday is necessarily going to be the CIA of tomorrow. The fact is, the CIA has been, and must continue to be, an evolving institution. Not only have our targets changed, but the way we go about our work has changed -- in part because of the revolution in information and communications technology, and in part because of the vast amount of information which is now available to all of us.
In addition, our relationship to the rest of the federal government has changed. We are more transparent than we used to be to policymakers within the Executive branch, and more integrated into their decisionmaking. There are detailed procedures for coordinating our activities outside the United States which ensure that the President receives the views of other departments and agencies with legitimate interests in these activities before he approves them.
There also is intense scrutiny from the Congress, not only of our operational activities, but of our analysis as well. I dare say the CIA receives more oversight from the Congress than any other agency in the federal government. This is not a complaint. In fact, this oversight is our most vital and direct link to the American people-a source of strength that separates us from all other countries of the world.
So focusing on today, what do we bring to the table and what difference does it make?
I start with our analysis because, as former Director Dick Helms told our employees a few weeks ago, this is our "core function." As I noted earlier, it is what motivated President Truman to create a Central Intelligence Agency. Truman wanted an Agency that could pull together the relevant information from all available sources bearing upon foreign policy matters, analyze it, and provide him a timely and objective assessment, free of a policy bias.
Does the President still need such a resource at his or her disposal? Having watched the decisionmaking process at the White House myself over the last five years, the answer must be a resounding "yes." Indeed, there are far more sources of information available to a President today --and far more sources of intelligence information -- than could have been imagined in 1946.
If President Truman had trouble tracking events in the age of slow moving paper, imagine coping with the fire hose of information on world events that exists today. In my view, the CIA's classic mission of separating fact from fiction and presenting analysis objectively has become only more important.
If the CIA did not pull it together, sort it out, and present it, who would? Some argue that individual agencies such as State and Defense should do it. But in my view , this would place an unfair burden on them. Our democratic system obliges these agencies to formulate policies on behalf of the President and to defend them in public and before the Congress. That is a heavy responsibility.
We also have to question whether it is realistic to assume that they also can collect and persuasively present information that would often raises questions about the very policies they espouse. That, in fact, is the role that CIA often fills as an independent source of information for the President -- a source that he or she can use to evaluate the policy positions being presented.
Earlier I asked you to consider whether support for the CIA is an investment worth making. That question can't be answered without understanding and appreciating the benefits derived from the clandestine collection of foreign intelligence. Espionage, if you will.
When many people assert we no longer need CIA, they often mean the clandestine part. Well, think about it. The goal of our clandestine collection is very simple: it is to get for the United States vital information it cannot get in any other way.
We are not out to duplicate or compete with open sources of information. Access to countries like North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Libya is denied, and we know that these governments are trying actively to deceive us.
We may be able to discern how well they are doing in developing their capabilities or how they intend to use them by taking pictures from the air or from intercepting their communications. But I can tell you that just as frequently, a human source is the key to understanding their true intentions and capabilities.
Where does that leave us? It leaves us trying to find people on the inside -- inside hostile and repressive regimes, inside drug cartels, inside terrorist groups - people who will help fill in the picture or provide the missing pieces of the puzzle. Seeking this information, puts our people directly in harm's way in some of the world's most dangerous environments. So we must ask seriously, is it worth the effort and the risk entailed in trying to mount such operations? To answer that, you have to consider the magnitude of the harm that hostile states or lawless groups could potentially cause. While few may threaten our national survival, they do clearly threaten American lives.
Indeed, vital interests are often at stake in our dealings with other countries even when those countries do not threaten us with violence or military action. In those cases, we need to know if what they are telling us is true, what they say publicly as well as what they say privately. When there is reason to be skeptical of what other countries are saying to us -- when we wonder what their true intentions are -- we at CIA seek independent verification.
Finally, let me turn to covert action, which we define as action taken abroad to affect political, military, or economic conditions in other countries without the role of the US Government being revealed or becoming apparent.
Of the CIA's major functions, covert action is by far the smallest. It is also the most controversial, both with the public and the Congress. During the 40+ years of the Cold War, Presidents frequently turned to the CIA to undertake operations to thwart the spread of Communism where diplomatic means were ineffective or unavailable, and where military action would have raised the ante to an unacceptable level.
CIA maintains a capability to carry out such operations because every President since Truman has wanted to have this option available. Moreover, Congress has wanted the President to have this option.
We can argue, of course, about how this capability has been used in the past. There have been notable failures and impressive successes. But the fact remains: our leaders have wanted this capability, and they continue to want it.
Now, as I approach the close of my remarks, I'd like to put some questions on the table with the hope that they will give concreteness to your deliberations on the "added value" that intelligence can bring to national policymaking.
Ponder if you will how important it was to the United States to know about the missiles the Soviets put into Cuba in 1962 or to understand accurately the nature of Soviet weaponry as we sought to negotiate landmark arms control agreements.
Skipping thirty years ahead, how important was it in 1992 to accurately understand North Korea's developing nuclear capability as we sought to arrest it?
How important is it, as the US seeks to disrupt the flow of poisonous drugs into our country, to have arrested or captured all of the Cali druglords?
Or how valuable is it to have intelligence that helped defuse a crisis in the Taiwan strait, as was the case in 1996.
Or to accurately portray a lessening of civil strife in Rwanda just last year which made it unnecessary to place US forces at risk there?
What value should we place on intelligence that has helped protect our troops in Bosnia -- so that there have been no casualties to date from hostilities.
And how would world leaders have accurately documented the war crimes that occurred there without the clear intelligence provided to our policymakers and the United Nations.
How important is it to have a CIA that is able to detect those that would steal our technology secrets for economic and military gain, and to protect our critical civil infrastructure against computer terrorism.
The list can go on, but my point is a simple one. To those who say the CIA is just another newsgathering organization or reference service, I have to say that they just don't "get it". Our mission is not to observe, or catalog or comment, it is to warn and protect.
In a world where the US has a significantly smaller military and much less global presence diplomatically than ten years ago, global intelligence reach becomes an even more critical deterrent to bad actors. The CIA gives the President and the Congress an extraordinary unilateral advantage to shape the global environment.
So how important is it to have a CIA? Vitally important.
As CIA celebrated its 50th Anniversary in September, President Clinton honored us by addressing our employees. He said: "As your first customer, I depend upon your unique, accurate intelligence more than ever. Your work informs every foreign policy decision I make, from dealings with leaders in the Middle East to Russia."
"You, better than most, understand that we are not free from risks. We still need dedicated men and women to monitor foreign communications and sound the right alarms. We still need analysts to weave varied strands of data into logical, honest assessments, and, when necessary, into warnings, and we still need sophisticated counterintelligence to keep our secrets in and keep foreign agents out."
I've thought a lot about Harry Truman as I prepared this speech. In fact, I walked by his photo portrait on our ground floor the other day. The inscription he wrote below his photograph reads simply: "To the CIA -- a necessity to the President of the United States -- from one who knows". My fondest hope is that this conference will help the American people come to know what Harry Truman knew.
In closing, I want the American people to know that the world is safer for them because of the CIA.
I want them to know that we have a clear sense of purpose and mission.
I want them to understand that our intelligence activities are conducted in a way that is worthy of their trust, confidence, and continued support.
And I want them to know that the men and women who serve in the Intelligence Community are the very best that this nation has to offer. America should know that these men and women take serious risks every single day to protect US lives and US interests. They do so in silence, without public acclaim, simply for the love of their country.
Thank you very much....and now ....let the debate begin....