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DCI's Presentation of General Donovan's Medals

Remarks by the Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet
at the Presentation of General Donovan's
Medals and War Room Maps

November 5, 1998

Thanks very much for the Donovan Foundation's priceless gifts to this Agency. You can be sure that we will preserve and display the General's maps and decorations with the greatest care and with pride. And we will treasure them forever.

We are especially honored today that so many members of the General's family could join us today. I hope that all of you see this as a trip home. For so long as there are American intelligence officers, there will be a special place in our hearts for William J. Donovan and his family. We too are the General's descendants and we think of you as part of us.

We are also honored today to have with us so many of the General's comrades in arms--veterans of the OSS. For the men and women of the CIA, the successes and sacrifices of General Donovan and the pioneering men and women of the OSS are something to be honored always.

We strive each day to build upon the legacy that you and your colleagues left us. Your work in wartime laid the foundation for the establishment of the CIA in peacetime. And by doing so, you helped our country serve the cause of peace and freedom in the world for nearly six decades.

Much, of course, has changed since General Donovan's OSS days. Today, the General's maps would look very different. And the fact that there would be no Nazi Germany or Soviet Union is, we can proudly say, due in significant measure to the work of the OSS and the CIA.

At the close of this turbulent century and at the start of a new millennium, the United States faces new challenges and new threats. And our intelligence mission has evolved to meet them.

But no matter how much the world and our targets have changed, General Donovan's vision of intelligence work remains fresh and inspirational to us. His boldness, foresight, and ability to marshal the best talent and apply it creatively are still the qualities that make for success in the intelligence business to this very day.

When the General was an infantry officer back in 1918, his unit came under heavy artillery fire, stalling its advance. He rallied his men onward as the shells rained down, declaring ``it's better ahead than it is here!'' Extraordinary bravery. For his bold leadership, he won the Medal of Honor--which you can see before you--our nation's highest award for valor.

General Donovan was the ultimate man of action yet he was as bold in thought as he was in deed. In the depths of the Cold War, when the cruel division of Europe between the free and the subjugated seemed irreversible, Donovan spoke confidently of the day when the Iron Curtain would be lifted and the peoples of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe would participate fully in the community of nations.

Today, we would call the General's prescience a low-probability, high-impact scenario! But, in all seriousness, it's only one example of General Donovan's foresight. He didn't just report events or timidly accept the status quo. He stayed ahead of events, grasped the trends. And he worked to change the situation on the ground to our strategic advantage.

The General recognized sooner than most and more clearly than anyone America's need for a central intelligence organization. He made that call before Pearl Harbor, the tragedy that underscored for everyone else that the dangers of a piecemeal approach to intelligence would cause a catastrophe for our country. Starting from the premise--as valid today as ever--that good intelligence work saves lives, he fashioned the OSS, America's first full-scale foreign intelligence service.

A born leader, General Donovan understood motivation and teamwork. He recruited the best from every walk of life--scholars, mechanics, scientists, writers, attorneys, acrobats, and even a forger or two. Taking a page from his own military career, he drove his team hard in training. He knew that superior mental and physical preparation meant the difference between life and death in the field.

General Donovan valued each and every contribution to the OSS mission. He would remind his telephone operators that he couldn't work without them. He sat down with our Allies and convinced them to collaborate on plans and tactics. He often met with OSS men and women just before they went overseas. He would talk about the importance of their assignments and--ever the frontline soldier--how much he wished he could join them wherever danger was.

The General didn't shy away from risk. He knew that in the intelligence business, we can only minimize risk. We cannot eliminate it. And we must never fear it. Donovan embraced risk. And he and his OSS team tackled the hardest targets of their time--including Hitler's heavy water and missile programs--with legendary dash and ingenuity.

Like all the best intelligence officers, General Donovan put a premium on creativity. Whether the idea was for a sabotage operation or a new weapon, he was always ready to listen. His drive and enthusiasm were inspiring, and the men and women of the OSS came through time and time again for the country. His officers delivered critical intelligence from much of the globe. And the wizards of the OSS lab produced everything from silenced, flashless pistols to ``Casey Jones,'' an explosive that could be easily attached to railroad cars--a boon to resistance fighters and Allied sabotage teams.

The General gave such importance to unconventional thinking that he was willing to tolerate a few wild ideas among the good ones, provided there was a mechanism to assess the difference. One proposal brought to him was a plan to release bats--actual flying bats--armed with delayed-fuse incendiaries, over the cities of Japan--which were then built largely of wood. That one never got beyond the testing stage. But it did get tested.

The story makes a point: It is essential for an intelligence organization to encourage the novel and the unorthodox. The danger is not in hearing out an unusual idea, it is in catering to conventional wisdom.

It was, of course, General Donovan who best summed up the OSS. After President Truman decided to dissolve the OSS in the fall of 1945, the General gathered his staff together one last time. In a classic understatement, Donovan proudly called the OSS ``an unusual experiment.'' It was, he said, an attempt ``to determine whether a group of Americans constituting a cross-section of racial origins, of abilities, temperaments, and talents, could risk an encounter with long-established and well-trained enemy organizations.''

General Donovan proved that it could be done. We here also know that it could not have been done without him. The General's ``unusual experiment'' was a stunning success.

Boldness and foresight. Teamwork and creativity. These were the qualities that defined General Donovan and the OSS. And they are the qualities that define good intelligence work today.

The men and women of the CIA must be bold and smart and agile to operate successfully in a world that changes as quickly as ours. And the global threats that we face require that we marshal talents across disciplines and across agencies and work closely with our Allies around the world.

The gifts our Agency received this morning are tangible links to a past of glory and achievement. They will remind us always that excellence in our intelligence work is the highest tribute we can ever pay to General Donovan and to the heroes of the OSS that he so magnificently led.

Historical Document
Posted: Apr 03, 2007 08:56 PM
Last Updated: Jun 20, 2008 08:02 AM