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DCI Remarks at the Oscar Iden Lecture

Remarks of the Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet
at the Oscar Iden Lecture, Georgetown University
(as delivered)

October 18, 1999

My thanks to the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. My appreciation also to the Iden family, whose generous gift to Georgetown made this evening possible.


It’s great to be back at Georgetown. It was here that I learned to respect the integrity of facts, to separate fact from fiction, to try to think searchingly and systematically about the world in all its complexity, and to view the advancement of knowledge as a way to serve the greater good. And what I learned at Georgetown I have carried with me throughout my personal and professional life, right into the CIA.

When Cas Yost asked me to address you, I saw it as an excellent and enjoyable chance to discuss the vital importance of intelligence with educators and especially with the rising generation of international affairs students who will be grappling with the national security challenges of the next century.

Intelligence Helps Us Shape the Future

When you leave here tonight, there are two things that I want you to remember. First: On the eve of a new century, our country has unprecedented opportunities to advance American ideals and interests. And second: US Intelligence can be the vital enabler of those opportunities if we infuse it with the right ethos and support it by sustained investments.

Today, America finds itself with overwhelming military pre-eminence, unparalleled political reach and immense economic power. We must not let this historic moment slip through our fingers. In my view, the Intelligence Community’s highest calling is to help policy makers identify opportunities to advance democracy and peace in the world. The more we can act, the less we need to react. In the end, being alert to historic opportunities may do as much – if not more -- to secure our freedoms and ensure our well being in the next century as combating the many threats that we face.

The United States has the opportunity:

  • To help consolidate democracy in former totalitarian states.

  • To help bring a comprehensive and lasting peace to the Middle East.

  • To stabilize struggling regions by helping more nations prosper in the global economy.

  • By helping our country seize these historic opportunities, we should ask what we might save in American lives and treasure – in defense, in peacekeeping operations, in foreign aid.

Some of you may remember the comic strip "Pogo" by the late Walt Kelly. I often think about Pogo’s frustration when he mused, "We are faced with insurmountable opportunities."

That is where intelligence comes in. We help policymakers overcome insurmountable obstacles every day. US Intelligence gives our national leaders the insight and the flexibility they need to take advantage of the vast opportunities before us. We broaden our decisionmakers’ choices and help them think through the difficult policy dilemmas they face. We provide a very clear and constantly updated picture of events inside key countries, of technological developments across a wide array of issues, and a projection of future trends in all of those arenas.

I would like you to think about the Intelligence Community as the ultimate opportunity cost. What our nation invests today on intelligence – on developing good sources, on new collection methods, on hiring new analysts and on training them – may mean the difference tomorrow between success and disaster, life and death – not just for those involved in intelligence, but for the men and women of our armed forces and for all of our citizens. Armed with the world’s best intelligence, our national leaders may be able to avert an emerging crisis, or minimize the costly fallout from one. When you are in the dark, you have to prepare for everything. With the insights intelligence brings, you can make prudent decisions about where to put your limited resources.

Placing a value on intelligence is not a simple "bang for the buck" calculation. But I would ask you to consider tonight:

  • What is it worth for our country to have the ability to understand and infiltrate terrorist groups that target American citizens at home and abroad?

  • Do you want a window on the dynamics between reformers and conservatives in Iran? What is it worth to know the status of Iran’s nuclear program? Or Tehran’s intentions with regard to terrorism?

  • What is it worth to know if and when the North Koreans will test launch a new missile capable of sending a nuclear payload to the United States?

  • What is it worth to our military to have the intelligence support it needs to deploy anywhere in the world to protect American interests, values and lives?

  • What is it worth to locate a downed F-16 pilot in hostile territory during the middle of a shooting war even before that pilot has been able to get out of his parachute? And to have those same technical intelligence systems that located that pilot be able to guide the search and rescue teams to bring him – or her – safely home?

These are not just rhetorical questions. They are very real. And the answers will have profound consequences not just for our Intelligence Community, but for our country.

It’s not news to you that the world is in the midst of a technological revolution. Today, having an information edge is critical to success in almost every field. The field of intelligence is no different. And I must tell you that the pace of technological change is rapidly outstripping our existing technical edge in intelligence that has long been one of the pillars of our national security.

Compounding the problem, advanced technology is no longer in the exclusive domain of government. The genie has exploded out of the bottle and he is providing information to any and all masters – from CNN to terrorists. Friends and foes alike have the same access we do to high-powered, portable computers and communications systems safeguarded by encryption.

US Intelligence no longer has a monopoly on overhead imagery. Very soon, anyone who can pay will be able commercially to obtain real-time, one meter high-resolution satellite pictures of any place on the planet. This will have major implications for denial and deception and surprise – both on our part and on the part of our enemies. US Intelligence will have to work with even greater ingenuity to give our policymakers and military commanders a critical information advantage.

The telecommunications industry is making a $1 trillion investment to encircle the world in millions of miles of high bandwidth fiber-optic cable. What does that mean? It means that the challenge for signals intelligence has grown, and that our targets are harder than ever to cover.

To ensure that our country preserves its precious unilateral advantage in information, the Intelligence Community has developed an investment strategy. We have asked Congress to allocate large amounts of money over many years to build our next generation of satellite imagery and signals collection systems. I will be blunt with you: Though not nearly on the scale of the investments being made by the private sector, the price tag for these new intelligence capabilities is high. Nonetheless, I see our choice in rather stark terms: do we invest, or do we allow ourselves to become deaf and blind? And we are not only talking about the investment in these collections systems alone, but also in the technologies and people we need to turn more and more of that collected material into useable intelligence. There is a significant price tag beyond satellites.

We traditionally have justified advanced imagery and signals collection systems by emphasizing the important role they play supporting our military. And I do not deny or diminish that role. But we have to show how our collection systems will not only enhance our military capabilities but our entire national security posture – our ability to shape an international environment favorable to our interests and our values.

In other words, if we receive the kinds of investments in intelligence that I am talking about, then we have to deliver.

What You Should Expect of your Intelligence Community

What should you expect of the Intelligence Community in return for this investment?

  • First and foremost, that we will call it as we see it. We will deliver intelligence that is objective, pulls no punches, and is free from political taint.

  • Next, that we will not only tell policymakers about what is uppermost on their minds – we will also alert them to things that have not yet reached their in-boxes.

  • That we will respond to the President’s and other decisionmakers’ needs on demand – juggling our intelligence priorities and capabilities as necessary to meet the most urgent missions.

  • That we will innovatively develop cutting-edge technologies and apply them to our collection and analysis work.

  • That we will uphold our country’s laws always.

  • Finally, that we will take risks. Analytical risks – making tough calls when it would be easier to waffle. Operational risks to secure vital information or to take some necessary action.

You should expect all of those things from us, and that is what we will deliver. I am asking our people to think independently and creatively, to constantly challenge the conventional wisdom, to confront the toughest problems and look far beyond the immediate, and always to act with the highest standards of professionalism.

Most importantly, I am charging the men and women of US Intelligence to dare. We agree with Britain’s elite Special Air Service motto, "Who dares, wins."

At the same time, there must be a realistic expectation of what intelligence can do. We are not omniscient and we are not perfect. The fact is, we simply cannot provide continuous, contiguous coverage for every issue of concern. And when so much of our mission involves warning and prediction, and when we must carry it out 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, around the globe, we are bound to make mistakes, both in analysis and operations. We strive not to make them, but when we do, my promise to the American people is that we will take responsibility and learn from them.

We accept the fact that we must live within the world so aptly described by President Kennedy when he said that our successes are often unnoticed while our failures are paraded in public. The terrorist attack that is foiled, the nuclear shipment that is intercepted, the regional crisis that is forestalled, the coup that is foretold, may never make the news. And that’s fine. We are not in this business for headlines or kudos. We are in it to make a critical difference -- to advance our nation’s interests and values.

We live in a world still in transition from something that was very well understood – the bipolarity of the Cold War – to something that has yet to crystallize into a system that can be readily named. As a result, I believe the potential for surprise is greater than at any time since the end of World War II.

We hope not to be surprised often, and we certainly hope not in an area we deem vital. In May 1998, India tested a nuclear weapon. We had correctly judged that the Indians would respond to Pakistan’s recent missile launch and that eventually they would test nuclear weapons. But we judged – wrongly – that the Indians would fire a missile tit-for-tat before they tested a nuclear weapon. This episode clearly illustrates my point that it is the nature of our high-risk, high-stakes work to get it wrong some of the time. I would also say to you that we would not be doing our job if we were to shrink from making tough calls about very difficult issues.

In complex military operations there are all too many chances to make mistakes. I will make no excuses for the intelligence errors that led to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. We have identified what went wrong and we have taken corrective measures.

But do not lose sight of the larger point. U.S. intelligence played an integral role in a highly complex and ultimately successful military operation in which 9,300 sorties were flown and not a single allied pilot was lost in combat. Our intimate knowledge of the weapons systems our pilots were facing and the targets that they were up against helped keep our pilots safe. That is a remarkable achievement for US Intelligence.


The men and women of US Intelligence are not just intelligence officers. They are American intelligence officers. Our performance is measured against the highest standards of professional and personal excellence. If we fail to meet those standards, we will stand up and be accountable, then we will figure out what went wrong and we will fix it.

But always, always we must continue to dare – not only in our dangerous work abroad but also in the predictions that our analysts make to policymakers here in Washington.

If America is to have the world’s best intelligence, we must be fully engaged, we must be ready to risk, and we should not let the fear of sometimes getting it wrong get in the way of doing our job.

I have made a commitment to our people. If they do their jobs the best way they know how – with professionalism and integrity -- if they stick their necks out and dare, I will back them up. And I hope that the American people will do the very same.

What Your Intelligence Community Does for You

I have discussed the opportunities that I see for US intelligence in today’s world. But for every opportunity out there, there are also challenges and threats -- real or potential.

In fact, it is our country’s great power and our values that make us the most attractive target in the world. There are nations and groups who are envious of who we are, what we have and what we stand for -- and, yes, they are willing to act against us. What are the threats that keep me awake at night?

  • International terrorism, both on its own and in conjunction with narcotics traffickers, international criminals and those seeking weapons of mass destruction. You need go no further than Usama Bin Ladin –the perpetrator of the East Africa bombings. He has declared the acquisition of weapons of a mass destruction a religious duty and identified every American as a legitimate target.

  • The proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, along with ever-longer range missiles capable of delivering them not just as far as our deployed forces in South Korea and the Persian Gulf, but to the continental United States as well.

  • Rogue states such as Iraq and North Korea continue to pose grave threats to their neighbors, to regional stability, and to American forces.

  • We face a growing cyber threat – the threat from so-called weapons of mass disruption. Potential targets are not only government computers, but the lifelines that we all take for granted – our power grids, and our water and transportation systems.

  • And while dealing with these new, unconventional threats, we must keep a relentless focus on more traditional concerns such as political and economic trends in volatile regions like the Middle East and South Asia and the trajectories of major countries in transition, such as China and Russia.

The challenges I just mentioned are among our highest intelligence priorities. And I pledge to all of you that we at the CIA and in the Intelligence Community will continue to go after them with all that we’ve got.

We cannot offer you an iron clad guarantee against any of the threats that face our country, but I think our record is impressive. Let me tell you a little about that record:

Every day, the men and women of US Intelligence give our country an enormous unilateral advantage:

  • In the last year, US Intelligence was responsible for stopping terrorist bombings against American facilities overseas, and we have been successful in apprehending a number of terrorist figures—including some linked to Usama Bin Laden.
  • Chances are when you hear about a major take-down of an international drug trader overseas, that US Intelligence has provided valuable information and insights to assist law enforcement.
  • We have supported the Middle East peace process by helping the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority deal with terrorism. And we provided imagery and mapping support to American negotiators that helped resolve the centuries-old border dispute between Ecuador and Peru.
  • We have assisted the State Department in the safe evacuation of American citizens in harm’s way abroad, including operations during the past year in the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Indonesia.
  • We have helped the United States develop a long-range strategic perspective by preparing assessments that project years ahead on issues as diverse as the global economy, worldwide demographics, and leadership succession patterns in key regions.
  • And time and again, we have alerted field commanders to threats against our deployed forces and those of our allies. Aided by the most sophisticated intelligence, for more than eight years now American pilots have flown daily missions over the Iraq No-Fly Zone with zero casualties. It is not an exaggeration to say that every day, somewhere in the world, US Intelligence is saving American lives.

We do all of this – and more -- even as we are asked to take on new, non-traditional roles.

  • We examined the state of worldwide Y2K preparations. Based on our study, the President offered help to various countries in overcoming Y2K problems.
  • In recent years, we have assisted the international community in high-resolution mapping of natural disasters, such as wildfire damage in Indonesia, the damage from Hurricane Mitch in Central America. Most recently, we helped Turkey and Greece after the recent earthquakes.
  • During the massive humanitarian crises in Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire and Kosovo, we assisted international relief efforts in locating and responding to the needs of displaced populations. And we continue to assist the International War Crimes Tribunals in The Hague to bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice.

None of these efforts is traditional intelligence work, but each makes an important contribution to the success of American diplomacy and our greater interest in the well being of the international community.

As you can see from the sheer range of areas in which we are engaged, our operational agenda is running hotter than ever – hotter than anyone expected in the aftermath of the Cold War – from Somalia, to Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi, Iraq, Kosovo, East Timor. You can be sure that the list will go on.

Deciding to engage is not our call. The President calls, we serve whenever and wherever – and whatever the other national security priorities and resource constraints may be. Whether or not you agree with a particular policy decision to intervene, American Intelligence never has the luxury of sitting on the sidelines.

Meeting 21st Century Intelligence Challenges

It is my highest priority as Director of Central Intelligence to ensure that in the next century, US Intelligence is ready to help the President and other American policymakers deal with the unprecedented scope of opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. In short, to ensure that US Intelligence can continue to perform its vital national security mission successfully in the future.

Seventeen months ago, I launched a Strategic Direction plan for the CIA which now encompasses the entire Intelligence Community.

I told our people that we had to take charge of our destiny. That we would do all that was within our power to maintain our edge and our vibrancy. That we had to streamline and re-align ourselves and adopt best business practices like the best in the private sector. That we would think big and think different. That we would work smarter and in new ways so that we would have the agility and the resiliency to do what the President – this President or a future President -- wants and the American people expect. And that we were going to do all of that because it is the right thing to do.


And that is exactly what we have done and are doing. We have increased our agility. We have innovated. We have found efficiencies. And we are now at the stage at which strategically targeted, sustained funding can make an enormous qualitative difference. I am glad to say that our strategic efforts have been well received by the President and the Oversight Committees on Capitol Hill. And if we continue to receive their bipartisan support, over the next five to seven years, we will have positioned the Intelligence Community to perform its vital mission successfully in the next century.

  • Our strategic program entails strengthening our clandestine and analytical services to achieve greater operational reach and greater analytical depth. We will put more collectors in the field and more all-source analysts on key accounts. And we will back them to the hilt with both human and technical support.

  • We are working more effectively across disciplines and across Agencies, because most of the challenges we face are so complex that no one part of our intelligence community – not just human intelligence, not just signals intelligence, and not just imagery intelligence -- can tackle them alone.

  • We are coordinating more closely than ever with our colleagues in law enforcement. You cannot defeat threats to our country from terrorists, proliferators and cyber attackers unless intelligence and law enforcement work together.

  • We also realize that the US Intelligence Community does not have a monopoly on brains or insight, so we are reaching out to experts in academia and industry.

  • We will significantly recapitalize our signals and imagery systems.

  • We are working with industry to leverage their expertise and revolutionize the ways we acquire technology. Everyone knows what an arms race is. We are in a continuous intelligence race. You may have heard about the new enterprise In-Q-It – one of the many innovative approaches we are taking to help us with state-of-the-art information management. With offices in Silicon Valley and Washington, DC., In-Q-It will operate as a non-profit firm specializing in information technology development. Harnessing the capabilities of the private sector to deal with tough intelligence problems is part of a very proud tradition going back to the earliest days of our Intelligence Community.

  • Most importantly, we are building up and empowering our greatest assets of all: our people. At the end of the day, the men and women of US intelligence -- not satellites, or sensors or high-speed computers – are our most precious asset. All of our technological advantages are worthless without the best and brightest people our country has to offer.

CIA is now engaged in our biggest recruiting drive since the end of the Cold War. We face major competition from the private sector. To the Georgetown students in the audience, I say, I hope you will seriously consider a career in US intelligence. We cannot offer you a private sector salary. No one in the Intelligence field worth his or her salt is in it for the money. You will never get rich. But we can offer you a deeply challenging and satisfying vocation – and a mission unequaled anywhere in American society. You would be joining some of the finest men and women you would ever hope to meet. I am proud to say, a good many of them – about 400 at CIA alone -- are Georgetown graduates.

That, then, is where we are and where we are going as an Intelligence Community. And I am convinced that we are on the right path.

A Moment of Challenge and Decision

In closing, let me say that, like you, the men and women of the Intelligence Community are proud that our country is a force for good in the world. By engaging, America can make a difference – as the President has said, an indispensable difference.

And when our country engages to do good – in order to make that critical difference – our national leaders must have every possible tool at their disposal – diplomatic tools, military tools, and intelligence tools. That is the only way to ensure that we accomplish our national objectives.

Along with the Intelligence Community, the State Department and the military are crucial pillars of our national security. Each reinforces the other. Each must be strong, or all are dangerously weakened. If the steady erosion of America’s diplomatic capabilities continues, our entire security structure will be dangerously undermined.

I believe that we as nation are at an historic decision point. We are fortunate to have more choices than any other nation as our country considers the security challenges of the next century. What our country does or does not do now – the tremendous opportunities that we seize or that we squander – can make an important difference in the way events unfold. What we choose to do today will either enlarge or narrow the options we have in the future.

As we confront a 21st Century of unprecedented opportunities and more diverse and dispersed threats, our Intelligence Community is stretched to the limit. That is not a comfortable position to be in – not for the Intelligence Community, not for our national security community as a whole, and not for our country.

My deep concern is that if we as a nation do not make serious, sustained investments in intelligence over the next five to seven years –– if we do not prepare wisely -- we will find that we have missed opportunities and foreclosed options that we will dearly wish we had. It is a classic case of pay now, or pay later. And paying later would be much more painful. Intelligence is not a free good. At the end of the day, you will get the intelligence that you pay for. And when it comes to intelligence—when American lives and vital interests are at stake -- second-best is not acceptable.

I put it to you that what our country really cannot afford is to make the wrong choices. In a world of unparalleled opportunities, threats and complexities, do we really want to opt for less presence, less information, less insight, less capacity, or less agility? If we allow that to happen, I certainly would not envy future Directors of Central Intelligence and future Presidents of the United States.

I hope that I have given you a sense of the role that I believe U.S. intelligence must play in the years ahead and the sustained investments that I believe are in our interest and that we must make. And that is why I welcomed this opportunity to speak to you tonight.

Thank you for listening. I look forward to hearing from you this evening and I will be happy to take your questions – as well as your answers.

Historical Document
Posted: Apr 03, 2007 08:57 PM
Last Updated: Apr 07, 2013 09:04 PM