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DDCI Remarks at Wittenberg University Commencement

Remarks by the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence
John E. McLaughlin at the
Wittenberg University Commencement Exercises
(as delivered)

  May 12, 2001


I know the real reason that the senior class asked me to give the commencement address today. They must figure that intelligence officers can’t say too much in public and therefore have to be brief.

I hope to do nothing this afternoon that would challenge that image—the brief part, anyway.

President Tipson, Provost Greer, distinguished deans, faculty, and trustees. Families, friends, and—most of all—the justly proud members of the Class of 2001:

It has been a long four years. A time of anxiety, joy, and discovery. Of learning how to manage on your own. So let me be among the first to say: Congratulations, parents, you’ve made it. And oh, by the way, congratulations to the graduates, too.

I am honored to return to Wittenberg – this gorgeous campus that is filled with wonderful memories. An essential place that was essential to the journey that has taken me from a small town in Western Pennsylvania to places as diverse as Cairo, Kyrgyzstan, St. Petersburg, and Hong Kong and now to the office of Deputy Director of Central Intelligence.

When you leave this great school, you will find as I did that many forks appear in the road, and I defy any of you to know now where those choices will lead you three decades hence. I could not in 1964 have traced my path more than a year or so into the future. But I can tell you this: when you someday retrace your path as I have, you will find your Wittenberg heritage woven through it like a constant thread.

I’m sure you can tell that your invitation has given me a welcome opportunity to think back to what was for me a great time at a great school. For that opportunity, I am grateful to you all.

I know that I am on this podium today because of two titles I am privileged to hold. One—the one in government—is temporary. The other title is permanent—Wittenberg, Class of ‘64.

For that reason, I would like to focus my remarks today on my experience here. What it meant to me then. What it means to me still. And how this school prepares us to serve in a world full of promise and challenge. And as you listen to my story, I’d ask you to reflect not just on the chemistry, calculus, or literature you may have studied here, but on the people, the events, the things large and small that left their mark on you, for a university, more than most things you will encounter in life, is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

A Place To Remember…

What do I remember of Wittenberg in the early 1960s? The same kinds of things that I hope each of you will recall decades from now. Some prosaic. Some profound. Some ordinary. Some quite extraordinary.

I remember taking the campus tour and deciding on the spot that this was the place for me. Knowing that I had made the right choice.

Being so sure that I eventually became a campus tour guide myself. Still being sure after taking a job in the cafeteria.

Getting my earliest lessons in leadership as a Resident Assistant (RA) in Myers Hall.

Joining a fraternity for the friendship—and the parties. Going to Weaver Chapel for the peace and the quiet.

Watching the autumn leaves blow down North Fountain as we put up the Homecoming displays. Watching the Tigers win at basketball—again and again and again. National Champs my junior year.

Being so tired from second semester finals that I kept falling asleep while my mother and I were packing me up to go home—a story she told over and over again.

Wishing once or twice that I was still asleep when my grades came home.

Becoming gradually aware that outside this idyllic setting our nation and the world were heading into the period of tumult with which the sixties are now synonymous.

One of the things I learned here is that learning goes on both inside the classroom and beyond. That this university offers a universe of possibilities.

…And One That Changed My Life

In fact, the Wittenberg experiences I treasure most—the ones that set me on the path I still follow today—were a mix of the academic and the extra-curricular.

Let me tell you three Wittenberg stories.

The first involves the way a university intersects with the world and the way a university’s teachers intersect with your life.

In the autumn of 1960, a young Presidential candidate came to this campus as he contested what was considered—at least until last year—a very, very tight race. John F. Kennedy spoke a powerful message that day at Bill Edwards Field—a message about the challenges to freedom in the world and a call to public service. A message that awoke in this freshman—and in many others across the United States—an enduring passion for politics and public service. Caught up in the idealistic debates of that campaign, I switched majors and began signing up for courses in political science and history.

Fortunately for me, my enthusiasm fell on fertile ground, for Wittenberg in 1960 was brimming with inspirational teachers. The name of one, Professor Margaret Ermarth, lives on in the Center for Humanities and in a prize given today by the History Department. Through her lectures and over coffee after-hours, Margaret Ermarth painted vivid, first-hand pictures of what was then for me a distant, exotic, at times dangerous place—the Soviet Union.

Now today, travel to Russia is pretty commonplace. But understand that in the early sixties, a Wittenberg Professor going to the Soviet Union was an EVENT and her return would be the occasion for a convocation in Weaver Chapel. It was as if someone had just come back from Mars.

Well, decades have passed since then, and I’ve had the opportunity, among other things, to head the CIA’s analytic effort on Russia and the former Soviet Union. Having myself now walked the streets of Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Tashkent, and Dushanbe—I still vividly recall what propelled me on that journey. It was sitting in Weaver Chapel and listening to Margaret Ermarth’s riveting accounts of her adventures in the Soviet Union. Could I ever do anything like that, I wondered? Embedded in that question is the power of a teacher to change a student’s life and the assurance of the truth in that familiar expression: “teachers touch the future.”

Related to all of this, I have thought more than once in recent years of the way life’s experiences are often threaded together across decades. By way of illustration, in October 1962—through a black-and-white TV in Myers Hall—I joined much of the rest of humanity in watching President Kennedy announce that US Intelligence had discovered Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. It was for me an early lesson in the power of information, the important role that intelligence services play, and in the perils of the world into which I would graduate.

Remarkably enough, it was thirty years later--almost to the day--that the CIA assigned me to sit down each day with then President-elect Bill Clinton and tell him what we were learning about the world from sources like satellite photos, intercepted communications, and agent reports. In his library in Little Rock in 1992, I had to tell him that US Intelligence had again discovered a nuclear danger. This time it was in North Korea, from which a potentially deadly shadow was cast over the lives of some 45 million South Koreans and 37,000 of our own men and women in uniform.

The challenge was new. The lesson was not. In both cases—and in many, many others—the right information, delivered at the right time, has given our country the chance to make smarter, safer foreign policy choices.

For someone who has had the honor to personally brief the last four American Presidents about opportunities and threats abroad—Wittenberg was much more than a starting point. It sparked and nourished my interest in international affairs. And it gave me the tools to pursue a vocation of national service.

The Practical…

Some of those tools were practical, and that brings me to my second story. My chief extracurricular activity at Wittenberg was intercollegiate debate. Each Saturday morning through the Fall and Winter, a man with an absolute passion for forensic competition, Professor G. Vernon Kelley, would lead a caravan of us off to another college in Ohio--and nothing gave us more satisfaction than to whip Denison, Ohio Wesleyan, or Capitol on the field of ideas, while the Tigers were tearing ‘em up on the turf or on the court.

Now I know that debate can seem an awfully arcane, even abstract, pastime to many. But here’s the point: I still use each and every day the skills I learned in those debates – the same skills that are taught here today in vigorous classroom exchanges. They go to the very heart of what the business of foreign intelligence is all about.

In my profession, it is not enough to know your history, speak a language and be widely traveled. Equally important is how to weigh and organize evidence. How to listen. How to see a situation from the other person’s point of view. How to deal with complexity and realize that few issues in the world come with just one side. How to learn, not what to think. How to separate fact from fiction.

These, in fact, are things that Presidents have expected CIA analysts to do since Harry Truman created the Agency in 1947, motivated by a desire to avoid another Pearl Harbor and a need to have someone sort out all of the conflicting claims reaching his desk about situations overseas.

It is essentially what President Bush expects our Director or me to do when one of us walks into the Oval Office at 8 o’clock every morning to review overnight events and help him look ahead.

It is what we are expected to do when we open a meeting in the White House Situation Room, whether the subject is the future of China or Russia, or how to prevent a terrorist group from attacking American citizens.

When I find myself in these situations, I often think of driving off to Denison or Oberlin or Kenyon with Professor Kelley on those frosty winter mornings. The subjects have changed and the stakes, of course, are vastly higher. But the discipline is the same. What is true? What is not? What can you prove? What must you merely infer? Where is the ground solid and where is it weak?

Now I must tell you that these debating days have also come to mind at some starkly different moments in my career. I remember once flying through Central Asian mountain passes in Kazakhstan on an ancient Russian helicopter, heading for a meeting near some remote snow-capped peak. The chopper’s engine was sputtering, its fuel tanks were on the inside, the passenger compartment was filled with gas fumes, and both Kazakh pilots were smoking. At times like that, I’ve asked myself: how did a nice boy from the Wittenberg debating club end up here?

…And the Exemplary

My third Wittenberg story involves an instance when for me this school was also a classroom in the tools of moral leadership. Among many examples, there is one that still stands out vividly—after almost 40 years.

During my term as fraternity president, an African-American student asked to pledge, and we accepted him into the campus chapter. Incredibly enough, that was actually a controversial act back then. Bear in mind this was in an era before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was in the year of the Birmingham Church bombing. It was during the year that Martin Luther King made his “I have a Dream” speech. In the turbulence of that time, our chapter drew reactions from outside Wittenberg ranging from confusion to outright opposition.

But we were not about to back down. With the strong support of Bill Kinnison, who was our fraternity advisor and later went on to lead Wittenberg as President, I went to see the then-President of Wittenberg—John Stouffer—to seek his public support for the pledge and what we had done. True to the best of what this school stands for, he did not hesitate or equivocate. He stood with us when it would have been easier to stand aside. And that, I am quite sure, gave us the shield we needed to prevail.

In short, President Stouffer did something that we are all challenged to do throughout our lives: He took the harder and better road.

There is an old saying that “leadership casts a long shadow.” I am proud to stand in John Stouffer’s. And I am proud to stand in Bill Kinnison’s. I predict that each of you will also realize as life goes on that you stand in the long shadow of someone here at Wittenberg, be it a professor, a dean, a President or even a fellow student.

A New Age

But the world for which my college experience prepared me—shaped as it was by the struggle for civil rights on the streets of America, the conflict in Vietnam, and the larger Cold War—is gone. It is the stuff of history.

You will step off this campus into a vastly different world. One still dealing with the legacy of the old—for example, the thawing of ethnic conflicts frozen by the Cold War. But what you will have to deal with above all is the accelerating pace of change, in fields as diverse as politics, economics, science and technology. Against this backdrop, my Agency recently published a study of what the world might look like in the year 2015 when—and I hate to break it to you—you will be in your mid-thirties and likely to have spouses, mortgages, kids, 10 extra pounds, and established careers. Mentioning just the bare bones of the study, which by the way you can find on our website (, I would tell you that we expect to see the world’s population grow to over 7 billion, a billion more than today, with 95 percent of the increase in less developed parts of the world already struggling to cope; we foresee dramatically increased demand for imported oil, the potential for conflict over, of all things, water, because over 3 billion people will not have enough; and a mind-boggling rush of scientific and technological change, as old disciplines merge and as the period between discovery and application in science continues to shrink.

Yes, the speed of technological change will be truly awe-inspiring in the first decades of the 21st century. But like every tool of knowledge, it can be used for bad ends as well as good. Where I sit I can never afford to forget that the same information technology that enables us to order books from Australia or France also now enables a terrorist to plan and recruit for worldwide operations and narcotraffickers to move and hide with a keystroke some of the $300 billion they collectively earn each year.

The Force of Freedom

But as we look ahead and see so many reasons for concern, it is important to remember that there is another potent and positive force at work in our world. One that I have seen repeatedly in my life and in my work. One which—for all its age—never seems to lose its freshness. And do you know what? It is the force that runs through all of the stories about Wittenberg I told you a few moments ago.

It is the simple human desire to be free.

  • I heard it in the turbulent and challenging world that a young Presidential candidate described on this campus in 1960.

  • I heard it in Margaret Ermarth’s accounts that told of the first stirrings of dissent in the old Soviet Union.

  • I felt it in the joy we all took from the cut and thrust of free ideas in those long ago debates on campuses throughout the Midwest.

  • And it was at the heart of the story I told you about my African-American fraternity brother here at Wittenberg.

And in my work, I have seen for myself—in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union—the tangible effect of freedom on human life. I have seen the immense creative and spiritual potential of entire peoples unshackled by the collapse of tyranny. It is a messy, chaotic, intense—and extraordinarily beautiful—thing to see.

Let me tell you a final story, drawn not from Wittenberg but from my work. I heard it from one of our officers who recently retired after thirty years of risking his life in dangerous assignments around the world. His last post was in a city overseas where one of his jobs was to help resettle people seeking asylum from totalitarian countries. One such man he encountered had spent 17 years carefully planning his escape from a country that today is still not free. Once he finally managed—at considerable risk—to reach a place of safety, he wanted simply to sit down and talk to my friend. He talked for over 12 hours. Most Americans would be surprised by what he wanted to talk about. Can you guess?

Thomas Jefferson.

In our land of plenty, we often forget the novelty and power of the ideas that made us what we are and what we represent to others. And if that man who wanted to talk about Thomas Jefferson had something to say to you today, it would probably be this: the choices you make from here on out may be of greater complexity and consequence than those you have faced so far, but the difficulty in making those choices in no way compares to the pain of not being able to make them at all.

So as I reflect on my Wittenberg mentors and as you receive your diplomas today, I ask you to remember simply that you are free.

Free to give back to your community, your parents, your school and your country.

Free to inspire others, as others have inspired you.

Free to take the “road less traveled”, even if it involves some risks.

Free to disagree and stand up to defend your views.

In sum, you are free to make a difference—a decisive difference for good.

Warm congratulations to you all, and thank you very much.

Historical Document
Posted: Apr 03, 2007 08:58 PM
Last Updated: Jun 20, 2008 08:27 AM