Remarks by Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet
at the Langley High School (VA) Commencement Ceremony
June 14, 2001
Thank you, Maureen. I know
you tried hard to get Tom Cruise to be your speaker this morning. Instead,
you got stuck with a middle-aged, slightly overweight Director of Central
Intelligence. That said, I will do my best to fill in for Tom.
Twelve hours ago I got off a plane from the Middle East. If I fall asleep, you will understand—if you fall asleep…that’s OK too—but the end is good so stay awake.
The Middle East is a place with a history of violence that can easily spread. It might at first seem strange to have a largely secret organization like the CIA playing a public role in the long and difficult search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
But the things we are trying to do—improve communications on security, build confidence on both sides, stop the killing—are well worth attempting, in public or in private. These are bridges our country very much wants to build. They are bridges that should be built.
I am very proud of what the Central Intelligence Agency has done to help the cause of peace. And I am both delighted and honored to be here with you now.
Well, it has been a long four years. Worrying about grades and the social scene. Rooting for the Saxons. Wondering how you will manage on your own next fall.
So let me be among the first to say: congratulations parents, you made it. Oh—and to the graduates—congratulations to you, too.
I have it on good authority that this Senior Class has been a great one—and not only because you let Color Day pass without a food fight. I am sure your entire school staff appreciated that.
What I am sure they appreciate even more is the tremendous effort you put in to reach this landmark in your lives. The Langley athletes I see training near our compound on what they call their “CIA runs” know what it takes to excel: hard work and good coaching.
And each and every one of you has been fortunate to share in the wisdom and energy of great coaches: the teachers who have inspired you.
They are much more than instructors in the ways of the classroom and the athletic field. They are instructors in the ways of life. For they instill more than knowledge of facts. They instill knowledge of values.
That is what the very best teachers do—teach lessons that last. How to look at the world in all its wonder and complexity. How to do things with both passion and compassion. How to learn. Not just what to think.
You have all been given an enormous, enduring advantage in life. And you should each recognize that you have had the chance to excel in a caring, supportive atmosphere, provided by this school. That care and that support—with its encouragement, patience, and discipline—has helped sustain you through good times and bad.
So I would ask everyone here—graduates, families, and friends alike—to thank with a big round of applause the teachers and everyone else who works so hard to make Langley High School the special place it is.
In my business—no matter who is sitting across the table from you—a president, prince, or prime minister—you learn the most and contribute the most when you speak from the heart, with candor and conviction.
This morning, I would like to speak to you about some facts and trends at work in the world. Those that shape the world as it is today. And those that will shape the world you will soon enter to build your own public and private lives. And then, I hope to share some of the principles that have guided me in a vocation of national service.
The Goal of Intelligence
My profession—intelligence and espionage—demands that you be a realist. That you look at the world precisely as it is. But to be successful, you must have an equally strong sense of idealism.
For the mission of US Intelligence rests on a pillar of pure optimism: that seemingly ordinary men and women can do truly extraordinary things. That they can change the world that is into the one that can be, the one that must be. A world whose future is determined by the champions of freedom, not its enemies.
Each and every day—around the clock, around the globe—our Intelligence Community works to advance this noble goal. To help our country stay strong and safe. And to help it extend the blessings of peace and liberty to those overseas who long for them.
While we define ourselves first by what we stand for, it is also worth remembering what we stand against. For there are those in the world who reject the values our nation upholds and indeed everything the United States represents at this turning point in history.
They are the disaffected and the disappointed. Those disenchanted with the phenomenon we call “globalization,” and those left behind by it. They include, too, the international terrorist and the drug trafficker. The peddlers in the weapons and technologies of mass destruction. The voices of hate. The dictators who—blind to history—seek in vain to smother freedom in their own lands and to stop its progress beyond their borders.
The World Today
The world in which I went to high school and came of age professionally—shaped as it was by the Cold War—is gone. It is the stuff of history. The old global model—in which two superpowers were locked in a confrontation with clear limits and well-understood rules—no longer applies.
The disappearance of one of those superpowers almost a decade ago—the empire we knew as the Soviet Union—was an event from which the dust has yet to settle. While much about the present era remains unshaped and undefined, this much is certain: The United States is—by virtue of its strength, its ideals, and its choice—the leading force in the world. Yet it is a world in which there are fewer rules than before and fewer people willing to play by them.
The collapse of tyranny in Eastern Europe unshackled the creative and spiritual potential of entire peoples. Yet it also gave fresh life to poisonous ethnic conflicts once frozen by the Cold War. In the Balkans, Central Asia, and Africa.
At the same time, we see our former rival, Russia, struggling to redefine its place in the world. And a rising power, China, struggling to balance the state’s requirement for political control with the destabilizing openness required by the economic growth its citizens yearn for.
As humanity wrestles in a new century with the legacy of the old, there is another trend remaking the global landscape: technology—with its expanding reach and accelerating pace of change.
Its benefits are all around us. And those benefits are spreading throughout the globe—unevenly, to be sure.
Those are only a few features of the very complicated world in which the United States lives and leads. A world in which our country encounters both opportunity and danger.
In embracing the first—the unprecedented chance to use our influence for good—we must be neither blind to, nor paralyzed by, the second—the risks and perils that come with the responsibilities of leadership.
It is also the mission of US Intelligence to help give our national leaders the capacity and flexibility to look beyond tomorrow to the more distant future—while there is time to try to shape that future for the better.
By the year 2015—a time when—though it may be hard to imagine now—you are likely to have spouses, mortgages, kids, careers, and a few extra pounds. Don’t be scared. It is not that bad.
By the year 2015, I would tell you that we expect the world’s population to grow to over 7 billion, a billion more than today. And 95 percent of that increase will be in less developed countries, which will be least able to cope with the resulting pressures.
The threat from infectious diseases—some re-emergent, some new—is likely to keep growing over the next 15 years.
By 2015, a heightened possibility of conflict over a building block of life itself—water, because some 3 billion people will not have enough. Indeed, almost half the world’s population will live in areas that are water-stressed—where fresh water is used up faster than it can be replaced. Much of this will be in Africa and the Middle East.
And technology will continue to race ahead.
But amid all the reasons to be concerned about the future, there is another, very potent force at work in the world. One that—as much as any other—changed history in the 1980s and 90s. The simple human desire to be free.
To be free to make choices about your own life.
And now—to the Class of 2001—I would like to mention some experiences from my life that I hope will help you as you think about your lives—in college or in a career.
I have found that the most important things in life have nothing to do with how smart or athletic you are, how much money you have, or even how popular you are.
What counts more than anything are the values you adopt: who you are inside your heart. How you treat other people. What you believe in—and whether you are willing to stand up for your beliefs.
Those are things I learned first from my parents—the greatest people I have ever known. My Dad has been dead for almost 20 years, but every day I still think of him and of ways to honor him.
He came to the United States more than 70 years ago, just ahead of the Great Depression. He arrived without family, friends, money, or a word of English. He was forced to fend for himself when he was only 12 years old, and—for seven years before he traveled to America—he worked as a coal miner in France.
He was hard-working, humble, and totally devoted to his family. He did backbreaking work so that his two children—my brother and I—would never have to.
My mother escaped from Albania on a British submarine just as the Iron Curtain was closing—never to see her family again.
Which brings me to my first point. Know who you are and where you come from. You each have a family tradition—a history. Be proud of it. Learn from it. Because every value you will adopt in life has grown—in one way or another—from a root deep in the history of your parents’ families.
Treasure those who love you. For when the going gets really tough in life—and you feel as though you do not have a friend in the world—your family will be there for you.
Second—Honor the service and sacrifice of the men and women who defend this country and the good things for which it stands. As you enjoy the many blessings of life here, remember those—in the military, in law enforcement and public safety, and in intelligence—who risk their lives to guard yours. Prize their service. Better yet, enrich it with service of your own.
Third—Follow your heart and dare to take risks. Unless you wake up each day with a passion to excel in your work—whatever it may be—you will be miserable. Don’t just go through the motions. Bear down. Persevere. I never had a plan in life beyond doing the best that I could in the job that I had. Somehow—by doing that—the future took care of itself.
As important as grades are, commitment and dedication matter more. Common sense matters more. And what matters most is the passion and enthusiasm you bring to everything you do in life. You know how passionate you are about sports, cars, computers, or music. Take some of that passion and apply it to your schoolwork or to your job. The payoff will be enormous.
Your work ethic and enthusiasm will carry you for the rest of your life. Never, ever be lazy. It is the kiss of death.
Fourth—Fight hatred and prejudice wherever you find them. If there is one thing in the world today that is responsible for the turmoil we see, it is ethnic and religious hatred. It haunts us across the globe—from the Middle East to our own country. The fundamental lack of tolerance that men and women show for each other drives so much of the instability that we confront.
All of you, each of us, carry prejudice of one sort or another inside us. Try to purge it from your heart. Never turn a blind eye to hatred.
Fifth—Have a sense of humor. As much as anything else, your ability to laugh—especially at yourself—will get you through life. If you take yourself too seriously, no one else will take you seriously at all.
Sixth—Take care of the people around you. If you take care of them, they will take care of you. Many of you will shoot like meteors to the peak of your universities and professions. On the way up, treat those around you with the same decency, respect, and generosity that you have received. Offer a kind word and a helping hand.
When you reach the top, show a little humility. You know why? Because there will come a day—no matter how smart, good-looking, or athletic you are—when life knocks you down—when you will fail miserably. And when you look around, the best sight of all is the outstretched hands of others ready to help you get back on your feet.
But they will not be there unless you give. Unless you are patient and forgiving of others. Your landing will be much softer and much shorter if people remember you as a caring, considerate human being.
Seventh—Everything you do today has consequences for your future. I cannot tell you the number of talented men and women who cannot serve at the CIA, the FBI, or in the military because they drank too much, used drugs, or got arrested years ago for doing something stupid that they very much regret now—when it is too late.
The habits you develop today—the people you associate with—are important. Bad habits and the wrong crowd can do you an enormous amount of damage—now and later in life. So always have the courage to get up and walk away—the guts to say: “This is not what I am about.”
Eighth—Your word is your bond. When you tell someone you will do something, do it. Never go back on your word—even if doing what you promised is hard or takes a lot of time. The only thing you really have in life is your good name, your reputation. And remember—it is not yours alone. It also reflects on your parents, your grandparents, and your brothers and sisters.
Your honor counts a great deal in life. Once lost, it is very hard—if not impossible—to recover.
Finally, love and serve your country. In no other country could someone like me—the son of immigrants—stand before you as Director of Central Intelligence. Americans are given opportunities that no other country provides.
And one of the most important opportunities of all is public education. Schools where our children—the sons and daughters of bus drivers, plumbers, waitresses, gardeners, doctors, and millionaires—are told: “If you work hard, you can grow up to be anything you want. Nothing is beyond your reach—and no one can stop you.” Privilege has no rank. Take it from one who knows.
So—if you are sitting in Camden Yards and you hear the National Anthem at the start of an Orioles game—be proud to sing as loud as you can. And never be ashamed if you get a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye when the Anthem is played or the American flag passes by.
Along the way, I met gifted teachers who reached out to me, pointed me in the right direction, and let me soar. I have worked for wonderful people who believed in me, took a chance on me, and gave me opportunities to advance.
I was never the smartest guy in class, but I worked as hard as anyone and had more fun than most. In school, I figured out what I really cared about and poured myself into those subjects. Throughout my career, I did the best I could at the job I had—somehow the future always took care of itself.
And today, at the CIA, I serve with the most dedicated, honest, hard-working men and women you would ever want to meet. They get up each day for a single reason—to protect Americans and their families wherever they may be.
The one hope I would have is that—some day—some of our wonderful graduates will decide on careers of service. Whether as teachers, doctors, caregivers to the poor and the sick, as military officers, by coming to work at the CIA.
Never be afraid to follow your dreams. With hard work and some good luck—those two tend to go together—you can indeed make them real. Remember to give something back.
Enjoy your Graduation Party tonight.
Congratulations to you all, and thank you very much.