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DCI Remarks at the Nixon Center Distinguished Service Award Banquet

Remarks by the Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet
at the Nixon Center Distinguished Service Award Banquet

December 11, 2002


Note: Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet was honored December 11th by The Nixon Center when it presented him its 2002 Distinguished Service Award. On its website, The Nixon Center [external link disclaimer] said that the award recognized Director Tenet's "lifetime of public service in intelligence and national security." In written messages read at the awards ceremony, both President George W. Bush and former President George H.W. Bush lauded the work of both Director Tenet and the Central Intelligence Agency. In the keynote address, Mr. Tenet discussed America's war on terrorism. The text of his remarks, as prepared for delivery, follow.


I am honored to accept this award, on behalf of those who truly earned it: the men and women of the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Richard Nixon's approach to foreign policy was, above all, realistic. He respected history and the essential unpredictability of human events. He was a strategic thinker who kept his eye on the big picture. He strove for steady incremental improvements in the international position of the United States and was skeptical of the durability of any advantage.

What would President Nixon have made of our time? He lived to see the fall of the Soviet Union and the halting start of Russia's transformation. And he watched the development of relations with China.

But the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty he negotiated is all but defunct. NATO has expanded to include former members of the Warsaw Pact. United States armed forces are bivouacking in the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union.

And what would President Nixon have made of the events of September 11 and the war on terror? He would have been as horrified as we all were by what happened that day, and he would have strongly backed a forceful US response. He probably would have been surprised that, after 9/11, the first phone call President Bush received from a foreign leader was from Vladimir Putin.

That said, President Nixon would have made clear distinctions between "the tactical" and "the strategic," and I'd like to dwell on those two words for a moment.

It's routine to talk about the war in tactical terms: this battle, that terrorist, this takedown. And I will talk to you about where I think we are, what successes we've had, and what challenges we continue to face.

But I also want to talk about a strategic imperative that runs along side the tactical effort. President Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, suggested a year ago that 9/11 changed everything. All the foreign relations of the United States were on that day, cast in a new light. We soon found ourselves in new webs of relationships that few would have thought possible before that day.

Following President Bush's call to world leaders to join in a great coalition against terrorism, the United States moved to an emphatic posture of engagement. Engagement was really the only choice we had. And that great coalition came into being. It meant an even closer engagement with the Muslim world.

  • But we can't let this engagement stop at the level of tactical wartime cooperation, as necessary as that is. We also need to make more fundamental connections. Because at the end of the day, we cannot hope to make lasting progress in the war against terrorism without serious steps to address "the circumstances that give it rise." I'll come back to this in a moment.


We are not at war with the Muslim world. As President Bush has said on many occasions, "Our war is not against Islam, or against faith practiced by the Muslim people." But we are at war with extremists. We are at war with terrorists. We are at war with fanatics. But we are not at war with Islam—even though the terrorists want to portray it that way.

  • And nobody should confuse the Muslim world with the Middle East alone. Not at all. The Muslim world reaches from Morocco to Indonesia, the largest Muslim country. The next three largest Muslim populations, all on the South Asian subcontinent—Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.

Our foes are literally "the fringe of the fringe" in the Muslim world, the small subset of radical Muslims who also happen to be violent and murderous.

  • And targeting the United States, our people, our way of life.

This is an enemy we know very, very well.

Al Qa`ida and Usama Bin Ladin have been formidable adversaries, particularly after their migration to Afghanistan in 1996. Before 9/11, we had a lot of the tools in place but,we lacked some that were necessary to wage a successful campaign.

Well before 9/11, we were hitting al-Qa`ida's infrastructure, working with foreign services to carry out arrests, recruiting or exposing operatives, and going after Bin Ladin himself. And we made progress in several areas.

  • We developed a stable of assets and a body of information that pinpointed al-Qa`ida's Afghanistan infrastructure, enabling its rapid destruction when the war started.

  • In conjunction with the FBI, CIA had rendered 70 terrorists to justice around the world. Al-Qa`ida might have been able to operate freely in Afghanistan, but the terrorists knew they were fair game elsewhere.

  • During the Millennium threat period, we identified 36 terrorist agents and pursued operations against them in 50 countries, building on existing liaison relationships and forging new ones with governments and sister services all around the world. These operations disrupted attacks and saved lives. We had similar success overseas during other high-threat periods, such as during Ramadan in 2000 and spring/summer 2001.

Within our own government, we have a sound foundation for working together, and since 9/11 we've enhanced ties to Homeland Security, law enforcement, and a range of other federal, state, and local agencies.

But before 9/11, as you know, Al-Qa`ida had some advantages, like a safe operating environment in Afghanistan and a protective sponsor, the Taliban government. These advantages were reversed, dramatically, after 9/11.

And when the fighting started last fall, al-Qa`ida's leaders genuinely expected to mire our coalition down in a reprise of the Soviet experience. They were just as genuinely surprised. And then sorely disappointed.

  • More than 1/3 of the top leadership identified before the war has been killed or captured.

  • Almost half of our successes against senior al Qa`ida members has come in recent months. During that time we've netted:

    • Al Qa`ida's operations chief for the Persian Gulf. He also helped plan the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and the attack on USS Cole in 2000.

    • A principal al Qa`ida planner who was also a conspirator in the 9/11 attacks.

    • Numerous operations officers and facilitators.

    • And a trove of information we're using to press the hunt further.

The United States has had lots of partners in this fight. Without them, we could not have accomplished what we did.

  • Since September 2001, more than 3000 al-Qa`ida operatives or associates have been detained in over 100 countries. Don't get stuck on this number. Not everyone arrested was a terrorist. Some have been released. But this worldwide "rousting" of al Qa`ida definitely disrupted its operations.

  • Starting from almost zero, more than 166 countries worldwide have seized over $121 million in terrorist-related financial assets.

And speaking of partners, let's dispel a myth tonight: the myth that Muslim countries have lined up against us. Most governments understand al-Qa`ida poses a threat to them as well. And we're making steady progress with every one of them.

  • Besides Pakistan's support in rounding up al-Qa`ida members, Pakistani President Musharraf's landmark speech in January calling for the establishment of a moderate, tolerant Islamic state has begun a debate across the Muslim world about which vision of Islam is the right one.

  • Jordan and Egypt have been courageous leaders in the war on terrorism.

  • A number of Gulf states like UAE are denying terrorists financial safe haven, making it harder for al-Qa`ida to funnel funding for operations, and others in the Gulf are beginning to tackle the problem of charities fronting for, and funding, terrorists.

  • The Saudis are providing increasingly important support to our counterterrorism efforts—from making arrests to sharing debriefing results.

  • SE Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore, with significant Muslim populations, have been active in arresting and detaining terror suspects.

  • We mustn't forget Afghanistan, where the new government leaders are providing support not only for their own self-interest, but at great danger and difficulty to themselves.

And, after a few initial turnouts, the "Muslim Street" never really showed up.

Intelligence information tells us the al-Qa`ida leadership has been rattled by recent losses and is taking more precautions. But let's be very clear: there is no letup in the threat at the moment. Despite the loss of several senior lieutenants, and the security worries of the remaining leaders, intelligence clearly shows al-Qa`ida is still preparing terrorist attacks.

  • Indeed, every al Qa`ida operations officer and facilitator we have captured so far, was in the midst of preparing attacks when captured.

  • Recent tapes by al-Qa`ida leaders threatening the US economy and our coalition allies, were unprecedented in their bluntness and urgency. It is no coincidence that those tapes were released in the same period as the recent attacks in Mombassa, Bali, off the Yemeni coast (French tanker), and Kuwait (US Marines shot).

  • Given the reverses they have suffered to date, they are obliged to say such things to bolster morale. But they would be foolish to make so bold a threat unless confident that some impending operation has a high probability of success. In effect, their credibility with their supporters is more than ever on the line.

  • And we would be foolish to take these threats in any way other than with utmost seriousness.

On the homeland security front, keeping up our guard works. Our moves to harden targets in response to threat information will disrupt or slow terrorist plans. Any deterring of an attack, or of slowing down al-Qa`ida's operational planning, allows us more time to disrupt cells, take operatives off the street, and continue our protection of the homeland.

We are still in the "hunt phase" of this war—the painstaking pursuit of individual al Qa`ida members and their cells. This phase is paying off, but is manpower intensive and will take a long time. There are no set battles against units of any size. We are tracking our enemies down, one by one.

  • And let there be no doubt that, day by day, we are winning this war because of our military. Yes, we will have days when we are less successful—there will be battles won and battles lost—this is the nature of war. But we are winning.

Beyond tactical victories, we need to show al Qa`ida's potential recruits that al Qa`ida is failing in every possible respect.

And if we can't take them off the board, we need to keep them on the run. At least then they won't be planning and operating. More than the provision of funding or materiel, denying al-Qa`ida a new safehaven is the best way to continue to disrupt their planning.

We can do more in many different areas—in particular, we can address the range of issues that affect the ability of our partners to work with us and with each other—but we need to engage more fully in the Muslim world. This is the strategic component of the war against terror.

  • We cannot win the war on terror simply by defeating and dismantling al-Qa`ida.

  • To claim victory, we and our allies will need to address the circumstances that bring peoples to despair, weaken governments, and create power vacuums that extremists are all too ready to fill.

The Muslim world is hugely diverse and complex—anything but monolithic.

  • More than 1.3 billion people.

  • Literally hundreds of languages and cultures.

For these reasons, Richard Nixon, pointed out the improbability of such a thing as a "clash of civilizations" between the West and the Muslim World. "This nightmare scenario," he wrote, "will never materialize. The Muslim world is too large and too diverse ..."

But imagine a large map of the world. Let's say we stick a map pin in every country that had a low per capita income. And another for a high rate of infant mortality. Another for a sizable "youth bulge"—what Robert Kaplan calls "unemployed young guys walking around," a strong indicator of social volatility. And one for an absence of political freedoms and participatory government.

  • At the end of this exercise, we would have marked out a large number of states — some of which are in the Muslim world.

We could go on to mark out another set of what we could call "beleaguered states"—states unable to control their own borders and internal territory, that lack the capacity to govern, educate their peoples, or provide fundamental social services. And some of them have recognized the need to address these problems — and they need help.

We know from experience that states struggling with these problems are the natural targets of the terrorists. We have seen — in places like Afghanistan—terrorists taking root and turning them into terrorist havens.

For a complex variety of reasons, terrorists feed on such fragile states.

At the same time, however, we see glimmers of hope that, in pockets throughout the Muslim world, we are turning a corner.

  • I'm speaking about recent elections in Turkey, Morocco, and Bahrain—where Islamist parties acted through the ballot box—which suggests that majorities in some Muslim countries want to work through a participatory political process in effecting change through peaceful means. And I'm thinking of recent events in Iran, where voices for change are displaying a tenacious will to be heard.

My colleague and friend at the State Department, Richard Haass, recently pointed to developments in these and other Muslim countries in observing that, "when given the opportunity, Muslims are embracing democratic norms and choosing democracy."

  • He worries whether we are doing enough to foster gradual paths to democratization. If we do not, he believes it will create a "democratic exception"—a missed opportunity to help these countries become more stable, prosperous, peaceful, and adaptable to the stresses of the 21st century.

I agree. We and our allies—both in the West and in the Muslim world—owe it to ourselves to pursue such broad, strategic goals in the war against terrorism: to enlarge the opportunities within the Muslim world to embrace democratic norms, to encourage open, constructive political discussion in closed, reserved societies, to support experiments in improved governance, to promote opportunities for Muslim women to participate more broadly in the life of their societies.

  • We can also encourage the silent majorities throughout the Muslim world to speak out on behalf of moderate alternatives to radical Islamic ideology. We need to find ways of encouraging the moderates to return to the field, which has been dominated by the extremists.

Such an approach requires honest discussions with our friends in the Muslim world. We need to discuss candidly what we can do and what they can do.

  • Friendship without such honesty is a hollow thing indeed. There is no Marshal Plan in the war against terror. There is no "one size fits all" for addressing these problems these states face.

Some may ask, what will the United States get out of such close engagement? Naturally, we hope for better relations. But we most emphatically want to ensure that we never again see the rise of a terrorist sanctuary on the back of a beleaguered state. This is one great lesson of Afghanistan.

By denying sanctuaries to terrorists, we will deny them camps where they can train, where they can indoctrinate, where they can plan and ultimately, undertake operations that hurt US interests.

But we must also recognize we cannot impose an "approved" version of Islam on the Islamic world. What we instead need to do is help the Muslim world come to grips with its issues and to find its own way out of the political and economic dead-end the radicals are urging.

I have been privileged in my work—as many of you have in yours—to meet with a broad range of talented, passionate people from this crucial part of the world. Most understand the threat that terror poses to all of us. Most recognize that it does not advance the legitimate aspirations of anyone, and that its inevitable result is to bring suffering upon suffering.

They may not agree with every policy of the United States. Even the closest of allies differ over tactics and strategy. And so, what we seek from our foreign partners and friends is not a unanimity of ideas, but a sharing of basic values, a dialogue from which we learn together.

Of course, with the safety of our country in the balance, there are times when dialogue and engagement are not enough. In intelligence, as in other fields of national security, the principle that guides our actions is a bit less elegant, but no less practical: with others if possible, alone if necessary.

These concepts—the mix of realism and idealism that is so closely identified with the United States—are at the very heart of the thoughtful work done by the Nixon Center. We find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century in a very different place than any of us would have imagined. We need to rely on well-honed skills and new thinking—the sort of thinking that was Richard Nixon at his best — envisioning a world different than the one he knew—a world in which you could open relations with China or agree to arms control with the Soviet Union as a means of advancing our interests without sacrificing our values or goals.

And here, at an event that echoes the memory of President Nixon the statesman, I would like to close with his words, as non-partisan as any can be: "I believe in the American dream," he said, "because I have seen it come true in my own life."

All of us here find truth in that statement. And we find something more: A reason why so many are moved—and so many have sacrificed—to defend the blessings, the opportunities, the choices, the freedoms, that we enjoy as Americans.

Thank you very much.


Historical Document
Posted: Apr 03, 2007 08:59 PM
Last Updated: Jun 20, 2008 08:31 AM