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DCI Remarks at National Conferences of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Remarks by the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence John E. McLaughlin
at the National Conference of Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Arlington, Virginia
(as prepared for delivery)

September 16, 2003


When I am asked to meet with groups outside government, I sometimes think I owe my invitation to the reputation intelligence officers have: a reputation for long trench coats—and short speeches.

This is hardly the place for the trench coat. But I hope at least to uphold the other half of the image. And, if at all possible, I would like to use some of our time together today to take your questions and hear your thoughts on the profession of intelligence.

A lot has been said and written about it over the years. Much good, much not. Especially in recent years, much of what the public thinks is shaped by the print media, television and Hollywood. But to show you how close they come to getting it right, in my previous job at
CIA —The Deputy Director for Intelligence, Harrison Ford actually played me in the movies!

But movies like "The Sum of All Fears" and "The Recruit"—though exciting and compelling—do not really capture the business. Putting a two-hour film next to a 31-year career, I can tell you: The real thing is better.

Rarely as flashy, never as lucrative, but vastly more rewarding.

In keeping with the vibrant democracy we serve, US intelligence is far more open than that of other nations. And yet, because so much of what we do we do in essential secrecy, we remain something of a mystery to many Americans.

My goal in these few minutes is to share some views about what we do and to seek your support in helping us do it. With all due respect to both the television show and the movie, this is not mission impossible.

But it is mission imperative. Because—to be at its best—American intelligence needs the best talent our country has to offer: Talent that you and your schools sharpen and prepare each day. Talent that I hope you will steer to us.

So, then, who are we?

We are 14 agencies, each with its own special skills, yet all working together for a single purpose: to protect Americans, wherever they may be, upholding not only their interests, but their values.

Some of those agencies, like the FBI and the CIA, are relatively well known—if not always fully or fairly understood. Others have lower profiles, but the work they do is no less difficult, no less vital.

They range from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which can give us detailed read-outs of virtually any corner of the planet, to the National Reconnaissance Office, which sends the most modern satellites into space.

At times, as in the battle against terrorism, we act to project American strength. At other times, in unsettled places as different as the Balkans, East Timor, and West Africa, we act to clear the way for urgent humanitarian aid.

With the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, I coordinate the overall activities of those 14 agencies—our Intelligence Community—while guiding the day-to-day activities of one of them, the CIA.

Most of our country's intelligence officers are not part of law enforcement. But we work closely with law enforcement. Most of us are not in uniform. But we work closely with every branch of the military.

As a community, our focus is external. We help the United States meet the challenges of leadership in an increasingly complex, often dangerous world.

Our contribution comes first in the form of information. Information about security threats and opportunities overseas.

But we do more than report on conditions abroad. As the President directs us, we work to change those conditions for the better, in favor of liberty and those who seek it. Those operations are among the most sensitive and hazardous undertaken by our government.

They are conducted in the shadows. But not without prior approval by our nation's most senior leaders and near-constant review by both the executive and legislative branches of the government. In a society like ours, a society of laws and accountability, it can—and should-be no other way.

To American intelligence, secrecy is a grant not of power but of trust. Like any trust, we must at all times be prepared to explain and defend our use of it. And we are. We answer not only to the President, but to two bipartisan oversight committees of Congress.

As one who has gone before both those committees, I can vouch for the demanding, detailed nature of their oversight. I have the sweat to show for it. That, too, is at it should be.

Given its enormous responsibilities—the enormous and enduring consequences of its actions—US intelligence must be professional, objective, and nonpolitical. In my own case, I came up through the ranks of the CIA. I was nominated for my current position by President Clinton, and confirmed by the Senate during his administration as was George Tenet.

The President we serve has changed. But the nature of our service has not. We are here not to make policy, but to inform it. To provide the clearest judgments we can about events and trends in the world, no matter which party controls the White House.

Each day, our officers accompanied by Director Tenet or myself brief President Bush and his closest advisers. From the day a President is elected, these briefings begin. I had the privilege while holding another position at CIA to be one of President Clinton's first briefers back in 1992 before his inauguration early the following year. Almost every high-level policy meeting in Washington begins with a briefing on the latest intelligence. We are the starting point. We frame the discussions that follow.

The ways in which we gather that information—the ways in which we do our jobs—are as varied and exciting as life itself. They defy easy description. Perhaps an example or two will illustrate.

We have a man who—after 30 years with CIA and on the verge of retirement—helicoptered into Afghanistan about two weeks after 9/11, leading the first American team on the ground in what was then Al-Qaida's sanctuary. It is a place he knows well—the languages, peoples, and issues. Living in the dirt, he helped spread resistance to the Taliban—a tyranny that made ignorance its policy, oppression its tool, and gave harbor to the authors of September 11th—the acts of murder that took some 3,000 lives.

We have officers posted to countries around the world. They come to know their societies as no tourist ever can. Their contacts run from presidents, kings, and prime ministers to businessmen, street vendors, taxi drivers, and dissidents. They use those contacts to collect information that bears directly on the safety and security of our country. If I were to define this part of our mission it is to get information the United States really needs but can get in no other way.

We have technical collectors—specialists in foreign media, in electronic signals and codes, in satellite photography, in the physical signatures of chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons. We have engineers and scientists who extend the bounds of knowledge in dozens of disciplines—some so new they have yet to be given a name.

In short, our Intelligence Community could staff several small universities in nearly every discipline from the hard sciences, to history, political science, jurisprudence, psychology and anthropology. And many of the people who possess that expertise also parachute out of planes and excel in martial arts. It is an unusual blend of skills, with a large dose of eccentricity for good measure. The Intelligence Community is, of course, no stranger to cutting-edge technologies. Almost half a century ago, with our partners in industry, we built the U-2—a revolutionary surveillance aircraft that still flies today.

In the 1950s, when we faced not only an iron curtain but an iron box—one closed to us on all sides, one that concealed the activities of a strong and predatory Soviet Union—the U-2, armed only with a camera, pried the lid off that box. It gave the United States a true picture of what the Soviets were—and were not—doing, so that our defense and foreign policies might be based on facts, not fears.

That is what sound intelligence does.

But we by no means have the market covered on expertise or wisdom. Far from it. We must reach out to partners across America. We still go where the good minds are, which is why the agencies of the Intelligence Community conduct a host of research programs with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

But even the best information, once acquired, is of little value without people to pull it all together, to put it into context, to say what it means. They are the analysts—experts on specific regions and on global issues, from the complexities of international economics to the activities of international terrorists, drug dealers, and arms traffickers.

Their job-and it was for many years my job—starts where the news media leave off. The task of the intelligence analyst is not to report what happened yesterday, but to say what might happen tomorrow. To discuss its implications for the United States. To consult a vast array of sources-open and classified. And to do it all on the tightest of deadlines.

In this staggering diversity of requirements and activities—and here I have barely scratched the surface—you find the most powerful argument for diversity in our Intelligence Community.

To put it bluntly: Someone who looks, thinks and speaks as I do cannot do every job that US intelligence is called upon to do around the world. Because intelligence itself depends for excellence on a rich variety of views.

Whether you are planning a delicate intelligence collection operation or assessing the results of one, whether a case officer, analyst, scientist, or administrator, we need to be as creative as we can be. To consider new ideas and alternatives, possibilities that most might overlook or ignore.

In short, we need a true mix of perspectives—to see that we are asking the right questions, without which we cannot hope to find the right answers. And your perspective comes from your background, from your life experience: What you have seen. What has happened to you. What hardships you have endured. What you have done to overcome it. What you have learned.

From the start, modern American intelligence has drawn for strength on those different perspectives—from bankers and lawyers to engineers and tradesmen. From the sons and daughters of old New England families to the sons and daughters of the newest immigrants.

At the close of World War Two, the head of the Office of Strategic Services—the unit from which much of our Intelligence Community descends—explained it to his people this way:

"We have come to the end of an unusual experiment. This experiment was to determine whether a group of Americans constituting a cross section of racial origins, of abilities, temperaments, and talents could meet and risk an encounter with long-established and well-trained enemy organizations.

"How well that experiment has succeeded is measured by your accomplishments and by the recognition of your achievements."

Among those who served in the OSS was a distinguished professor, who—at the head of a small staff—put his world-class expertise on Africa to work as an intelligence analyst. His name was Ralph Bunche.

It is that kind of diversity—a diversity of minds, a diversity of experience—that we still seek today. Now, our workforce is only about 11 percent African-American. We know that it can be higher—that such a dynamic, courageous, and accomplished segment of our people has much more to contribute.

After a time in the 1990s—when the number of positions in the Intelligence Community dropped by almost a quarter—we have for the past several years been on a powerful recruiting drive. Not to rebuild the capabilities we lost after the end of the Cold War, but to create the ones we would need in a new century.

The attacks on our nation—and, with them, the intensification of our campaign against terror—have only made what was urgent more urgent. Our mission is as clear as it has ever been.

If we are to accomplish that mission—and we must—we need the skills of the very finest Americans. We rely heavily on the gifted scientists, engineers, IT specialists, and mathematicians your schools develop. Please, keep them coming. But I also ask you to encourage others—your linguists and area studies majors—to consider careers of service in intelligence.

Together, we can work to strengthen your programs in those fields—please engage us. Together, we can work to see that our country has the men and women it needs in intelligence.

It is—to be sure—a very difficult profession. We deal with the unknown, the uncertain, the complex, and the dangerous. The information on which we must base our judgments and our actions is often ambiguous or contradictory, and inevitably incomplete.

Faced with threats from closed states—(such as North Korea)—and closed groups like al-Qa'ida, we must be not only as smart as we can be, but as bold as we can be.

We are forced each day to take risks-in both operations and analysis. And, by definition, with risk comes the possibility of mistake, even failure. That is the nature of our business. The certain and the easy we leave to others.

The hours are long. The pace and pressure can be intense. But when you can be part of an operation like the one that led to the capture last month of the terrorist behind the Bali bombing—an outrage that killed more than 200 people—the sweat and sacrifice is well worth it. Or part of the operation about six months ago that led to the capture of Khalid Shayhk Muhammed, Bin Ladin's architect for the 9/11 attacks.

One of our officers, an African-American involved in clandestine collection, put it best when he said: "It is our duty and responsibility to use our extraordinary access and capabilities to fight for those who can't fight for themselves."

Those are the kinds of opportunities we have in the Intelligence Community—opportunities for courage and daring, for rigor and pride. You have the men and women to fill those opportunities. The time to bring them together is now.

Thank you very much.


Historical Document
Posted: Apr 03, 2007 08:59 PM
Last Updated: Jun 20, 2008 08:36 AM