Remarks by the Deputy Director for Operations James L. Pavitt
at the American Bar Association Standing Committee
on Law and National Security Breakfast Program
January 23, 2003
There is something uniquely American about this gathering. Because only in America would you find the head of the Clandestine Service, not only speaking on the record, but speaking on the record in a room filled with lawyers and reporters.
Remember that the next time somebody tries to tell you that the Central Intelligence Agency is risk averse.
Sixty years ago, on a winter morning in neutral Spain, a member of the Office of Strategic Services—our wartime parent—faced one of the hardest decisions of his life. His mission was to take a train through Vichy France to Bern, Switzerland—to slip past the Nazis into the heart of Europe. His timing could not have been worse. That very morning, Allied troops landed in North Africa—triggering a German clampdown on all travelers in France. A difficult task had now become nearly impossible. His choice was stark: he could stay in the safety of Spain or he could brave the Gestapo at the border. He weighed the risks—knowing his life was at stake—and pressed on, using charm and creativity to get into Switzerland. This was no ordinary traveler. His job was to gather intelligence in Bern, intelligence that would prove critical in the fight against Nazi Germany. That American's name was Allen Dulles. And his career, ranging from operations officer to Director of Central Intelligence, was marked by a passion for espionage, paired with a patriotic determination to succeed. As Director Dulles was fond of saying, "I have never believed in turning back where there is any chance of going forward." I have the honor of leading a group of men and women who have that same passion for espionage and the same patriotic determination to serve their country at a time of great need.
The basic fact of the day is that we meet in extraordinary times. Our nation is at war. And it is a war unlike any other we have ever fought, but a war nonetheless. When an enemy takes more than 3,000 lives on a single morning, you can call it nothing else.
More than two centuries ago, in a clash of wills and weapons stretching over six years, the American military lost in battle some 4,400 men to win our freedom. As great as those sacrifices were, the sacrifices required to preserve our freedom have proven to be vastly greater.
For it is a lesson of history that liberty attracts not only those who wish to prosper in its light, but those determined to snuff it out, those who know that their ideas can prevail only in the darkness of oppression, ignorance, and misery.
Who are these people? The kind of man who would say: "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." The kind of man who would say: "The killing of Jews and Americans is one of the greatest duties."
The first was Stalin. The second was Usama bin Ladin. And though the circumstances and beliefs that gave rise to each are very different, as are the forces on which each could call, they are in some ways two of a kind.
Though their words are different, their language is the same. It is the language of intolerance and hate and the language of indifference to the suffering and death of innocent men, women, and children.
The agency I represent, and the directorate I am privileged to lead, were born in the early days of the Cold War, the conflict with Stalin and the Soviet Union. But they were not created merely to wage that difficult and that dangerous contest.
They were built to give our country a powerful advantage in its role as a global superpower, a role it still holds today in another conflict with another foe. And it is about that foe—and the demands now imposed on CIA's Directorate of Operations—that I would like to talk today.
To state a clear principle: We are not at war with a faith, a people, or a part of the globe. What we conveniently call the "Muslim world" is home to more than 1.3 billion human beings with hundreds of languages and cultures. Any student of its rich diversity can find in that huge region both currents of promise and currents of danger.
What you cannot find are massed armies of fanatics, poised to strike at any target of convenience. We are at war with what George Tenet rightly describes as "the fringe of the fringe of the Muslim world." Incredibly committed, incredibly dangerous, but not incredibly numerous.
Their terrible strength lies elsewhere—in their relative anonymity and in their absolute ruthlessness. This we saw so clearly on September 11th.
I am often asked if we, as a nation, could have prevented those terrible attacks. In terms of intelligence, I personally remain convinced that—given what we knew that day—the answer is sadly no. In terms of the bigger picture—the laws and regulations of our land as they were written then—we can ask:
Could the FBI have held men who were in this country legally and who had broken no laws? Was it a crime to take a box cutter aboard a plane?
CIA, along with much of the rest of our government, was no stranger to the terrorist target. We began to work against it in a specific, concerted way in the mid-1980s, when the world was still defined largely by the East-West divide.
Our knowledge grew, as did our successes, through the lean years of the mid-1990s. I would like to take you back there for just a moment.
What were the realities? In the Intelligence Community as a whole, the number of intelligence positions dropped by almost a quarter. At CIA, recruitment of case officers and all-source analysts—the heart of our organization—came to a virtual halt.
As we shrank, some in Washington spoke hopefully of a "peace dividend," never, never imagining that our enemies would ultimately cash in part of that so-called dividend.
After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, and the successful disruption of a broader operation to destroy key landmarks in New York, we understood that the hands of terror—resolute and resilient—would seek to strike at the United States again and again—here and overseas.
And let's not forget that it was during the decade of the 1990s—when choices and tradeoffs were as hard to make as they have ever been—that the Intelligence Community tripled funding for counter-terrorism. We may have lacked many things in those days, but focus was never one of them.
We kept that powerful focus amid a host of other, competing national security priorities. Some—like Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo—have quickly slipped from the front pages. Others—including Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq—are still there.
My point is that each issue we have to deal with, and there are many more beyond those I have just cited, demand time, attention, people, and dollars.
I want to be very clear. That is not a complaint. That is not an excuse. It is, however, a reality. A reality we cannot afford to forget when discussing the health and performance of American intelligence.
When President Eisenhower came out to Langley in November of 1959 to lay the cornerstone of our Headquarters building, he gave voice to a fundamental truth of espionage. "Success," he said, "cannot be advertised. Failure cannot be explained."
In large part, that remains valid today. But one result of the inquiries into the tragedy of September 11th is that the American people have—I believe—a far better sense of what their intelligence agencies can and cannot do. We have now had a chance to share, in general terms, the difficulties we face and the breakthroughs we have made.
We have been able to tell some of our story. It is a story of amazing triumphs—of terrorist assaults averted, of terrorist cells disrupted, of countless innocent lives spared. And iis also a story of painful losses—of our embassies in East Africa, of the USS Cole, and, most horrible of all, of September 11th itself. I am very conscious of those terrible losses.
The months and years before that unforgettable Tuesday morning were filled with intense, at times even feverish, activity. Working with our partners in this country and overseas, we amassed a great deal of intelligence about Bin Ladin and the global network of murder that we have all come to know as al-Qai'da.
And these were targets we did not simply study. With creativity and daring, we went on the offensive against them.
The men and women who did this work—who sifted patiently and expertly through mountains of incomplete, often contradictory, information to develop leads and make us smarter about a mortal threat, and those who ran the risks out on the streets to take terrorists off them—these unsung heroes performed exceptionally under enormous stress and enormous challenge.
Exceptionally, not perfectly. Deep in the last century, Senator Hiram Johnson of California claimed that truth was the first casualty of war. I am not that pessimistic. To me, the first casualty of war is perfection. Not the expectation of perfection—that can be a hardy survivor, and it is, but the reality of perfection.
I think the distinction is important.
I know better than anyone else the great efforts that were made at CIA before 9/11 against a very secretive and disciplined enemy. And I know the great people who made them. But the fact is, despite everything we did, we—and the rest of our government—were unable to uncover the tactical information—the who, where, how, and when—that might have given us a clearer picture of this deadly conspiracy.
It was not, as some have suggested, a simple matter of connecting dots. Could certain things have been done differently? As with most any human enterprise, the answer is yes, of course. What is done well can always be done better.
But, as our country continues its investigation into these brutal terrorist attacks, there is one conclusion we should keep fixed in our minds:
The primary cause of the attacks was not a memo ignored, a message untranslated, or a name left off a watch list. Their primary cause was a man named Usama Bin Ladin and a group named al-Qa'ida.
When President George Bush decided to strip both Usama Bin Ladin and al-Qai'da of their Afghan sanctuary—a decision that moved the war on terror to an entirely different level—the contribution of intelligence was soon very plain to see. The first American team on the ground out there was CIA—for a reason.
We had people with the right local languages, we had people with the right local contacts, and the right universal skills—the ability both to report conditions and, if need be, to change them for the better. And they were ready to move, at virtually a moment's notice.
That brand of agile knowledge defines the Directorate of Operations. Its application in Afghanistan gave our military and our allies a priceless edge in their battles with the Taliban and al-Qai'da. In short order, one tyranny was driven from power, its dreams of an endless Dark Age shattered. And a second tyranny was put to flight, its agents scattered after a stunning defeat.
The CIA's contributions in Afghanistan continue to this day. They are possible for one reason: The agency did not, contrary to what you sometimes hear, forget that country, or that region, after the Soviets pulled out in 1989. You simply cannot create overnight the combination of assets—the talent, the sources—that went into the highest possible gear in defense of America after September 11th.
From the wrecked bases of terror, from those captured in Operation Enduring Freedom, we have learned much. Now, with al-Qai'da flushed from its central haven, we are in a long and perilous phase of hunt and pursuit of its cells and sympathizers. And as our president has said to the world, we will find them and we will destroy them.
But let's be clear about this: the task is difficult and the war will be long. As we move and adjust, so do our enemies. They adapt. They regroup. As we have seen in many places, from Bali to North Africa and the waters off Yemen, they retain their ability to strike. And they retain as well their interest in developing and acquiring more gruesome weapons of destruction and fear.
The operational environment may be tough. The possibility of new attacks against us may be high. Yet we as Americans can take some comfort in the fact that we are by no means alone in this campaign. In intelligence, as in military affairs and diplomacy, a coalition of nations—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—has taken shape to combat the specter of terror.
On September 12th, much of the international community—through its intelligence services—came to CIA and asked how they could help. Beyond sympathy, solidarity, or any calculation of gain was an understanding that terrorism threatens more than the United States. In its rage, corruption, and quest for power, it is a threat to governments and peoples everywhere.
The Directorate of Operations has many close and productive liaison relationships. To us, these are force multipliers, valuable extensions of our own activities. With the stakes as high as they are, I would be irresponsible not to use every legitimate resource at my command.
But, fundamentally, for the spies we run, the secrets we steal, and the insights we develop about the world—be it pinpoint events like a terrorist plan or the broader, deeper currents that lie behind them—we rely first and foremost on ourselves and our skills as intelligence professionals.
It has always been so. Today, however, we have more reporting on the really hard targets than I can remember at any time in my nearly 30 years of agency service.
The achievements of the Directorate of Operations—what it brings to the security of the United States each and every day—are the product of the sweat and sacrifice of its people. They are a mix of veteran officers and newer recruits, brought in over the past five years as the leadership of CIA has sought to rebuild the Clandestine Service.
After a period of neglect, when some in government saw little need for our existence, others were giving us more missions, and fewer still thought to give us the money or people to accomplish them, the tide began to turn in 1998. Now, we are hiring at an unprecedented rate. President Bush and Vice President Cheney's support for our efforts is unprecedented. Our support from Congress is also unprecedented.
There are some misperceptions out there about our recruiting drive. Some claim that we have lowered our standards. One fellow—who once worked at CIA and should know better—said that the officers of today are reluctant to take the hard jobs and reluctant to go to the danger spots of the moment. That's just nonsense!
I want to be very clear: We have plenty of our people posted wherever our mission takes us. The personal risks are enormous; the intelligence gains significant. Those who fear a risk averse Directorate of Operations simply do not know what we are about.
To those critics who were in the past part of the agency, I invite you to put down your coffee, climb out of your armchair, and get back in the fight. For years in the DO, we have had a very successful reserve officer program. If you have what it takes, we welcome your ideas and experience.
I have heard many recommendations from well-meaning observers about the utility of having case officers who know foreign languages, the need to keep human intelligence as our major mission, even the desirability—when no other alternative exists—of bringing on undesirable people as clandestine sources on topics like terrorism, proliferation, and international crime.
Let me say it as clearly as I can: We are doing these things. We have always done these things. We are as aggressive as the law and common sense allow us to be. No one at CIA should fear floating a chancy, but well-thought-out proposal up the chain of command. We live with chance. One of my jobs is to support and encourage those who meet it face-to-face.
And, frankly, timidity has never been much of an issue in the Directorate of Operations. The people within it are just not built that way.
The spirit and skill of the men and women I lead far surpass my powers of description. But to offer even the roughest idea of the patriots drawn to intelligence and espionage, let me take, as an example, the class of Clandestine Service Trainees who graduated just last month:
In that group, you would find MBAs, a PhD, and a healthy sprinkling of attorneys, among others. Speakers of Arabic and Korean, among others. Americans of many backgrounds, all willing to pledge their talents to a cause greater than themselves.
Although we are getting more résumés than we have ever gotten, we are as selective as we have ever been. By Washington standards, the Directorate of Operations is very small. But this business has never really been about numbers. Here, agility and flexibility count for much more. And so, we recruit not only for abilities and experience, but for attitude.
We need officers with energy and imagination, ever willing to learn. Officers with a sense of curiosity and adventure, at home in more than one culture. Officers of courage who can take an operational idea, and properly weigh the potential risks against the potential gains. Carrying as we do the reputation of the United States, our aim is to be bold, not reckless.
This is not a calling for everyone. And not everyone selected for training ultimately makes the grade. I expect, indeed demand, a great deal of those in the Clandestine Service, because our nation does as well. The missions with which we are entrusted are some of the most serious and sensitive undertaken anywhere in our government.
A key part of our training—and a key part of our business—centers on responsibility and integrity. Denial and deception we reserve for our targets.
We understand that secrecy is a grant of trust, not a grant of immunity. We understand that we act in the name of the American people, and that we must act in keeping with the laws they honor and the values they cherish.
You should be very proud of the work done by your Directorate of Operations. I certainly am.
Each and every one of us signed up to preserve and protect the Constitution. A country that is so tightly closed as to be utterly immune to terrorism is not one I would choose to serve. In fact, I would not even want to live there.
One of the many things that set us as a people apart from those we fight is the vigorous exchange of ideas. For those of us in the world of intelligence, much of that dialogue must, of necessity, take place behind closed doors. Not just within the Intelligence Community, but between that Community and the people's representatives—the oversight committees of Congress.
It is a rare privilege for me to get out and meet with an audience like this. Together, we are in a new age. An age of hazard. An age captured in the creation of a Department of Homeland Security—a development few Americans could have foreseen even a few short years ago. We are in the midst of one war, with a second a distinct possibility.
With all those things in mind—which limit what I can say—I would very much like to hear from you. Your thoughts. Your questions. Your concerns.
But first, let me thank you for your attention and the warm welcome you afforded me here this morning. Thank you.