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Brennan Delivers Opening Remarks at Conference on the Ethos and Profession of Intelligence

Remarks for CIA Director John O. Brennan as Prepared for Delivery at the Conference on the Ethos and Profession of Intelligence, George Washington University

October 27, 2015


Good morning everyone and welcome. Thank you for being part of what promises to be a day of lively, enlightening discussions on the ethos and profession of intelligence.

Speaking for all of us at CIA, we deeply appreciate the partnership of George Washington University in putting together this conference. GW has long been a powerhouse in the field of national security studies, and we are very fortunate to have members of its outstanding faculty and student body participating in today’s events.

I want to thank President Steven Knapp and everyone at GW for hosting us, with special thanks to Trustee Emeritus BJ Penn, Trustee Rick Knop, and of course Associate Vice President Frank Cilluffo and his team at GW’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the distinguished panelists and moderators who will be taking part in our discussions. Thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules to share your wisdom and insights with us today.

CIA began this annual conference series last year with an event at Georgetown University. We did it because, like any other part of the US Government, the Agency and our Intelligence Community partners must have the trust and confidence of the citizens we serve in order to carry out our mission.

Earning that trust requires that we get out and explain our work, articulate our values, and lay out our fundamental motives and objectives. And the fact is, there are many aspects of our profession beyond the clandestine sphere that lend themselves to public discourse.

So in addition to providing an opportunity to engage with the people we serve, this conference provides a forum from which we can benefit from outside views and gain a better perspective on the issues we confront.

Each panel on today’s program will shed light on a major challenge facing our Agency and the broader Intelligence Community. These are subjects that CIA’s leadership team deals with every day. How we approach these challenges will determine the Agency’s success in keeping our Nation and allies safe and in advancing our shared interests throughout the world.

The first panel, moderated by Gwen Ifill, will cover the unprecedented array of global threats we face today and are likely to face in the future. From traditional geopolitical rivalries and nationalism to the scourge of terrorism to an entire new domain for conflict, the cyber realm, America’s intelligence officers have never confronted a wider variety of potential dangers to national security.

The complexity of these challenges is compounded by the fact that crises can arise instantly in the age of social media—the so-called Arab Spring being a prime example. And along with the benefits that rapidly advancing technology brings to the world, it also empowers individuals and groups to commit acts of sabotage and disruption that, previously, only states could perpetrate.

These threats raise fundamental questions for those of us in the Intelligence Community: How might our people, equipment, and funding be optimally deployed to address these challenges? What should be our collection priorities? Where are the trends heading, and what are likely to be our Nation’s primary foreign threats in the next ten or twenty years?

These are all key questions, and I look forward to joining the discussion.

Next, we will take a look at the Intelligence Community’s strategic warning function, our first and foremost responsibility. Intelligence officers are far from omniscient—and I’m sure the reporters out there will readily agree—but we accept the fact that omniscience is often the standard by which we are judged when it comes to preventing surprises for policymakers.

My good friend Jim Clapper has often joked that, for any national security issue, there are only two possibilities: policy success or intelligence failure. No other outcome is possible.

Clearly, our duty as intelligence professionals is to look beyond the next horizon—not only to highlight key events around the globe, but to give policymakers a good idea of the factors that are likely to shape future developments. Almost every aspect of national security policy, from military action to diplomacy to international law enforcement, depends on timely, accurate, and insightful intelligence.

Today we will have senior intelligence officers and policymakers offer their views on strategic warning—the historical record, its current role in the policy process, and what it can realistically achieve. My friend and colleague David Cohen, who became CIA’s Deputy Director after serving as a senior policymaker at Treasury, will be the moderator for this panel, and he has an excellent perspective on the issue.

Our third panel, moderated by Kenneth Wainstein, will address the need to bridge 20th Century law and 21st Century intelligence. Just as intelligence tradecraft must keep pace with technology if we in the Intelligence Community are to meet our global mission, so too must the laws that govern how we carry out our work.

For example, Congress over the past few years has tried, without success, to pass laws addressing the need for comprehensive cyber policy, especially on information sharing between the public and private sectors. Such an approach is essential if our Nation is to better defend itself against foreign cyber threats.

In the absence of legislation, President Obama in 2013 issued Executive Order 13636, which included much-needed provisions on the protection of critical infrastructure as well as on information sharing and standards development. But we still have a long way to go before we have a truly effective and unified national response to the cyber threat.

As Congress and the courts deal with this issue, we must always bear in mind that security and privacy are not mutually exclusive. The benefits of enhanced information sharing can be achieved in a way that fully respects and protects civil liberties.

Our fourth panel, moderated by Mike Vickers, addresses a challenge that will be absolutely vital to our future: How to provide our officers with the tools, skills, and expertise to carry out their jobs in an increasingly complex and volatile world.

For the Intelligence Community, the digital revolution has opened up a whole new world of possibilities, with consequences that stretch across every aspect of our mission. New technologies give us the capability to collect more data than ever before. And cutting-edge tools allow us to process and analyze it quickly and thoroughly, spotting trends that the human brain could never detect on its own.

But there are tradeoffs in this interconnected world. Just as terrorists leave trails of digital dust that our government can track, our officers leave behind digital footprints of their own, making it more difficult for them to operate clandestinely.

So as important as it is for us to acquire the most advanced technologies, equally important is developing a workforce with the technical savvy to manage both the promise and the peril of the digital domain.

That means recruiting aggressively among the millennial generation. It means providing world-class technical training to our workforce. It means partnering with the private sector to help us spur innovation. And it means giving our officers the career opportunities they need to acquire new skills, to build their professional acumen, and to develop as leaders.

At the end of the day, the Intelligence Community’s greatest strength is and will always be its people. They are the foundation of everything we achieve as a Community. Indeed, our success in the coming years will be determined to a large degree by how well we train and equip the tremendous talent within our workforce.  

Our final panel today will be moderated by David Ignatius and will focus on the role of international partnerships in advancing our intelligence mission. These partnerships are often underappreciated by outside observers, but they are crucial to our national security and to countering global threats.

I devote a great deal of my time as CIA Director to developing strong relationships with my counterparts around the globe. From the largest services with global missions to those of smaller nations focused more on local and regional issues, CIA has developed a range of working relationships with intelligence and security services overseas.

By collaborating with foreign partners, we are in a better position to close key intelligence gaps, to prevent strategic surprise, and to fulfill our mandate as an intelligence service with truly global reach. There is no way we could be successful in carrying out a mission of such scope and complexity on our own.

On innumerable challenges, our cooperation with foreign liaison has quietly achieved significant results. Working together, we have foiled terrorist attacks, intercepted transfers of dangerous weapons and technology, brought international criminals to justice, and shared vital intelligence and expertise on everything from the use of chemical armaments in Syria to the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine.

These relationships are an essential adjunct to diplomacy. By working with our foreign partners, we enhance global security by helping them tackle challenges that threaten us all.

Before we begin our panel discussions, I want to say a few words about what CIA is doing to prepare for the challenges of the 21st century.  For as interesting as these challenges are to discuss, what ultimately matters is the steps we are taking to address them. And I am proud to say that at CIA, we are already putting many of the ideas you will hear about today into action.  

As many of you know, nearly eight months ago we launched our Agency Modernization Program. It is essentially CIA’s blueprint for the future. It draws on best practices from across the Intelligence Community and from the private sector, on issues ranging from how we develop our workforce to how we integrate our capabilities and expertise.

Our plan is driven by two fundamental shifts in the national security landscape that I alluded to earlier:

  • The first is an increase in the range and complexity of the challenges confronting our Nation’s policymakers.
  • The second is the technological advances that are transforming the world in which we live and operate.

Our Modernization Program is designed to give us the capability and the agility to thrive in this new age. On October 1st, we achieved a key milestone in our program with the establishment our new Directorate of Digital Innovation—our first new Directorate since the 1960s—which will accelerate the integration of our digital and cyber capabilities across all our mission areas, while infusing those capabilities throughout the Agency.

On the same day, we also stood up our ten Mission Centers: six focused on regions, like Africa and the Near East, and four focused on functional issues, such as counterterrorism and counterintelligence. These centers exemplify the integrated way that CIA will work in the future.

In the months and years to come, these changes—combined with the other elements of our Modernization Program—will help CIA harness all our strengths so we can better address the full spectrum of national security threats. They will make our relationships with our IC partners and our counterparts overseas more streamlined and more effective. And they will enable the Agency to do an even better job of operating in the multidisciplinary and ever-more technical environments that come with our mission today—and that will be even more prevalent tomorrow.

Let me conclude by saying that without a doubt I have the absolute best job in the world. Not only do I get to work on the most challenging and consequential issues of our time; I also get to work with the most talented, dedicated, innovative, selfless, courageous, and hard working women and men this Nation has to offer. It is a great honor and privilege to serve as Director of the CIA, and it is a great pleasure to cohost this conference with George Washington University.

With that, I will turn it over to Frank Cilluffo of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security here at GW, who will be our host throughout today’s conference.


Posted: Oct 27, 2015 02:45 PM
Last Updated: Nov 10, 2015 10:55 AM