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Remarks of David S. Cohen Deputy Director Central Intelligence Agency at Joint Military Commissioning Ceremony Yale University

Remarks of David S. Cohen Deputy Director Central Intelligence Agency at Joint Military Commissioning Ceremony Yale University

May 18, 2015

Dean Holloway, Chaplin Kugler, Captain Kemper, Colonel Haun, distinguished guests, members of the Yale community, family members, and most importantly, our candidate officers – Andrew, Marie, Adianis, Evan and Sam – welcome!

I’d like to begin by thanking Captain Kemper and Colonel Haun for inviting me to be here with you today. It is a true honor to be able to help celebrate the choice that our five candidate officers have made to pursue military service.

On a personal note, it is a special privilege to be addressing you at the commissioning of my son, Sam, as a Naval officer. My initial plan was just to present a slideshow of Sam’s baby pictures as my speech. Sam, you can thank your Mom for talking me out of it.

Commencement ceremonies are a wonderful combination of old traditions and new beginnings, of reminders of the importance of institutional stability and the imperative of change.

So, too, with commissionings – they are opportunities to reflect both on what endures and what evolves.

Yale’s storied history of sending its best and brightest into the armed forces is certainly something that endures. Yale students and graduates have fought in every major conflict in American history: from the Revolutionary War, to the Civil War, in both World Wars, and in the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One need only take a short stroll through campus to observe first-hand Yale’s longstanding commitment to protecting our Nation. From the names inscribed in the lobby of Woolsey Hall to the bronze statue in the middle of Old Campus commemorating an early Yale graduate turned spy, one cannot tell the story of our Nation without telling the story of Yale.

Perhaps the opening chapter of that story begins with that schoolteacher, Nathan Hale. Hale was a 1773 graduate of Yale College. Two years later, as the Revolutionary War was raging, Hale left his teaching job in New London to volunteer for Washington’s Army.

Desperate to determine the upcoming location of the British invasion of Manhattan, General Washington himself sent Hale across enemy lines on a dangerous intelligence-gathering mission.

On this mission Hale was armed only with his Yale degree, which he brought along to buttress his disguise as an unemployed schoolteacher.

Hale was quickly captured by the British in Manhattan and hanged, but not before uttering his famous last words: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Then, as now, intelligence was a dangerous business. Yet, as you all know, it is also absolutely vital to defeating our enemies. That is why a statue of Hale also stands right outside the doors to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

I mention Nathan Hale’s story not to give you a history lesson. I’m sure you’ve had enough of those over these past few years. And I certainly do not mention Hale to convince you to bring only your diplomas on missions behind enemy lines.

Rather, I mention Hale because the commitment you are making today has important echoes in the past – echoes that provide context for the decisive step are taking today.

Although Hale volunteered to serve even before our Nation existed, like each of you he also received a commission. And as it turns out, Hale’s commission, dated January 1, 1776, still exists – it is in the collection at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library here at Yale. I have a copy of it right here, and one for each of you after this ceremony.

What is remarkable is that the language of Hale’s commission – even though it was signed 239 years ago by John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress – is virtually identical in several critical respects to the commission each of you will receive today.

Just like the founding generation did with Hale, our country today is placing, and I quote, “a special trust and confidence in your patriotism, valor and conduct.”

And just like our founders did with Hale, our country today is asking you to “carefully and diligently discharge” your duties as an officer, while also “requir[ing] all officers and soldiers under your command, to be obedient to your orders.”

And as Hale was, you are now commanded to “observe and follow such orders and directions from time to time as you shall receive” from your commanding officer.

So each of you are but the latest link in a long chain of courageous national service that dates back to Nathan Hale’s time – to a time when this Nation was just forming. Today, you have chosen to become an indelible part of that tradition.

While Hale’s story reminds us of the enduring legacy of service here at Yale, it is the recent return of the military’s ROTC programs to campus that reminds us how things change and improve over time.

Today, we are witnessing the first Navy ROTC commissioning ceremony at Yale since Richard Nixon was president over 40 years ago. Today we also celebrate the commissioning of only the second Air Force ROTC class at Yale since the program left campus in 1970, amid protests against the Vietnam War.

Although Vietnam may have been the spark for the military’s departure from campus, it wasn’t until 2010, when the military ended its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, that Yale welcomed ROTC back to campus. In repealing the law that denied gay Americans the right to openly serve their country, the military took a long overdue step in the right direction.

Today, all Americans, gay or straight – just like all Americans, regardless of race, religion, or gender – can proudly wear the uniform and count themselves among the greatest fighting force in human history.

I applaud Yale for welcoming the military back onto campus and for creating an ROTC hub for aspiring officers from around New England, including the three candidate officers from the University of New Haven who are commissioning today.

But while we recognize and respect this story of tradition and change, ultimately it is the significance of your decision, and the singular importance of your chosen occupation, that we are here to honor during this ceremony. It is your selfless commitment to our Nation that we are here to honor and applaud.

In the coming weeks, you will be reporting to military bases around the Nation, followed by assignments around the world. You are doing so at a time when our world is undergoing historic transformation. The world order is under great stress from new and old threats alike. Terrorists have gone from fighting states to brazenly declaring their own states. Meanwhile, we are witnessing a resurgence of old-fashioned state-backed armed aggression.

This moment, like many others before it, calls for American leadership and engagement. That the five of you have committed to military service at this time in our history is a powerful acknowledgment that you understand the challenges that we, as a Nation, face, and an affirmation of personal devotion to helping solve these problems on behalf of our country.

Over the past several years, I have been fortunate enough to work on some of these vexing national security issues, first at the Department of the Treasury and now at the Central Intelligence Agency.

And I have been especially fortunate to work with teams of courageous and dedicated public servants —public servants who are committed to nothing short of our collective safety and security.

From these experiences, I have drawn some principals that may be useful to you as you embark on your exciting journey as leaders in our national security enterprise.

One: Lead with integrity. The famous writer Samuel Johnson once said, “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”[1]

You all have accumulated much knowledge and will continue to do so. The harder task is cultivating integrity—both for yourself and for those you lead. There will come a time when you are faced with a choice: do the difficult right thing or the easy wrong thing. When that decision stares you in the eyes, remember that your integrity is the only thing no one can ever take from you. Only you can give it away. Don’t.

Two: Lead with care. Hold your subordinates to the highest standards, but care for them. Mentor them. Be firm but fair. Understand their perspective and their challenges. Harness their passion through your compassion. And the more you do this, the more you will find that those above you in the chain of command will do the same for you.

Three: Pursue moral clarity with vigor. You may not always find it, but if you don’t pursue it—if you are not asking yourself and everyone who works with you the right questions, the hard questions—you are not growing as an officer or as a person. And when you see something, don’t just say something. Do something. Take initiative, not umbrage. Be bold but not rash. Be idealistic but not naïve.

And that leads me to my last principle: Reject cynicism. Cynicism is a contagious virus bent on destroying innovation, creativity, and originality.

The people who really leave a mark—be it in the military, in government, in business, or in academia—are those who take risks, who test the conventional wisdom, and who refuse to blindly accept the consensus but instead question and challenge it.

In doing so, they understand that making mistakes is often a necessary prerequisite to making a difference. Don’t be reckless, but don’t be afraid to take calculated risks. When it doesn’t work out – and I can guarantee you, sometimes it won’t – take responsibility, keep your chin up, and keep at it. And when your calculated risk yields an unexpected benefit, take pride in proving the cynics wrong and share the glory.

Now, in a few minutes, in the presence of your classmates, teachers, commanding officers, and families, you will swear an oath of office. The language in that oath is derived directly from the oath of office of the President of the United States, dictated in Article II of the Constitution. Like the President, the oath you are about to take commits you to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Today you are pledging to uphold the system of laws by which we agree to be governed, and the Nation that it created. Today is about an unstinting and unconditional devotion to this sacred vow – a vow that links you to generations of brave men and women who have given their lives to protect our liberties, and a vow that forms the most durable bulwark against tyranny.

That is heady stuff. And so, as I conclude, I have one request for our candidate officers before they take that vow.

Andrew, Marie, Adianis, Evan and Sam —I am asking you to think hard about the meaning of this vow. Think about what you are swearing to protect. Think about those who have come before you and those who will serve under you. And finally, think hard about the legacy that you wish to leave as an officer in the Armed Forces of the United States of America. We are counting on you and we look forward to seeing you thrive.


[1] Johnson: Rasselas [the Astronomer]

Posted: May 20, 2015 02:25 PM
Last Updated: Nov 10, 2015 10:57 AM