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Director Brennan Delivers Keynote at Miles College

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Central Intelligence Agency Director John O. Brennan, Keynote Address at Miles College National Security Colloquium in Birmingham, Alabama

13 September 2016


Good afternoon everyone. Representative Sewell, thank you for your kind words and for your many years of service on behalf of the people of Alabama and the United States. And I am grateful to President French for inviting me to be with you all today.

As CIA Director, I love the opportunity to travel outside of Washington DC and be among the American people. It enables me to better explain our mission and what CIA is doing to protect our Nation. It is also crucial for recruiting women and men to join the CIA—we need to reach out to attract the best talent wherever we find it.

But a visit such as today’s is a two-way street. On a personal level, I have come to Birmingham to learn more about a subject that is at the very heart of our identity as Americans—the civil rights movement. It is our Nation’s defining moral struggle—one that in many ways is far from over. But without the bravery and resolve of a community that refused to be treated as second class citizens, our attempts to build a more perfect union would remain even farther from the ultimate goals of equality and justice.

This morning I had the privilege of touring the Civil Rights Institute, and of visiting a solemn site that epitomizes the terrible suffering that African Americans endured—the 16th Street Baptist Church. Thursday marks the 53rd anniversary of the bombing of this church, an event that took the precious and all-too-short lives of four young girls, shocking the nation and the collective souls of its people. Today, it was inspiring to see a living, thriving Church that was the scene of one of the darkest moments in our Nation’s history. The imprint that Birmingham has left on all our hearts and souls will remain indelible.

Before sitting down for a conversation and addressing your questions, I would like to take this opportunity to say a few words about CIA and the world we face. Across my 36 years of working on national security issues, I cannot remember a time when our Nation faced a more complex array of overseas challenges.

Across the globe, particularly in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, the overarching challenge of instability looms large. The repercussions are severe: the emergence of ungoverned spaces where extremists and terrorists can operate, massive refugee crises, and the decline of democratic governance, among other problems. And the human cost is immense—suffering that is difficult to comprehend.

As we know all too well, the threat of global terrorism remains a major concern, even 15 years after the 9/11 attacks. The United States and our many partners have made progress on the battlefield against the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, but the group’s terrorism capability and global reach remain very real.

In trying to understand the sheer evil that is ISIL, I am drawn to the pages of my favorite novel when I was growing up—To Kill a Mockingbird. As Alabama’s own Harper Lee wrote, “There are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world, they’ve never learned to live in this one.”

As too many misguided individuals around the world continue to be motivated by the pernicious ideology and violence that ISIL promotes, CIA and our foreign partners are working together more closely than ever to contain and ultimately eliminate the threat.

At a time when we confront the destabilizing effects of terrorism and insurgencies, CIA also contends with the threats posed by great power rivalries. The geopolitical ambitions of Russia and China—particularly their territorial disputes with neighboring countries—remain a top priority for both CIA and the broader US Intelligence Community.

All the while, we live in the midst of a great global transformation—the cyber realm and its evolving consequences. The growth of the digital domain has provided us with breakthrough technologies and limitless opportunities to advance the human condition. At the same time, we also face malicious adversaries who seek to use these advancements for evil purposes. The cyber domain is a frontier that remains relatively new and uncharted—and that demands a national consensus on how best to strike a balance between the needs of national security and those of our open society.

In the face of this challenging landscape, CIA has had to evolve. Innovation in all that we do—from clandestine collection of intelligence, all-source analysis, covert action, counterintelligence, and liaison relationships—is key to our future success. It is one of the reasons we at CIA embarked on a modernization effort last year.

A central piece of that effort was the stand up of the Directorate of Digital Innovation, our first new Directorate in over 50 years. As I noted earlier, cyber is an environment where the actors and the rules of the game are constantly changing. CIA needed to create this Directorate to help us counter adversaries, safeguard our networks and databases, and adjust our own activities.

We also established Mission Centers to bring together and fuse the talents and capabilities of all of our disciplines. For too long, natural stovepipes within our organization divided our operators, analysts, technologists, and support officers. These centers help to ensure that CIA can bring all of its talents to bear on a single problem set.

I believe that this change at CIA can continue to draw inspiration from the larger aspirations of the civil rights movement. Now, this is not to diminish the unique significance of the historic struggle that played out here in Birmingham. But as I see it, at the core of CIA’s modernization effort is the belief that our own internal integration makes us better.

By creating our new Mission Centers, we are breaking down the barriers that kept our people isolated inside their own professional communities. We are allowing our officers to work together as one team.

As you might imagine, it has not been as easy as simply drawing up a new organizational structure. The cultural divide between operators and analysts, to cite one example, was deep and longstanding. But once people from different specialties were able to work together and got to know one another and even just sit together, the misperceptions began to melt away. The distrust that separated them, it turns out, was based on years of myth-making more than anything grounded in reality.

For CIA, an intelligence organization created by an act of Congress, our focus is directed outward. Our mission looks toward the world beyond America’s shores. However, the story of the Agency is intertwined with the story of the United States. And like our great country, CIA has had to confront some hard truths about who we are.

For much of our history, CIA failed to reflect the country it served. On the whole, it was a place dominated by people who look like me—white men—an old boys club of Washington’s elite. This very fact betrayed one of the great maxims of American life—that this is a country where equality of opportunity is celebrated and cherished. That life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights for all Americans, not just those who happened to be born of a certain race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.

But even beyond the moral argument—one that you all here are deeply cognizant of—there are some very real practical reasons for a diverse workforce at CIA. I truly believe that there are few if any organizations that stand to benefit more than CIA from a cadre of officers that truly reflects the whole of America, because the whole of America reflects the whole of the world.

At its core, CIA has a mission that spans the entire globe. To do our job effectively, we cannot have a workforce composed of individuals who look, think, and act in the same way.

We need women and men from diverse backgrounds who instinctively understand how different cultures operate. We need people who bring different perspectives and ways of thinking about difficult problems. Otherwise, we risk falling into the trap of group-think. From my perspective and that of my senior leadership, the business case for diversity is undeniable.

CIA took some time to learn these important points. We took way too long. We were, however, quite fortunate when in 1955 a young African-American man with a background in military intelligence found his way to CIA. His name was Omego Ware, and he would prove to have an indelible impact on our Agency and country. I’d like to take a moment to tell you his story.

Ware grew up in a Washington DC beset by segregation and discrimination. In the late 1940s, having neglected to note his race on his application, he was the lone African-American in his intelligence training class at the military’s European Command Headquarters. This was a position that Ware would frequently find himself in—the only Black officer and almost always the first.

Time and time again, both in the military and CIA, Ware succeeded in navigating these uncharted waters. His expertise in Russian and his thorough base of knowledge enabled him to contribute to the Agency’s mission and to rise up through CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence. He served in a series of positions in his storied career and created CIA’s first independent Office of Equal Employment Opportunity.

Described as the “Jackie Robinson of Intelligence” within the Agency, Ware took pride in his accomplishments but, with typical modesty, recognized that his pioneer status did not tell the whole story. He knew that there were other Black men and women who did not get the chance—who were let down by the system. Ware remained deeply disappointed in and embarrassed by this fact.

As Ware said after his career, “the problem is the inefficiency of it. Maybe I’m biased but I believe that the Agency and its mission are such that it just can’t afford it.”

Ware knew that CIA’s lack of diversity prevented it from performing at its best. And he devoted much of his illustrious work to making CIA a more effective and professional place. Retiring in 1982, Ware was later recognized as one of CIA’s Trailblazers—an award bestowed upon only those who have had the greatest impact on the Agency.

We have come a long way from the CIA that Ware joined and knew. It is a far different and better place. But as you heard from Bev, there is still a need for greater progress. When I came back to CIA from the White House, I saw that our top ranks failed to truly reflect the people of the United States.

As a result, we embarked on our Diversity and Leadership Study—an effort that forced CIA to confront some tough truths about itself. But we did not sweep this hard-hitting assessment under the rug; we made it public. And now we have a pathway forward that will help us to cultivate the change we need.

This is an issue I deeply care about. From an early age, growing up in New Jersey just across the river from New York City, I was exposed to different cultures and peoples. Looking back, there are certain times that I am not proud of—instances when ignorant and prejudiced comments were made in my presence and I did nothing. I did not stand up; I did not make myself heard.

Long ago, I promised myself I would not be silent when I see injustice, when I see bias, or when I see a lack of equal opportunity for all Americans. I am lucky to have the best job in the entire world. And my greatest hope is that because of the changes we have made at CIA, because of the policies we have put in place, because of the ethos of equality we have instilled throughout CIA, that we can have a workforce top to bottom that truly reflects this great nation of ours.

We live in a complex world full of dangerous and pressing threats. CIA has never been more essential to the safety and defense of our country. And CIA has never been more dependent on the deep reservoir of talent that this country provides.

Thank you for having me here today. And now, Representative Sewell, I would be honored if you would join me back up here on stage.


Posted: Sep 15, 2016 12:13 PM
Last Updated: Sep 15, 2016 12:13 PM