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Director’s Remarks at Annual Conference of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Transcript of Remarks by Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
Leon E. Panetta

at the
Annual Conference of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities

September 1, 2009

Director Panetta at HBCU Conference.JPGLEON E. PANETTA, DIRECTOR OF THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY:  Thank you very much, Dr. Ross.  I’d also like to thank Secretary Duncan, as well as Dr. Wilson, for inviting me here to share some thoughts with all of you.  It is a privilege and a pleasure to be here.  More importantly, it really is an honor for me because of several reasons.  Number one, your mission, which in many ways reflects the spirit of our democracy.  Because of the work that you have done to promote equal educational opportunity, a mission that goes to the heart of what America’s all about. And because of my own history, which in many ways tracks with your struggle for equal opportunity for all. 

The work of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, I think, is in the finest tradition of what our nation is all about.  It is about helping Americans realize the dream of giving our children a better life.  And above all, that means access to higher education.  Higher education is the key to being able to achieve that better life. 

And I know this from my own experience.  As was mentioned in the introduction, I’m the son of Italian immigrants.  My brother and I were the first in our family to go to college and to university.  As the son of immigrants, the values that I just talked about in terms of achieving that better life are what I believed in, and what my parents made sure that we understood, was the reason that we were to be educated and to be able to achieve that opportunity that this country is all about.

I remember asking my father, why would you travel more than 3,000 miles to a strange land – no money, no speaking ability, very few skills?  Yes, they lived in a poor area of Italy, but at least they had the comfort of family.  Why would you leave that to come to a strange country and travel all those miles?

My father said, “The reason we did it is because your mother and I believed we could give our children a better life.”  And I believe giving our children a better life is the American dream.  It’s what this country is all about.  And in line with that is the importance of recognizing that, as we give our children a better life, they have a responsibility to give something back to this country as well. 

My parents also constantly emphasized the importance of giving back to this country some measure of duty and responsibility in return for the opportunity that my parents got in order to be able to achieve some degree of equal opportunity.

And so public service has been part of my bloodstream for a long time.  You’ve heard my résumé – beginning from being an intelligence officer in the Army through being Chief of Staff to the President of the United States, and now as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  All of that public service has been because I truly believe that it is important to give something back to this country that gave my parents and my brother and I the opportunity to succeed.

And in many ways, as I said, my career tracks the struggle that you’ve been involved in, in achieving equal education.  Early in the 1970s, as mentioned in the résumé, I served as Director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights.  Our responsibility was to promote equal educational opportunity to all of our children.  And the primary responsibility we had at that time was to basically break down the dual school system and to desegregate schools that had, by law, been divided between black and white children and to try to ensure that school districts were complying with Brown v. Board of Education and with civil rights laws.

Having worked on civil rights laws when I was a legislative assistant in the Congress, I believed that it was my responsibility in that job to enforce the law and to enforce the Constitution.  But when duty to the law conflicted with the politics of the time, I decided that duty was more important.  And I’ve never regretted that decision.

In the 1980s, when I returned as a member of Congress and chair of the Budget Committee, I had the opportunity to work on funding for black colleges and universities – worked with Bill Gray, worked with members of the Black Caucus to ensure that we would be able to provide funding.

In the 1990s, I was honored to be a part of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  Early in his term, President Clinton signed an executive order that assigned OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, with oversight of the Initiative’s annual federal plan for assistance.  And as OMB Director at the time, and then later as White House Chief of Staff, I was proud to play a role in helping to strengthen your great schools. 

For 130 years, you’ve been an invaluable asset for African-Americans and an irreplaceable source of talent and energy for America. 

As different communities have become part of our social fabric, our country has become even stronger, with a dynamic vitality that nobody else can match.  Diversity, along with freedom and the rule of law, is at the heart of what makes America great.  As CIA Director, I can tell you there is probably no other organization that stands to benefit as much from diversity.  Recruiting and developing a diverse workforce is crucial to the CIA for several reasons.

First, this nation was founded on the principle that we are all created equal.  It is a fundamental principle that says America is going to ensure that all of us – regardless of our race, regardless of our sexual orientation, regardless of whether we’re disabled, regardless of what God we believe in – will have the opportunity to succeed.  If citizens want to serve his or her country in the field of intelligence, it is wrong to let those kinds of issues stand in the way of success. 

The other reason is equally important because, very frankly, diversity helps us do a better job of keeping this country safe.  Good intelligence requires officers from diverse backgrounds who have different approaches to the issues that we face, who bring a wide array of skills to our mission, and are products of the cultures in which we have to operate.

I’d like to underscore how important diversity is to the CIA by talking a little bit about our mission.  Our first responsibility at the CIA is to protect the safety of this nation – today and tomorrow. 

We are a nation at war.  We’re confronting a war in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq.  We are confronting al-Qaeda and other terrorists in Pakistan who threaten our homeland and threaten our troops.  We are confronting the challenge of nuclear proliferation in countries like North Korea and Iran.  We are confronting a whole new challenge of something called cyber-security, which has the potential to, in fact, bring down our markets, bring down our power grid system, bring down our water systems and cripple this country.

And we’re confronting the challenge of instability: instability in the Middle East, in Africa, in Latin America, in Southeast Asia, in places like Yemen and Somalia.  The CIA has to be an intelligence organization that understands what our adversaries are thinking.  What are they doing?  What are their secrets?  What are their strategies?  What do they intend to do that will hurt us and that will hurt our goal of seeking peace in the world?

We have to understand those dangers, those opportunities, as America faces a world that confronts a number of challenges to our safety.  This is not about the past.  This is about the present and the future.  When President Obama offered me this job, he told me to “call ‘em the way I see ‘em.”  And I told him that I will tell him the truth.  And oftentimes I will tell him things – (Applause).  Oftentimes I will have to tell him things he would not like to hear.  But, as Director of CIA, my responsibility is to present him the very best intelligence that we have – not because it’s politically right, not because it’s what he wants to hear, but because it is the truth.

So what I emphasize with every CIA officer is that our responsibility to the President and to the leaders of this country is nothing less than providing the truth.  Our mission requires highly skilled people from many different fields and many different disciplines.  The work of all of these officers who work at the CIA – case officers, analysts, people who work in science and technology, people who provide the support for our mission – it goes to the core of what we do as an Agency.

These are people, I have to tell you, who put their lives on the line every day.  I wish I could take all of you to our stations throughout the world, so that you could see the work of our case officers on a daily basis: men and women, some in our National Clandestine Service, who are out there trying to see if we can get people to spy for the United States, to determine what is going on in other countries – What are they thinking, what are our enemies thinking? – to try to develop a collection of intelligence so that we know what is happening, that are engaged in operations.  Some of those operations are incredible in what they do to save lives. 

Our analysts, people who take that intelligence and try to determine what does it mean, who write finished reports that try to say to the President and to the leaders in this country, why is this intelligence important, what does it mean in terms of our security.  They’re subject experts.  They’re inquisitive by nature.  And they’re well versed in the analytic tradecraft.

That’s the kind of intelligence that goes to the President and to leaders in this country every day.  That’s what our job is all about.  And the best intelligence, the best intelligence comes from officers who can operate credibly and effectively in just about any society on the globe.  That means that they have to understand those societies. They have to speak their language.  They’ve gotta be able to know what their cultures are all about.  They have to be able to know what makes people tick in these countries to understand them.  Otherwise, intelligence doesn’t mean much.  So, a lot of this is about getting officers who understand countries that they have to engage in.

Intelligence, to be effective, we have to reflect the face of the world that we’re responsible for.  And so it’s for that reason that we reach out, to seek out a diverse workforce.  That’s why I’m committed to making the CIA look more like this nation that we protect, look more like the world that we protect, so that we can operate effectively to help protect the country.


Our goal, my goal – and it’s our goal – is to substantially increase the diversity of our workforce in the next few years.  And the position that the CIA is, what we’re seeking is to be recognized as one of the top ten diversity employers in this town.  That’s our goal, and that’s what we intend to achieve.


By its very nature, diversity encompasses many dimensions – ethnicity, cultural, educational, religious, racial, behavioral, sometimes not easy to quantify.  But one element, which is minority representation, is the one area that we’d like to see our workforce closely approach the level of the population that we have in this country.  CIA needs to reflect the face of this country.  And that’s what my goal is as Director of CIA.

A fine recruiting effort has already begun to do that. The CIA is, I think, viewed as a great place to work, a challenging place to work.  We get more than 140,000 applications at the CIA, almost 400 a day.  And if there is a new James Bond movie that comes out, we get even more applications as a result of that.


Our retention rate is one of the best in government.  Right now, new officers who come in, we lose less than one percent.  So we’ve got a great retention rate. Almost a third of our new hires this year are minorities.  That’s good, but we can do even better.  We want to significantly increase the hiring of minorities in collection and analysis and their inclusion in student intern programs as well.  We aim to expand national origin hiring – first- and second-generation Americans – and substantially boost the number of new officers with foreign languages.  Above all, we’re widening our recruitment pool by going to more places that offer a rich variety of talented candidates. 

Historically black colleges and universities are an important part of that effort. We’ve already started recruitment efforts at 17 of your schools this semester.  We’re conducting interviews, classroom presentations, faculty meetings.  We enjoy working relationships with many of the career offices and will reach out to more of your schools in this coming year. 

Our officers also participate in the Intelligence Community Centers for Academic Excellence, the innovative program that’s led by Dr. Lenora Gant.  And we’re very proud to be part of the National Urban League’s Black Executive Exchange Program, which does an excellent job of cultivating future leaders in government and industry.

I have to tell you that more than just a diverse workforce – this is a little tougher challenge – we’ve got to have a diverse leadership as well.  My agency – (Applause) – my agency seeks to give all of our officers obviously the training and development they need in order to thrive in their work.  We need to make sure that, in every case, accomplishment earns a seat at the table of leadership at the Agency.

By any measure, we don’t have enough diversity in our senior grades.  Bringing executives from outside of the Intelligence Community isn’t easy in the profession of the CIA.  So that’s why we need to develop our junior and mid-level officers so that they can achieve those leadership positions.  Achieving greater diversity in senior leadership means giving up-and-coming officers what they need to earn, what they need to learn in order to be at that table of responsibility. 

The bottom line is we’re putting the CIA on a track to better represent the best and the brightest from all of the communities that contribute to America’s greatness.  It’s good for all of us, and it’s good for the nation that we serve.

This month marks eight years since the attacks of September 11th.  All of us must remember the lesson of 9/11, that we must do everything possible to make sure that that never happens again to this country.  It is the tireless work of thousands of men and women in the military, in law enforcement, and in intelligence that is essential to our nation’s security.

President Obama gave me the high honor of working with some of the most capable and gifted people that I have known in over 40 years of public service in this town.  These are people who frankly don’t pay a lot of attention to the noise in this town, but do pay a lot of attention to what their heart tells them about commitment to service.

More than half of CIA’s workforce has come aboard since 9/11.  The energy and spirit they bring to the job is amazing, and my goal is to begin a new chapter for the CIA in the 21st century that provides the best intelligence possible with a professional and diverse workforce that reflects the face of the world and abides by the highest values of our nation.

Ultimately, protecting America is not just the work of the CIA; it’s the work of all Americans.  It’s the responsibility of all of us to fight for a better nation and to fight for a more secure nation. 

There is a story I often tell, that makes a pretty good point, of the rabbi and the priest who decided they would get to know each other a little better.  And they thought if they went to events together, they could learn about each other’s religion. And so, one evening, they went to a boxing match.  And just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross.  And the rabbi nudged the priest and said, “What does that mean?”  The priest said, “It doesn’t mean a damn thing if he can’t fight.” 


Now, frankly, we bless ourselves with the hope that everything is going to be fine in this country.  But, frankly, it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless we’re willing to fight for it.  I know – (Applause) – I know that you are willing to fight for a better life and for a better nation.  And I look forward to working with all of you in being able to make sure that that American dream we all care about is real for all of our children.  Thank you very much. 

(Standing ovation, applause.)

Posted: Sep 03, 2009 11:17 AM
Last Updated: Jan 05, 2010 10:15 AM