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Director's Remarks at University of Maryland Commencement

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

at the
University of Maryland Commencement Ceremony

May 21, 2009


LEON E. PANETTA, DIRECTOR OF THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: Thank you very much. President Mote, distinguished deans and faculty, all the alumni, families, the friends, proud members of the class of 2009, I am truly honored to have this opportunity to share in this wonderful graduation ceremony.

And, first and foremost, let me extend my deepest congratulations to the class of 2009 on your graduation.

You made it! (Cheers, applause.)

Now let me also pay tribute to your families, your parents, your spouses, your friends, all of whom are now saying, thank God you made it. (Laughter, applause.)

The support of those who give their love without limits is critical to your success. There is no way, no way I could have gone very far in life without the support and the love of my parents and, in particular, the love and support of my wife, Sylvia. Today is truly about family. And, in many ways, you are part of a larger family: the University of Maryland family.

This great university makes vital contributions to Maryland and to the nation, including some outstanding work for the Intelligence Community that I am a part of. Your School of Public Policy is first rate. You offer an excellent graduate certificate in intelligence. And the Center for Advanced Study of Language is one of the leading programs of its kind anywhere.

One of my goals at the CIA is to require every officer there to get language training in order to be a better individual at gathering intelligence. Speaking of intelligence, I can also disclose that this university has produced two of the most mobile and accurate weapons in existence: Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver. (Applause, cheers.) If they hadn’t signed with Washington and Chicago, we’d sign them up at Langley -- of course, at the government rate. (Laughter.)

Today I want to sign all of you up. I want to sign all of you up as citizen soldiers to confront the huge challenges that face all of us in the 21st century.

This day, this graduation, does mark a crossroads in your lives. That’s not just a cliché; you will now embark on a very different path in your lives. But it comes at a time when we face a major crossroads in the life of our country. As President Obama has made clear, we are confronting a set of unprecedented crises from the economy to energy, from war to health care, from deficits to immigration, from the threat of global warming to the threat of global pandemics.

How we confront these crises will determine the future course of America. It will determine whether we are to be a leader in the 21st century or just another failed empire in history. That responsibility does not just rest with the President and the political leadership of the nation; it rests with all of us and all of you.

Our democracy has survived because it was born in the crucible of public service. The Preamble of the Constitution says, “We, the people,” not, “We, the leaders,” not, “We, the government,” but, we, the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, promote the general welfare, secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity do hereby establish the United States of America.

And it was de Tocqueville who commented after he went through this country that “I have often seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare.” Our very heritage is built on giving back to the nation.

Winston Churchill, whose mother was born here in America, once said, “You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.” I’m the son of Italian immigrants who, like millions of others, came to this country with few skills, little money in their pocket and hardly any English-speaking ability.

But they understood the dream of America. When I would ask my father, why did you travel those thousands of miles to come to a strange country, I will never forget his reply: because your mother and I believed that we could give our children a better life.

That is the American dream. It is the fundamental bond that we all share. And we will make whatever sacrifices necessary to give our children that better life; a quality education, a chance to earn a decent living, a chance to enjoy a secure and peaceful world.

That willingness to join in sacrifice on behalf of our children and their future is built into the fiber of our republic. Our forefathers understood that the strength of this nation did not rest on a king; it did not rest on a parliament; it did not rest on a court. Our strength rests in people, people who are willing to sacrifice for the future.

Thomas Paine said, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.” And this simple reflection, well applied, is sufficient to awaken every man -- and I will add, every woman -- to duty.

It is that sense of giving that helped build this nation, that carved it out of the frontier, that built churches and schools and hospitals and businesses and farms, that fought wars, that survived disasters, and that ultimately made life better for those in the future.

It is that torch of service and sacrifice that must now pass from patriot and pioneer and soldier and immigrant to all of you. Every Sunday at dinner, as a boy, something that was a tradition in my family: My parents made clear to my brother and I that we had a duty to give something back to this country that had given them so much. And with that advice came a set of values: hard work, honesty, a clear sense of right and wrong -- qualities essential to life and to citizenship.

My parents, two years in the Army, and a young president who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” and in many ways, it inspired my generation. And the nation benefited from the impact of that generation, from civil rights to women’s rights, from the environment to education, from the Peace Corps to issues of war and peace.

It is time for you, a new generation of Americans, to now respond. You have the obligation and you have the responsibility to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

At the Panetta Institute for Public Policy that my wife and I established at California State University in Monterey Bay, in California, I often told my students that in our democracy, we govern by leadership or crisis. If leadership is present, and those who are elected are willing to make the sacrifices and take the risks associated with leadership and making tough decisions, then this nation can avoid, or at least control, crisis.

But if leadership is not willing to take those risks and make those sacrifices essential to governing, then make no mistake, we will govern by crisis. And too often today, crisis drives policy. You have the greatest opportunity of any generation in my lifetime to make clear that crisis is not the legacy that you are going to pass on to the future. This is a time for statesmanship, not partisanship; for solutions, not sound bites. Throughout our history, this nation has had to face challenges, and it has risen to the occasion. And I am convinced that the President, Congress, Democrats and Republicans and all of us must now do the same.

For you in particular, for you in particular, the problems of recession and unemployment, financial crisis, record deficits, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not just abstractions. As you try to begin your career in life, you have a personal stake in whether or not we meet those challenges. Fortunately, every day at the CIA, I see young Americans just like you that have stepped into public service to fight al-Qaeda, to fight the war on terrorism, to work against the complex threats that we face in the world. They’re part of an exceptionally talented team that President Obama gave me the privilege of leading.

More than half of our officers have come forward since September 11th, 2001, and quite a few from this university. Our men and women go wherever their mission calls them, and many put their lives on the line. There is a wall at the CIA in Langley where there are stars of those who’ve given their lives, and many of those names are not on that wall because they operated under cover. Each brings an extraordinary level of skill and dedication and spirit to the essential work they do in some very remote and dangerous places.

They do that work because they love this country. They believe in a free and open society, and they believe in upholding the laws and values of this country. And like the President, I do not believe that we have to choose between our values and our safety. We use – (applause) – we use our unique expertise and insight to protect the nation and to advance America’s interests globally and to help our country’s leaders change the world for the better.

The fact is that your Millennial Generation is already changing our nation and the world for the better. You are giving this good and decent country a new era of civic involvement and national purpose. Go forward knowing that you are greater than the challenges of your time. We’ve seen America, throughout its history, face adversity, and it forged great generations; you share that same destiny. The times demand your engagement, your leadership, and your integrity. So as citizen soldiers, fight for what’s right and what’s best about this country.

There’s a story I often tell of the rabbi and the priest who decided they would get to know each other a little better. So one evening, they went to a boxing match and thought that if they went to those kind of events, they could learn a little bit more about each other’s religion. And just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross. 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. (Laughter.)

Ladies and gentlemen, and graduates, we bless ourselves with the hope that this country will be okay, but frankly, it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless you’re willing to fight for it. (Applause.) And that means to fight for that American dream -- the dream that my parents and all of those who came before us hoped for -- that our children would have that better life in a more secure world, and to fight, most of all, for a government of, by, and for all people.

Class of 2009, the torch is yours. Good luck, Godspeed, and Go Terps!

(Cheers, applause, standing ovation.)


Posted: May 22, 2009 11:23 AM
Last Updated: Jan 05, 2010 10:16 AM