CIA Director's Remarks at the Helms Symposium
Remarks of Director of the Central Intelligence Agency,
Gen. Michael V. Hayden
at the Helms Symposium, Georgetown University
(as prepared for delivery)
Good afternoon everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here at Georgetown, especially for this event.
Today we present the largest set of documents ever released relating to the work of a true pioneer of the American Intelligence Community and a dedicated servant of the Republic, Richard Helms. The Central Intelligence Agency once again has partnered with a university to make available to the public a major collection of formerly classified material. And, for the first time, we’ve combined official documents with an even larger body of personal papers, graciously donated by the Helms family. We now have the most complete picture ever assembled of the man many consider to be the quintessential CIA director.
This compilation of historical works, cable drafts, essays, interviews, photographs, and video offers an unprecedented, wide-ranging look at Richard Helms and his career. It allows us to better understand the major contributions he made to both the Intelligence Community and to our country. And it offers insight into the difficult decisions he made while serving as Director of Central Intelligence and Ambassador to Iran, two exceptionally demanding assignments during a turbulent era for our country and the world.
As a student of history, I look forward to the perspectives of our next panel of experts. Richard Helms is one of the commanding figures of the American intelligence profession. The challenges he confronted during his nearly seven years as DCI mirror those we face today, and his rich legacy of decision and action—always thoughtful and direct, never diluted by ambiguity—gives us much to consider and appreciate.
I would like to speak briefly this afternoon on what his legacy means to me. There is a distinct continuity across the decades in terms of a CIA director’s responsibilities and concerns, and I will comment on some of them—and on how Richard Helms, perhaps more than anyone else, defined how the job is done.
Director Helms last occupied the seventh-floor suite out at Langley some 35 years ago. For those of us who have been honored to work there since, his record of accomplishment has been an inspiration.
There are many reasons for his enduring influence. He was a wise and decisive leader, with a strength of character to match. He was a master of human intelligence collection, which is why our field operations training center bears his name. And, as the first truly modern CIA Director, Richard Helms set precedents that have guided each of his successors.
Let me define what I mean by “modern.” In the tumultuous era of the Vietnam War and Watergate, the American people demanded greater transparency from their government—including its intelligence agencies. In practice, it meant there was a new task in the director’s inbox: the need to explain publicly CIA’s essential role and critical impact.
As an OSS man and a member of CIA’s founding generation, Richard Helms had risen through the ranks of an Agency that took a sweeping view of the degree of secrecy it needed to fulfill its mission. At the same time, he strongly believed that an intelligence agency serves society—not the other way around. He had an abiding commitment to the American intelligence officer’s social contract with the American people.
CIA is a secret organization, but our social contract requires us to build a public consensus on the need for strong intelligence. Our open democracy requires a secret intelligence service as much as other forms of government do, if not more so. And the people have to be comfortable that we’re conducting our mission in a way that is consistent with their expectations.
Richard Helms understood this well and chose to express his thoughts on the issue publicly, a move that was exceptionally rare at the time for a serving director. In an address to the Council on Foreign Relations in 1967, he spoke of the changing times and an intelligence agency’s proper role in a free society. I quote:
The area of intelligence over which we can maintain the traditional secrecy has been steadily reduced. An important reason…is the conflict built into the conduct of secret operations in a free society…The nation must to a degree take it on faith that we too are honorable men devoted to her service. We are alleged to be out of control and irresponsible in action. We are neither. For intelligence is the servant of the US Government, not its master. We will undertake to do what the authorities ask us to do, no more and we hope no less.
For the first time, a CIA Director took his case directly to the American people. He spoke to them without pulling any punches, in a manner as direct and concise as he would address his fellow officers. And as he defended the institution of intelligence, he made a point of publicly defending its people, too—another fundamental responsibility of a CIA Director in the modern era.
Anybody familiar with our Agency knows the men and women of CIA want to take risks to collect the intelligence we need to keep America safe. The Director’s job is to ensure our people have the right incentives, the right support, the right top cover, and the right leadership to take those risks. The job, frankly, is to set the conditions for success.
And for a workforce that by definition doesn’t have a public voice of its own, the Director must speak for them as well. He must remind the country that Agency officers who work at Langley and around the world aren’t separated from the American political culture. They are completely part of it. They are affected by what goes on in the broader political culture, and by the nation’s discourse on their work.
“The same objectivity [that] makes our people so valuable to their country,” Richard Helms said, “makes them uncomfortably aware of their ambiguous place in it. They understand as well as anyone the difficulties and contradictions of conducting intelligence operations in a free society. Because they believe in their country, they do not want to see their work distort its values. They want to adapt intelligence to American society, not vice-versa.”
And if intelligence officers are sometimes misunderstood, our work is even less approachable. It’s the job of a DNI or CIA director to help the public and those in government as well—in both the executive and legislative branches—to understand both the possibilities of intelligence and its limits.
We face these questions all the time. At a speaking engagement last year, I was discussing our Community’s ability to analyze and offer ground truth to a decision maker, whether it’s a military commander or policymaker. I was asked, “On a scale of one to 10, where are we now as a Community?”
I said the first thing to understand is that anything above seven simply isn’t on our scale. If it’s up at eight, nine, or ten, we’re not in the realm of intelligence. Our profession applies to a range of subjects that are inherently ambiguous. Even when we’re at the top of our game, we can offer policymakers insight, we can provide context, and we can give them a clear picture of the issue at hand, but we cannot claim absolute certainty for our judgments. In the words of Richard Helms, “God did not give man the gift of prescience.”
The relationship between intelligence and policy is just as complex. Richard Helms mastered the delicate balance required of an intelligence officer—that mix of detachment and relevance that best serves the national interest. Above all, he told us to “keep the game honest”—to stick to the facts and their interpretation, be an impartial voice, and leave policymaking to others.
But he never lost sight of the fact that intelligence always has a policy effect. “No matter what you say to a policymaker,” he said, “you can’t divorce intelligence from policy. The only thing you can do is what I did, which was to try not to get into the actual policymaking process by trying to influence it one way or another.”
Intelligence analysis is at the nexus of the world as it is and as our leaders would like it to be. Many factors legitimately shape a policymaker’s work, views, and actions. But intelligence must objectively define the reality in which decisions are made, like the lines on a football field.
When we do our job well, we mediate the convergence of policy with reality. In the process, a good intelligence officer keeps his or her objectivity sacrosanct. But there is another virtue equally important—that of relevance.
Assessments that are exquisite in their intellectual purity and abstract reasoning can be of little value to a president who has to make a decision under less than pristine circumstances. That’s the tension inherent in the job. As Richard Helms would say, the place of an effective Director is always “at the table,” where policy is made. And there will always be others seated there as well—national leaders who approach questions of national security from different perspectives.
After 16 years of Catholic education, I feel I have a good grounding in the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning. I also know they’re both legitimate. One can reason from facts up to principles, and one can reason down from principles to facts.
For an intelligence officer, induction is the method of necessity. We must work from facts and rely on them to advance our arguments.
Policymakers lead our nation on the basis of first principles, and their reasoning is equally valid. When an intelligence judgment is brought into the decision-making process, induction meets deduction head on. It had better be strong enough to survive the impact.
Through two administrations, a highly controversial war, and assessments touching on issues as sensitive as the balance of nuclear forces, Richard Helms strove to keep the game honest. “Objectivity puts me on familiar ground as an old wire service hand,” he told a group of newspaper editors in 1971, “but it is even more important to an intelligence organization serving the policymaker. Without objectivity, there is no credibility.”
Credibility does derive from objectivity, but also from experience, dedication, and merit. Richard Helms knew our field from the ground up. Though he was both a founder and icon of the Clandestine Service, he is for everyone in our profession the consummate intelligence officer.
He presided over America’s Intelligence Community during a period marked by dramatic technical advances and innovation. The dawn of the computer era transformed how information was moved, stored, and intercepted, and space became a venue for collection. Richard Helms and his gifted colleagues established our ascendancy in these new domains, giving our nation the advantage of high ground that we hold to this day.
Through it all, he remained a firm believer in the fundamentals of his life’s calling. For Director Helms, clandestine tradecraft—if done right—has neither the empty glamour of many spy movies nor the cynical amorality of a le Carré novel. It’s intricate, demanding work, blue-collar in its intensity—but ultimately its own reward for the men and women who commit themselves to the challenge. “We are doing our job,” he said in his remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations, “not by a flashy triumph of espionage, but by an enormous amount of painstaking work.”
Over time, Richard Helms became even more convinced that human collection is irreplaceable. On accepting the Donovan Award in 1983, he said that “gadgets cannot divine man’s intentions...More than ever, we need agents in place to give us advance warning of what is on the drawing boards” of our adversaries.
Having spent my career in the Air Force and having served as NSA director, I have a very healthy respect for what “gadgets” can do. So did Director Helms. But in the past six years, we’ve never had a greater need to know what’s on the enemy’s drawing board. Doing that requires a strong National Clandestine Service, staffed by dedicated and highly skilled men and women, working in seamless integration with analysts, technical officers, and other specialists from across our Community, in close collaboration with the war fighters.
The cohesion we see today in America’s Intelligence Community—not to mention among the directorates of CIA itself—has progressed to a level that probably was unimaginable in the 1970s. We at CIA have helped prosecute the war on terrorism while balancing two seemingly contradictory yet absolutely necessary obligations: becoming part of an integrated Community under DNI leadership, and retaining our unique identity—one that Richard Helms would recognize without difficulty.
A strong Central Intelligence Agency, its authorities on human intelligence and covert action intact, its analytic judgments free of departmental influence, remains pivotal to the success of our Community. In a strategic sense, we remain America’s skirmish line, moving ahead of the main body of troops, keeping our eyes on the enemy, and being among the first to engage.
It’s crucial we retain that operational edge, because our nation has never needed it more. From the man we honor today and his OSS colleagues to our men and women on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, there remains an unbroken line. Thanks to Richard Helms and a lot of talented men and women who have answered the call over six decades, America has a unique and irreplaceable asset in advancing its interests and defending its people.