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Excerpts of Remarks by Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David H. Petraeus, at the CIA Diversity Awards

September 28, 2011

It really is a pleasure to be part of this very important event, one which speaks directly to the values of our Agency, our profession, and our country.

That is because throughout our country’s history as you all know—in difficult times and when facing difficult tasks—the United States has drawn on the strength of all of its people, including those whose full rights to the American dream were not wholly recognized at various times.

Back in 2006, I had the privilege of being in the company of former First Sergeant Walter Morris, the first of the troopers to be assigned in World War Two to the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion—the “Triple Nickles”—a unit of African-American airborne volunteers. These men, having met and passed the rigors of parachute training, were eventually given the dangerous—and secret and still very little known—job of jumping in to fight fires in the western United States that were caused by Japanese balloons carrying incendiary bombs in the final year of WWII—again a still little-known episode, but a very dangerous one indeed.

You might wonder why those men stepped forward, given the hostility they so often faced from their fellow Americans and the fact that they had not initially been allowed to even be paratroopers. Here’s what First Sergeant Morris told Tom Brokaw years after WWII about that: “It occurred to me,” the First Sergeant explained, “that the reason I was doing it was because of my children and my children’s children.” As the First Sergeant put it, “I knew in my heart” that “this country, as great as it is, would overcome the stigma of separation and prejudice.” His actions, and those of fellow black paratroopers who walked point for their race and for all our values, helped our country do just that.

Fittingly and happily, that was not quite the end of the story. Because also in the audience that day in 2006--as we dedicated a memorial to the “Triple Nickles” at the Buffalo Soldier Monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas—also there was the First Sergeant’s grandson, a Captain in the infantry and a graduate of the United States Army’s Airborne School. The Captain had validated the hopes, the service, and the sacrifice of his grandfather and it was a wonderful moment to see.

What we learn in the American military—indeed, what we learn from American history—is that character and courage come in all colors and that bravery and initiative spring from every background.

And nowhere is that more true than in our Agency. When the CIA’s wartime parent, the Office of Strategic Services, was shutting down in September 1945, in fact its chief, Major General William Donovan, told those he led—and I quote—“We have come to the end of an unusual experiment. That experiment was to determine whether a group of Americans constituting a cross section of racial origins, of abilities, of temperaments, and of talents could meet and risk an encounter with long-established and well-trained enemy organizations.”

Those words, spoken amid the celebrations of the grand victory to which the OSS had contributed, make clear that for American intelligence, diversity is, in fact, who we are and what we must be. It defines us. And it is essential to our success. It is essential to mission accomplishment.

At its core, after all, intelligence is about solving problems—operational, analytical, and technical. The challenges are typically complex, with lots of moving parts and pieces. Easy tasks rarely come to the CIA. And most tough problems are overcome only with a range of perspectives and approaches and backgrounds. In this business, uniformity of thought is a recipe for failure; diversity is imperative for success.

That is one reason that we talk about diversity and inclusiveness as “mission imperatives.”

In truth, it is the mission that attracts Americans—all Americans—to the CIA, just as the mission of being a paratrooper attracted First Sergeant Morris to the Triple Nickles. We seek the chance to help protect our country—to help defend what it stands for, to preserve its promise and potential to be even better tomorrow. That chance—that privilege—is what draws Americans of every description to the most demanding forms of public service, and that very much includes service with our great Agency.

As a foreign intelligence agency, as America’s only Central Intelligence Agency, it is imperative that our officers understand the cultures of the world we assess, the cultures of the world in which we operate. As a defender of democracy, it is imperative that we look like the country we serve; that we represent the people of our great nation as part of our bond with the American citizenry.

On both counts, we have a huge advantage, because the United States is, in the words of Walt Whitman, “not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations.” That still rings true to all of us I know, and it rings true to me, a second-generation American, the son of a Dutch immigrant. Our country has always drawn the talent we need from across our teeming nation of nations. And, since 9/11, the CIA has done an unprecedented amount of recruiting in communities not adequately represented in our workforce. After all, the successes of our Agency, in counterterrorism, counterintelligence, foreign intelligence, and all the other endeavors in which we are engaged have to be a product of the skill and strength and diversity of our people.

I have only been here for three weeks and I obviously have a great deal to learn about our great Agency. But I did want to share a few of my own thoughts about diversity, even before I put out a formal statement on this important subject.

For some, diversity is about statistics. For me, statistics do have value, but—good, bad, or in-between—numbers don’t tell the whole story. And we shouldn’t be satisfied just with numbers. We need to know how people are progressing and growing professionally, in addition to the numbers. We have to see if we have the best mix of officers deployed across our professions and grade levels. We need a clear picture of our leadership pipelines and feeder pools. We need to see how the especially challenging, growth assignments are shared among our workforce. And, we need to push for that growth, for those experiences, and for that mix from the highest levels of this organization. We will provide that push.

I spent 37 years in an organization that puts a premium on training, on education, on mentoring, and on leadership—as well as on accountability for results—not because those qualities are nice to have, but because the success of the mission depends on them. The culture here is very similar.

This agency understands that, and we have good people working those issues. When it comes to how we treat each and every one of our officers, what I expect is what you expect, I imagine: Not simply that we uphold the law and be true to our values, but that we foster ideas and discussions and pursue the kind of creative, disciplined intellectual process that makes for good decisions and great outcomes. Two preconditions for that process are inclusion and respect.

The colleagues we honor today have met all of these standards; they have done all this and much more. They have worked consistently to help attract and retain the people we need for mission success, and to ensure that those around them have every opportunity to contribute to their full potential. And, they have demonstrated that one person can make a difference on an issue as complex as diversity in our Agency.

I congratulate all of them, and right now I ask that you join me in a big round of applause for them as well.

Posted: Sep 29, 2011 03:11 PM
Last Updated: Sep 29, 2011 04:42 PM