Remarks as prepared for delivery by Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo at the Conference on the Ethos and Profession of Intelligence, at George Washington University
October 4, 2017
Good morning everyone and thank you for coming.
I know you’re all looking forward to the panel discussions that are about to get underway. But first I want to say a few words about the subject that brings us all together, and that’s the profession of intelligence.
I want to talk about what it means to practice that profession in today’s world, one marked by speed, adaptability, and constant change.
Let’s imagine that an Agency officer is traveling on foot right now through the streets of a gritty foreign capital, dodging surveillance while on a critical mission. The officer is tracking an adversary that moves with lightning speed. And for a moment an opportunity presents itself, an opportunity that could spell the difference between success and failure in collecting vital intelligence on a hostile target. If the officer hesitates, the window will slam shut and the chance will be gone.
Our officers find themselves in situations like this all the time, perhaps even as I speak, and I consider it one of my chief responsibilities as CIA Director to make sure they are empowered to seize the moment—to make sure they have the authority, the tools, and the support to act.
Speed and agility have long been at the heart of good intelligence work. But they’ve never been more important than they are now. And this is true across every facet of our mission, whether it’s operations, analysis, support, science and technology, or the digital realm.
Many of the adversaries we’re facing today are incredibly nimble. And they’re viciously fast when deciding how they’re going to attack America.
That poses immense challenges for the institutions charged with helping our government defeat them. The size and complexity of our government, along with the need to coordinate efforts across organizational lines, make it hard for us to move as quickly as we’d like.
I was attending a meeting not long ago when someone asked how a certain adversary might react to an action we were planning. I joked that it was hard to predict, but there was one thing we knew for sure: They wouldn’t hold a meeting like this one.
Not everyone thought it was funny. But I was actually making a serious point: Most of our adversaries aren’t spending a whole lot of time on process. Instead of talking about what to do, they just go ahead and do it. And that gives them an enormous advantage.
But it’s not an insurmountable one. There are things our government can do to shorten the time that separates conceiving an idea from putting it into action. For CIA, one of the best ways to do this is to simply have faith in our workforce.
CIA officers are a national treasure. They have more than enough talent, skill, and courage for the job. What they need is the freedom to carry it out. They need us to remove the bureaucratic barriers that prevent them from taking swift, aggressive action.
Now, I’m not talking about action that exceeds their authorities. And I’m not advocating a culture of reckless freelancing. We believe strongly in the need for rigorous review of our actions, products, and programs. But we don’t want redundant review. Every step and every person involved should add value to the process.
As a large government organization, eliminating barriers to action is a never-ending challenge for us, one that most of my predecessors faced as well. Porter Goss, who’s serving on one of our panels today, noted the problem during his tenure as CIA Director under President George W. Bush.
Compared to what he saw as a case officer in the 1960s, Porter was struck by how much bureaucracy had grown up around CIA’s mission. He likened the bureaucratic layers to Virginia creeper vines, spreading voraciously around everything they touched. He said that unless they were hacked away, they threatened to stifle the Agency.
Porter and many of my predecessors did admirable work to cut back the vines, and I’m honored to continue their efforts. They all recognized the need to reduce the emphasis on process, thereby unleashing the awesome talent that has defined CIA since its founding.
The truth is, CIA has always had a bias for quick, decisive action. It’s a tradition that goes back to World War II and our predecessors in the OSS. As former CIA Director William Casey put it, in the OSS “you didn’t wait six months for a feasibility study to prove that an idea could work. You gambled that it might work.”
We saw that same spirit at work after the attacks of 9/11. Only fifteen days after the towers fell, CIA put the first American boots on the ground in Afghanistan, acting on orders from President Bush.
Think about that. On day fifteen, CIA’s leadership team didn’t gather to pare down a list of final proposals. They didn’t sit with the President to present him with a recommendation.
On day fifteen, an Agency team was already stepping out of a helicopter in northeastern Afghanistan, hauling a crate of weapons and a suitcase full of cash, and taking the fight to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida.
Speed and agility are ingrained in our Agency’s DNA. It’s not a question of creating a culture that isn’t there; it’s a matter of clearing away the things that restrain it. It’s about enabling our essential culture to flourish.
The challenges of today’s world demand nothing less. The need to act quickly is a defining trait of contemporary life. Most organizations today, across almost every discipline you can think of, are under tremendous pressure to respond immediately to whatever challenges come their way.
I ran an aerospace company before being elected to Congress. After the attacks of 9/11, demand for all things aerospace plummeted, and our business was devastated. What saved us was acting quickly and aggressively. We cut costs. We overhauled our business plan. And we survived.
That crisis taught me that good analysis and quick decision-making matter. Immediate action saved our company—and hundreds of jobs.
It’s tough to move that fast in government. For one thing, the feedback loop is slower. In the private sector, you know right away if you’re being outpaced by your competitors. Customers stop buying your product, profits dry up, and before you know it the Board of Directors is pounding on your door asking what you’re going to do about it.
And then there are the bureaucratic impediments that inevitably crop up in government. It’s not that people deliberately try to gum things up with red tape. The red tape just accumulates, almost on its own.
It often starts with the best of intentions—adding a new procedure or an extra layer of review can seem to add value to a process and reduce the chances of error. But there’s a cost to those things, especially if mechanisms are already in place to guide the effort, as they often are at CIA.
The cost is a slower, less responsive Agency. And in today’s world, that can have serious consequences for our nation’s security.
It’s a price our Agency can’t afford to pay. Because with each passing year, the pace of global events accelerates. And as it does, policymakers and the President are depending on CIA more and more for information, insight, and options.
We can’t meet their needs or execute their commands if we allow one of our great strengths—speed and agility—to wither through neglect. We must do everything in our power to become even quicker, even more flexible, and even more responsive—in short, to make sure we can move at the speed that our mission demands.
With that goal in mind, CIA is surging forward on several fronts. First, we’re taking every opportunity to impress on our officers the need to push decision-making down to the lowest possible level.
When it comes to the field, we want the leaders of our Stations and Bases to call the shots as much as possible. If they have to consult Headquarters, we want them to coordinate with those who know the most about the issue.
And I can tell you, if it’s a tactical issue, that’s rarely me, or anyone on my senior leadership team. Of course, there are plenty of decisions that only we should make, and some that we are required to make.
But many decisions can be made by officers who are closer to the issue at hand. They have a firmer grasp of the details than we do, so they should be the ones leading the way. And this is true of all our endeavors, whether at Headquarters or out in the field.
Second, we’ve streamlined decision-making in our Mission Centers, requiring fewer people to sign off on a piece of analysis or a proposal for action.
This not only speeds things up. It also gives our people ownership of their work, making them responsible for the outcome. And that’s a powerful incentive, motivating people to go the extra mile to get things right. The result is a process that’s not only faster, but more thorough and more rigorous at the same time.
Third, we’re investing in technology. Our ability to collect intelligence today far outstrips our ability to process it. The volume of information is simply too overwhelming to be absorbed and synthesized by the human brain.
Of course, really smart officers can pore over the data and come up with brilliant insights. But we need more tools to help them zero in on the good stuff.
Ultimately, we want to come as close as we can to providing policymakers with intelligence in real-time, processing the information at the speed with which we’re collecting it. The right tools can move us closer to that goal.
Finally, we’re sending more of our people out to the field. That’s where our adversaries are training and plotting and devising plans to threaten us. That’s where are partners are fighting for a safer, more stable world.
In short, it’s where our mission is. And the closer we can get to the center of it—deploying our people, tools, and resources into the heart of the fight—the more quickly we’ll engage with those who threaten us, and the sooner we’ll crush them.
If we do all these things well, I know our officers will hit it out of the park. They’ll carry out our mission in a way that keeps faith with the fighting spirit of our predecessors in the OSS. And they’ll be freed to take the bold, aggressive action needed to devastate our adversaries, safeguard our values, and keep America safe.
* * * * *
Now before I turn things back over to Frank [Cilluffo, conference emcee], I want to say a few quick words about the conference agenda and the panels you’ll be hearing from today.
I first want to thank George Washington University, CIA’s Office of Public Affairs, and everyone who helped put this conference together. I especially want to thank President Thomas LeBlanc for hosting us right here on the GW campus.
And of course we’re deeply grateful to Frank for serving as our emcee and for helping organize the day’s proceedings. Frank is keenly aware of the unique challenges CIA faces in staging a conference like this.
Discussing the sensitive world of intelligence in a public forum is always tricky, but it’s a thousand times easier when we have a partner as informed and as energetic as he is. Thank you, Frank, for all you’ve done during the past couple of years to make this conference a success.
The theme of our conference this year is “Achieving Strategic Advantage.” And the timing couldn’t be more fitting. Exactly 60 years ago today, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1 into space, stunning the public—but not America’s leaders.
CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence had previously informed President Eisenhower about Soviet planning to launch an earth satellite, providing him with the strategic advantage he needed to guide our nation’s response.
Later today, CIA will be releasing a declassified article about our work on Sputnik, along with hundreds of pages of related documents. You’ll be able to find it all on our public website, CIA.gov.
It’s now time to begin our panel discussions. Students of espionage and national security are in for a real treat today. All our panelists are established authorities in their fields, experts who not only know the issues inside out, but who know how to talk about them with both clarity and sophistication.
Today we’re not going to limit ourselves to the shiny objects making the headlines. We’re going to dive deeper. We’ll get at the heart of what is driving some of the most complex issues facing our profession and our country—issues such as the Asia Pacific, biotech, and global instability.
We’ll also discuss the challenges of conducting espionage in a transparent, interconnected world. And we’ll convene what I know will be a fascinating panel of former CIA Directors, featuring John Brennan, Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, and William Webster.
It should be a memorable day, full of informed discussions and lively debate. I wish I could stay for the whole thing, but I have a meeting to attend at the White House, and a long to-do list from President Trump.
The President is an avid consumer of our work and a huge fan of the Intelligence Community. And I know he’s grateful to all the intelligence professionals who are here today, both present and former, for all the work they’ve done over the years to help protect our country.
Thank you all very much, and I hope you enjoy the conference.
Now I’ll turn it back over to Frank so we can get things started.