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DCIA Remarks at Truman Library Institute Award Dinner

April 29, 2022

Remarks by CIA Director William J Burns

as delivered
Truman Library Institute Award Dinner

28 April 2022 – Kansas City, MO

Good evening everyone. It is truly an honor to be with all of you, and it is truly humbling to receive this year’s Truman Legacy of Leadership award.

Thanks so much, Senator Blunt, for that kind introduction.  While I hardly recognized the person that you were describing so generously, I am deeply grateful for your model of public service.  You have made the people of Missouri proud over many years.  You have been a voice of decency and civility in Washington – a city where both those qualities are often in short supply.  And you have done remarkable work to strengthen the U.S. intelligence community, as an exceptionally effective member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

As a career diplomat, serving as an ambassador abroad and as a senior official in administrations of both parties, and now as Director of CIA, it has been a genuine pleasure to serve with you.  While you may not miss Washington, you will be sorely be missed in Washington.

And I want to offer my profound thanks to the Truman Library Institute for this wonderful honor.  Harry Truman’s extraordinary example of American leadership has inspired generations of us struggling to do our duty and do our best in the arena, in the complicated world of national security.

As Jeffrey Frank captures so beautifully in his biography, President Truman was an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary moment – but his common sense, his grasp of history and his willingness to make tough decisions set the standard for all of us.  While I am not at all sure that I belong on the list of award recipients who honor his memory, I greatly appreciate this recognition.

My own career in public life has been very fortunate.  I never had to look any further than my father, a career Army officer and a very fine man, to see the best possible model of leadership and public service.  When I was finishing graduate school four decades ago and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, my dad sent me a letter.  “Nothing will make you prouder,” he wrote, “than to serve your country with honor.”  I have spent the last forty years learning the truth of that wise advice.

I also learned a lot about leadership from several of your prior honorees.  Madeleine Albright, who sadly passed away last month, embodied the American dream, a wartime immigrant from Eastern Europe who rose to become America’s chief diplomat, the first woman to become Secretary of State.  She had President Truman’s gift for straightforward and honest expression, and his readiness to lead with candor and plainspoken wisdom.

Bob Gates, one of my predecessors at CIA, knew that intelligence is America’s first line of defense, and that it has to be delivered with integrity – even when the message may be unwelcome or inconvenient to policymakers, and always without a whiff of partisanship or policy agenda.  We get ourselves in trouble as a nation, and we make bad policy choices, when we forget those basic truths.

As a young diplomat, I worked for Secretary of State James Baker, the first Truman Leadership honoree.  He was an exceptional statesman, the best negotiator I have ever served with, responsible along with President George H.W. Bush for one of the high points in American statecraft – the successful management of the end of the Cold War.  It was a moment in history when massive transformations on the international landscape intersected with one of the most talented teams of national security leaders this country has ever known.  That intersection of leaders and events was much like the dawn of the Cold War, the historic time in which Truman and Marshall and Acheson shaped the winning strategy and the institutional architecture that Bush and Baker and Scowcroft later applied so skillfully.

Those examples are especially important this year, as we mark the 75th anniversary of Truman’s historic National Security Act, and the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency.

This is another of those transformational moments on the international landscape, one of those plastic moments that come along once or twice a century.  Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a brutal reminder of the resurgence of Great Power politics.  Xi Jinping’s China poses the biggest geopolitical challenge that we face, as far out into the 21st century as I can see, with more reach in more domains than any adversary we’ve ever encountered.  The revolution in technology – the main arena for competition with China – is changing the way we live, work, compete and fight.

The women and men I am so proud to lead at CIA are working hard every day to stay ahead of those challenges and keep Americans safe.

I am particularly proud of the critical work that U.S. intelligence community has done in supporting Ukraine against the vicious aggression of Putin’s Russia.  Armed with accurate and precise insights and information, the U.S government shared them energetically with our allies from the start.  We have been equally committed to rapid and effective intelligence sharing with our Ukrainian partners, throughout the fighting and for months beforehand.  As Allied leaders and counterparts have emphasized directly to me in my travels in Europe, the credibility of American intelligence has helped cement the solidarity of the Alliance.

At President Biden’s direction, the U.S. government has also taken unprecedented steps to declassify intelligence and use it publicly to preempt the false narratives which Putin has used so often in the past.

The last chapter in Putin’s war has yet to be written, as he grinds away at Ukraine.  But Ukrainian will is unbroken, and the courage and resolve of President Zelensky and all Ukrainians remain profoundly impressive.  Among the many mistakes Putin has made is to underestimate that resolve.  He has argued for years that Ukraine is not a real country.  He is learning the hard way that real countries fight back, with strong support from their friends and their partners.

Every day, CIA officers are also doing hard jobs in other hard places around the world.  I just returned from my fifteenth overseas trip in a little more than a year as Director, and I’ve seen firsthand the ingenuity and the skill and courage of those officers. Despite unrelenting pressures and strains, they never cease to amaze me.  In outposts across the globe and in windowless vaults at headquarters, our case officers and analysts and technologists and support specialists are quietly and admirably serving our nation.

They do not seek public acclaim, and their profession often keeps them in the shadows, out of sight and out of mind.  The risks that they take and the sacrifices that they make are little understood and often underappreciated.  But the role that they play is critical to our nation’s security, as Harry Truman foresaw 75 years ago when he created the CIA.

A month from now, we’ll have our annual memorial ceremony, in front of the most hallowed place at CIA, our Memorial Wall in the main lobby of our headquarters.  Its marble surface is marked today by 137 stars, each one a tribute to the sacrifice of officers who died protecting our country.

It’s a vivid reminder that public service is not an abstraction.  It’s about deep commitment, sometimes at great risk.  It’s about patriotic Americans from across the richness and diversity of our society who dedicate themselves to defending the interests and values that animate America in the world, and that President Truman did so much to honor and foster.

So in this 75th anniversary year, I accept the Truman Leadership Award on behalf of all of the men and women of CIA – people who I’m extraordinarily fortunate to lead, people who rarely get the recognition they deserve, people whose dedication makes possible strong American leadership in the world.  I’m confident that Harry Truman would have wanted to put the spotlight on the people who really deserve it, and I’m honored to help all of you shine that light on the people with whom I’m proud to serve.

Thank you all very much.