18 April 2019
Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here with you this morning.
I’d like to begin by thanking General Burgess for the warm welcome. I also want to thank all of you for being here today. It’s encouraging to see so many young people taking an interest in our nation’s security and in the role CIA plays in protecting our country.
I also wanted to congratulate Auburn for winning the SEC tournament and making it to the Final Four for the first time! As a Kentuckian and die-hard Wildcats fan, the Auburn-Kentucky game was a little painful to watch—but, I have to admit, it was a well-deserved victory for the Tigers. Once my team was out, I threw my support to your guys.
And speaking of historic sports rivalries, I thought I’d share a little story with you from early in my career.
I was overseas on my first assignment in Africa when I met a Baptist missionary couple—let’s call them Jerry and Rosy. Jerry was a proud Auburn alum, and since my boss, Mark, happened to be one as well, I’d overhear stories about Jerry and his love for Auburn sports.
One day, I learned that Rosy, Jerry’s wife, had had quite a scare the night before. Rosy found Jerry in bed clutching his chest and gasping for air, and she thought he might be having a heart attack—a terrifying prospect when you’re hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital.
Rosy ran over to Jerry and asked if he was ok. Jerry didn’t answer, so she became agitated, pleading for him to say something.
At last, Jerry bolted up in bed and shouted: “Touchdown Auburn! Touchdown Auburn!” Rosy was taken aback and asked him what was going on.
Jerry ripped off his headphones excitedly and explained that he had been listening to an Auburn football game on Armed Forces Radio. The Tigers had just scored a touchdown on a reverse, beating Alabama.
“Dying can wait,” he shouted. “We just beat Alabama!”
That just goes to show that you can find an Auburn football fan anywhere—even in the most remote corners of the earth.
But in all seriousness, it’s in places like this where you’ll find CIA officers as well.
Our men and women put their lives on the line every day, often in the world’s most dangerous locations. They do it to uncover the secrets our nation needs to defend itself and to advance American interests across the globe—secrets we can’t get any other way.
I’m sure you’ll understand this morning that I can’t offer any recent espionage tales from the streets of Moscow or Tehran. Those are classified.
But I can say something about CIA’s unique mission and the spirit of sacrifice embodied by our officers, day in and day out.
* * * *
It’s hard to believe that I’ll be celebrating my one-year anniversary as Director of CIA next month—and I can tell you that it’s been everything I’ve expected and so much more.
I may be a 34-year veteran of the Agency, but it still seems like yesterday when I stepped across the iconic seal in our Headquarters lobby for the first time. I still remember the thrill of being sworn in as an officer—raising my hand and reciting the oath to protect our country and our Constitution.
When I first came to CIA as a young recruit in the Directorate of Operations at the tail end of the Cold War, I was eager to learn the nuanced art of espionage—evading surveillance, putting down dead drops, recruiting agents, or “bumping” unsuspecting individuals on foreign sidewalks.
A lot has changed since I first arrived at CIA, but our mission remains as relevant and important as ever. And this is what makes our officers excited to come to work each morning, including me.
But the business of espionage is risky work. As former Director George Tenet used to say, “CIA doesn’t do easy—the hard jobs come to us.”
Our officers—whether at our Headquarters or in the foreign field—carry out those jobs with courage, ingenuity, and derring-do, and I could not be more proud of them.
* * * *
Over the past year, our leadership team has taken steps to improve CIA’s ability to tackle the many challenges we face. And our efforts are beginning to pay off.
For starters, we’ve devoted more time, money, and creativity to our effort against some our nation’s toughest adversaries.
Our Russia and Iran investment has been strengthened after years of falling behind our justifiably heavy emphasis on counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11. Groups like ISIS and al-Qa‘ida remain squarely in our sights, but we’re honing our focus and resources on nation-state rivals.
Additionally, we’re applying cutting-edge technologies and tradecraft to allow us to react more quickly to global developments—like targeting a terrorist organization wherever it arises and before it spreads.
We’re making great strides with our foreign partners—those ties are stronger than ever. And let me tell you, our intelligence allies around the world can really open doors and get things done on behalf of our country.
I frequently meet with my foreign counterparts, either in Washington or over there, and they’re generally very interesting characters—for whom I have great regard and even fondness. There’s one counterpart who’s especially fun to engage—very James Bond-like. He worked his way up through his service, has great spy stories, and is definitely someone you want on your side.
And when you have partnerships this close and personal, you have colleagues who go out of their way to share with CIA their really good stuff—their best intelligence. And our country is tangibly benefitting from these relationships.
We’re also sending more of our people to the field. Not only case officers, but analysts, technical experts, and others. It all comes down to this: if you have a bigger footprint overseas, you can get more done where it really counts.
Along with that bigger foreign presence, we’re placing a renewed emphasis on foreign language expertise and training. We want our men and women to be closely attuned to the cultures in which they operate and to speak the local language.
And that aligns well with our push to strengthen diversity and inclusion at CIA. Our mission demands that we draw deeply from our nation’s rich and diverse talent pool. We just had our best recruiting year in a decade, and we’ll do whatever it takes to make the Agency an employer of choice for all Americans.
Finally, no foreign challenge has had a more direct and devastating impact on American families and communities than the flow of opioids and other drugs into our country—a scourge that has killed more Americans than any terrorist group ever has.
That’s why we’re taking concrete steps to increase our contribution to the President’s whole-of-government approach in tackling this epidemic. I recently had the opportunity to meet with some of our officers who are on the front lines of this effort, and I’m proud of the work they’re doing to stop the problem closer to the source.
* * * *
CIA is stronger than I’ve ever seen it, and I wish I could say more about what our officers do worldwide, day in and day out, on behalf of all Americans. But for their protection, and frankly for yours, I won’t.
What I can tell you is that our officers take on jobs that test their mental and physical strength to the fullest. I just returned from a visit to a war zone where I met with CIA men and women who on a one-year deployment work seven days a week—often going days without sleep. These officers were so hard working and so motivated by the mission in this dangerous location. I could not have been more impressed with them. Their missions are long and arduous, and the operational tempo can be grueling. Our nation is asking them to do more every day, and they sacrifice a lot to keep our country safe.
At the same time, they are not just intelligence officers. They also are devoted fathers and mothers, loving spouses, partners, and companions.
Their families sometimes endure long stretches without knowing where their loved ones are, the dangers they might face, or the risks they must take.
At times, our achievements come at a terrible cost.
In the past few months alone, some very brave officers have been seriously wounded battling terrorists in a remote corner of South Asia. Since 9/11, 42 Agency men and women have died in the line of duty.
Before I close, I’d like to share the story of one of those heroes—someone with a special connection to Auburn.
Nearly 20 years ago, we had an officer who was on assignment in Afghanistan. He had deployed there in the fall of 2001 as part of our government’s immediate response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. His name was Johnny Micheal Spann, and he was an Auburn Tiger, Class of 1992.
Mike was born and raised in Winfield, Alabama. A natural athlete, he played wide receiver and running back for the Winfield High Pirates.
As a child, he dreamed of becoming a soldier—his bedroom walls were covered with Marine recruitment posters. He joined the Marines as a student at Auburn, where he graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice, and during his military service rose to the rank of Captain.
Mike came to us as a paramilitary officer after eight years of military service.
In his application to CIA he used the words “action, responsibility, and leadership” to describe himself. And he embodied these traits when he deployed to the arid plateaus of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001.
On November 25th of that year, Mike was in an ancient Afghan fortress where Taliban prisoners were being held and questioned. These captives had supposedly capitulated to US troops, but their pledge of surrender was a ruse.
Mike was interviewing a group of them when hundreds of prisoners suddenly revolted. Immediately before he was attacked and killed in the uprising, Mike was able to warn an Agency colleague of the imminent danger, allowing that officer to get to safety.
After hearing of Mike’s death, former Director of CIA George Tenet said the following:
“He led one of our teams into Afghanistan. There, he tracked the authors and allies of terror. There, while fighting for the future of the American people, he fought to bring a better future to the Afghan people. And it was there, one evening, that he said he would gladly risk his life if he could help make the world a safer place for his wife and children.”
Mike was the first American to die in the line of duty in Afghanistan.
He demonstrated the highest standards of duty and sacrifice at the forefront of our fight against terrorism. In his short time in Afghanistan, Mike’s actions played a pivotal role in our battle against the Taliban and al-Qa‘ida in the region.
His story is a poignant reminder of the unwavering commitment of all our men and women serving on the front lines.
For me, as for our entire Agency family, the 129 stars on CIA’s Memorial Wall are more than just symbols. They are solemn reminders of friends and colleagues who answered their nation’s call, and who willingly risked their lives to protect us all.
It’s a privilege to join you in honoring one of our greatest heroes, Auburn’s own Johnny Micheal Spann. I hope his story gives you a sense of just how critical our officers are to the strength and security of our country. Mike’s CIA colleagues carry on his work and his legacy in the most dangerous parts of the globe and photographs of Mike hang in CIA Stations around the world.
As I look back on my first year as Director, I am more in awe of the men and women at CIA than ever before. And I know that Auburn graduates also know a thing or two about serving our country, having made invaluable contributions over the years by signing up for the tough jobs—as warfighters, astronauts, and, of course, as intelligence officers.
We at CIA could not be more grateful for your school’s distinguished history of service to our nation. And as you carry on that great tradition, I hope to see many of you again—as partners in the honorable and essential work of keeping America safe and free.
Thank you all very much.