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Public Service in Divisive Times
Thank you for that kind introduction and for giving me the opportunity to visit Seaver College again.
It is funny. I have briefed Presidents, I have negotiated with Afghan warlords, but there is something weirdly intimidating about coming back to speak at one’s alma mater. I don’t know why that is, but it is true.
I thank Dan for that kind introduction, and I thank you all for welcoming me back.
I want to focus my remarks on the enduring need for public service. I think this is a particularly important topic in these politically divisive times. Today, only one-half of Americans trust their government to do the right thing, and even fewer are satisfied with the way democracy is working.
Too often, I think that the American people see “politics” and think “government.” Or, they think in terms of “bureaucrats” — and have the notion that the government is filled with people who have second-class minds who couldn’t get a job in the private sector. But, next time you hear someone belittling the quality of those “bureaucrats” in Washington, remember that the federal workforce has included 69 Nobel laureates.
Clearly, public service can take many forms. For me, it was serving as an intelligence officer. And, as I make my comments here today, let me be very clear on a couple of critical points:
I am not a partisan.
I am not a Republican, nor am I a Democrat.
As a CIA officer, I was not a policymaker, and I was not a political appointee. Our duty was to serve the President regardless of who was sitting at that desk. This continues to be the case today.
In my time, I served 5 Presidents — 3 Republicans and 2 Democrats. My job was to convey our best intelligence and analytic judgments to the President and his national security team.
We weren’t there to be liked or disliked.
We were there to do our job.
Let me start by telling you two stories.
As I sat here in Elkins Auditorium — my go-to-spot was right over there, on the aisle, about halfway up — I had no idea that I would go into public service. I started at Pepperdine as a political science major. Along the way, I decided to become a double major in economics. I planned to go to law school and to specialize in international law. I took the LSATs, applied to 5 or 6 schools, and waited for my acceptances to roll in.
One day, Professor Caldwell asked me if I really wanted to do that? He suggested that if what I really loved was the international part, then why would I go in through the back door of law school when I could just go for it directly?
I don’t think Professor Caldwell knew he was ultimately directing me into the arms of the CIA, but he did. I hurried to apply to graduate schools of international relations. A year after getting my Masters — and after an incredibly intense vetting process by the Agency — I was offered a job as a GS-9 analyst in CIA’s Office of Global Issues. When I got the job offer, I was working at the mall in Thousand Oaks and living in Malibu Canyon Village. Clearly, I was not focused on having a “Plan B.”
I loaded up my car and started driving across country. The first night I stopped at a hotel in Gallup, New Mexico and turned on the evening news. The lead story was that a bomb had destroyed the US Embassy in Beirut. The front of the Embassy had collapsed, killing many in the CIA station. Colleagues I would never get to know had died in an instant. Later, I would be at the ceremony when their stars were etched into the Memorial Wall in the lobby of CIA headquarters. A solemn reminder of their sacrifice. From war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq to risky covert operations in denied areas, the dedication of the people I worked with was inspiring.
One of the first people I met at the Agency was a man named Bill. Bill was probably a dozen years older than me. He had served eight years in the Marine Corps. He had flown more than 75 missions over Vietnam and Laos, but for the five years before joining the Agency, he was right down the road from us, earning his Ph.D at Claremont. Bill graduated with his doctorate in government, and started working at the CIA in January 1979.
That same year, as I was sitting in here in Elkins, the news was filled with stories about the Iranian revolution:
The Shah had fled the country in January.
In February, the Ayatollah Khomeini had returned from exile.
On Valentine’s Day, the US Embassy in Tehran was overtaken over by a group of militants. This was not the famous “student” takeover … that would come later.
That summer, Bill had finished his Agency training, and in August, he was told his 1stoverseas posting would be to Tehran. The Chief of the Iranian Operations Branch told him not to worry about another embassy attack, reassuring him by saying:
The Iranians have already done it once, so they don’t have to prove anything by doing it again.
Besides, the onlything that could trigger an attack would be if the Shah was admitted into the States, and no one in this town [Washington] is stupid enough to do that.
Bill reported for duty in Tehran on the 12thof September.
A month later — at the end of October — the Shah was admitted to the United States for medical treatments.
On November 4th, the US Embassy was overrun, and Bill became a hostage.
He ultimately spent more than 400 days in solitary confinement.
After his release, Bill came back to CIA HQs and continued his public service for another 10-15 years.
People Like You
Why do I tell you these stories? Because this is your government. I want you to know that your government isn’t some distant entity. It is filled with people like you. People who sat in Elkins Auditorium or Claremont’s Davidson Lecture Hall and who chose to do public service. Like the men and women who are in our armed forces or the foreign service officers who work in our Embassies and Consulates around the world. They chooseto serve.
Why do they do it? It certainly isn’t for the pay. It isn’t for public recognition or accolades. In fact, often, they face quite the opposite. A former president once said of the Agency, “Your successes are unheralded, but your failures are trumpeted.” I personally know that to be true.
Bob Gates, one of my first bosses at the Agency and who later became Secretary of Defense for both Presidents Bush and Obama answered the question of why people went into public service by saying this:
“If you scratch deeply enough, you will find that those who serve — no matter how outwardly tough or jaded or egotistical — are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists. And optimists. We actually believe we can make a difference, and [believe] that we can make the lives of others better.”
People at the Agency and throughout the government always speak in terms of “the mission.” The Agency’s mission, like that of its military counterparts, is to protect the country, andto be worthy of being entrusted with that responsibility.
Believe me, there was never a day in my years of service when I questioned whether what I was doing was important. Each time I would walk through the doors of the West Wing and into the Oval Office, I would have one of those “take your breath away” moments:
Me. A girl from Redondo Beach CA, a Redondo SeaHawk, a Pepperdine Wave — was getting ready to brief the President of the United States on the country’s most urgent national security issues.
It was Heady Stuff.
Public Service in Divisive Times
Some may shy away from thinking about public service during these polarizing times, but the need is great and the opportunity to make a difference is high. As I said, when I was here at Pepperdine, I had no idea that I would go into public service, and I hope the same holds true for some of you.
Today, only 6 percent of federal employees are under the age of 30. I think most people just don’t think about government as a career option.
That worries me. Without people like you choosing public service, who will lead our important institutions 10 or 15 years from now?
Michael Lewis, the author of great books like The Big Short and Liar’s Poker, just wrote a book on public service called The Fifth Risk. It is worth a read to appreciate the caliber and dedication of the people who work in government, and the magnitude of the problems they are tackling. Lewis notes that the government manages a portfolio of risks that no individual or corporation could or would be willing to take on by themselves.
In one example, he talks about a 2013 incident that took place here in California near San Jose at the Metcalf Electrical Sub-Station.
On the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, 13 hours after the bombs had gone off, someone cut the communication lines to and from the Metcalf substation.
At the same time, a sniper took out 17 of the electrical transformers. They knew precisely which manhole covers would lead them to the right lines to cut, and exactly where to shoot.
This was the feeder station for Google and Apple.
For local law enforcement, the federal government, and the company, the questions were enormous: Was this the second terrorist attack of the day? Was someone trying to take down the Internet? Or was it unrelated — possibly just guys with guns, drinking beers, and shooting at things in the night?
But, then why were key cables cut?
Because there was sufficient backup on the electrical grid that night the incident didn’t get much attention unless you were one of the government’s employees who worries about attacks to our infrastructure and vulnerabilities in our electrical grid.
It took two years of sustained effort and investigations before Department of Homeland Security was able to say they believed the culprit was a former company insider.
Every year the Partnership for Public Service gives out an award called “The Sammy” — it is short for “Service to America Medals.” Michael Lewis said he was struck by the mind-blowing accomplishments of the recipients so I looked at some of the awardees over last few years. All of them were people who chose to put their world-class expertise to work for our government.
There was a PhD scientist at The Center for Disease Control who assembled a rapid response team to protect expectant mothers and their babies from the Zika virus.
Or, the woman who led a USAID team into Liberia in the middle of an Ebola outbreak and crafted a successful strategy of containment where previously there had only been chaos.
Or someone, I knew personally, a master of disguise at CIA who orchestrated the daring rescue of six US diplomats. A story that Ben Affleck turned into his Academy Award winning movie, Argo.
As a country, our citizens know disturbingly little about our government and our history. Up until the 1970s, civics and government were part of almost everyone’s mandatory education. That has changed.
A study from last October found that only one in three native-bornAmericans could pass the exam that immigrants must take to become citizens.
For those under the age of 45, the passage rate dropped to just 19 percent.
o I know I shouldn’t laugh, but on the multiple choice test many of those who failed the test, answered that they thought the phrase, “The Cold War” had something to do with climate change!
With all the talk of immigration in the last few years, it is interesting to note that some of the people most drawn to public service are first-generation Americans. Coming from countries where they had first-hand experience with collapsing governments and failed states may have given them a greater appreciation for the importance of good government.
One of government’s key responsibilities is to keep its citizens safe. Whether you are a food or drug tester at the FDA, an air traffic controller, a technician at a nuclear power plant, or one of the firemen who protected Pepperdine during the Woolsey fire last year — their job is to keep you safe. Even the poor guy at the IRS is ultimately collecting taxes to help keep you safe and protected.
The goal of government is to give its citizens the opportunity to excel — be it through education, research and development, or economic growth. The presidential election in 2016 laid bare the extent to which so many Americans felt they had been denied those opportunities.
They were parents who felt the system was rigged against them, and that their children had no chance of getting ahead.
They wanted leaders who recognized that their jobs had been lost, their towns hollowed out, and their health increasingly jeopardized.
They felt patronized by elites who ignored their concerns. And now, instead of seeing education as a way up or a way out of their circumstances, they saw it as a barrier-to-entry put in place to protect the establishment and the status quo.
Their rage was not ideological. They were neither exclusively to the far-left nor to the far-right. They were more “anti-whatever-we-already-had-and-already tried.” I was stunned by how many voters turned their support from Bernie Sanders when he dropped out directly to Donald Trump. That isn’t ideological. That is a desire to find something different. They wanted to be heard, and they trusted an outsider to hear them.
Today our society is facing a multitude of forces working to drive us apart.
We choose to listen to media outlets that not only tell us what we want to hear, but reaffirm that we are right, and castigate those who disagree with us.
We choose to live in gated communities.
We allow ourselves to believe that one must be protected fromdisquieting ideas and speakersrather than to be challenged by them, and to learn from them.
You will find that opening your mind and experiences to the uncomfortable or unfamiliar is an important part of your lifelong education. When I was here at Seaver, I tutored a boy at Camp David Gonzales — the maximum security prison for juveniles that used to be up Malibu Canyon Road. Henry was serving a prison sentence for a gang-related murder, and I was teaching him math and reading. He was 16. He had a metal plate in his head where he had been shot. He was a father. He was smart, but he only had a second grade education, despite having been “passed” through every grade until he went to prison.
One day we were talking and I asked him how he came to join his particular gang? Was it based on where he lived? Or where he went to school? Henry told me it was easy for him. He had simply joined his mother’s gang. That was an eye-opening moment for me. Talk about a discomforting idea. He lived in a world so different than my own. Sadly, studies now show us that your future success can be determined by your zip code.
Had Henry grown up in a different zip code, he may well have been the one standing here talking to you today.
I make these points to underscore that we must find ways to come together as a society.
The unofficial motto of the United States is “E Pluribus Unum.”
· “From Many, One.”
· Today, our country is in urgent need of “We.” Not us. Not them, “We.”
And public service is a great way to take up that charge.
The first time I heard the phrase “GOAT,” it didn’t stand for “Greatest of All Time.” I was in England and there they use it to mean a “Government of All Talents.” That is what we need in the United States today. We need your ideas, your energy, and your talents.
To truly be “Proud to Be an American,” — to go beyond a simple song title or slogans at a pep rally — we have to remember as responsible citizens we each have an obligation to serve our country.
The factthat our union remains imperfect should compel each of us to want to work to make it better.
Does that mean I think that everyone should go to work for the Federal government. “Absolutely not!”
Critical Thinking as a Public Service
Whatever profession you choose, one of the biggest contributions you can make to the health of our democracy is to be an informed citizen and a critical thinker.
Ignorance is not a virtue. It is just plain lazy.
Critical thinking is, in and of itself, a vital and needed public service. To be a critical thinker you need to:
- Recognize that it is much easier to be against something than to be for something. If you disagree with something, push yourself to consider what the better alternative might be. If you don’t like one solution, think of another, but don’t deny the existence of the problem altogether.
- Understand what really constitutes balanced reporting. Cable news shows that put one person on from the left and another person on from the right aren’t giving you true balanced reporting. This is what people mean when they talk about false equivalency. If one person says it is raining and another person says it is not, it is the job of the journalist to look out the window and tell you what is really happening.
- Learn to disagree with someone without demonizing them. Just because you think they are wrong, doesn’t mean they are immoral or their idea is not worthy of discussion.
- Be critical of those you agree with as well as those you don’t. When someone oversteps or stretches the truth, challenge them; when a newspaper makes judgments in what is supposed to be a factual news story, take note and recognize the difference between reporting and commentary.
- Recognize that opinion is not fact, and often, it isn’t even analysis. As intelligence officers we would analyze a complicated issue for weeks or months on end. We would agonize over the precise wording needed to capture the story and convey the caveats. We also had to ask ourselves: What are we missing? In Washington, policy makers wanted to know what we knew, but they also wanted to know what we didn’t know. Only then could they make a truly informed choice.
Finally, it is critically important to realize how much words matter.
Complex issues can’t be reduced to bumper stickers or hats. Don’t succumb to doing it yourself. Using phrases like “Fake News,” “Deplorables,” or “Deep State” isn’t helpful. The shorthand is intellectually corrupt, and the impact can be corrosive.
Those of you with a strong liberal arts education like the one you receive here at Pepperdine have an advantage. You have been taught how to assess information and reach conclusions. In your classes, you question and, hopefully challenge, your teachers. Sorry faculty!
In an era of social media, however, we have to be cognizant that we are fed a stream of information that constantly needs to be questioned and assessed.
So question actively, listen respectfully, and make informed decisions. Hold true to your principles, but let your opinions and positions change when new information is presented.
Bringing it Back to My World
Let me bring my remarks on public service back to my world of geopolitics, national security, and risk.
Dedicated public servants and informed citizens make for a powerful combination. The final piece needed to close the circle is political leadership. We need leaders who focus on meeting our challenges, and inspiring us to positive outcomes.2000, I was the first intelligence officer to go to the Governor’s Mansion in Austin to begin George W. Bush’s daily intelligence briefing. As governor of Texas, he had grappled with all sorts of complex issues, but as Governor, he never had to learn the details of a North Korean nuke or throw-weight of a ballistic missile. In 2016, when President Trump was elected he was confident in his own abilities — he was someone who trusted his gut and his instincts — but, again he had little experience dealing with the foreign policy issues he would face.
No elected official can be expected to be an expert on every issue. There are analysts, scientists, and specialists in government who have spent decades monitoring things like weapons programs, acting to slow their advancement when possible, and supporting diplomats tracking compliance with international accords. Elected officials and their political appointees should take advantage of this expertise on a daily basis.
When expertise is coupled with a leader’s strong conviction, it is a powerful force.
In fact, to achieve maximum national security effectiveness, you need to have both.
I worry when I see that the 2020 budget proposal suggests cutting the State Department’s budget by 24 percent. I would be amongst the first to agree that budgets in Washington can be trimmed, but a cut of this size would seriously jeopardize expertise and the ability of our diplomatic corps to protect US interests abroad.
Everyone who goes into public service in the national security community takes an oath to protect the country to the best of their ability. Elected officials may have the leeway to exaggerate, embellish, or add rhetorical flourishes, but national security professionals do not. If you are lucky enough to rise to a senior leadership position in the national security world, you also carry huge responsibilities.
One of the key responsibilities is that you often have to tell an elected official what they don’t want to hear. One former CIA Director said it is like being a skunk at a garden party. Picture it: The President and his political team are sitting in the Oval Office — they are happy with how things are going — and in walks an intelligence officer who says, “We have a report that Leader X who promisedyou he would do one thing is actually doing the exact opposite.” You can see the body language change and the mood darken. I suspect that President Trump recently had one of those “skunk at the garden party” moments when intelligence officers walked in with the latest reporting on North Korea.
Another responsibility for senior officials is to take a principled stand. You can’t wantthe job so much that you stop holding true to your principles. General Mattis’ recent resignation as Secretary of Defense is a perfect example. In my own case, I had to threaten to resign once when certain high-level policy makers were trying to change my intelligence analysts’ judgments to fit their political agenda.
Senior officials also have a duty to “own their own mistakes.” When we had a major intelligence failure on Iraq, on my watch, I put together a emergency task force to find out what we had missed, why we missed it, and what we should have done better.
The deputy at the time was a Naval Academy graduate so we borrowed a practice from the US Navy. When there is an incident on a nuclear submarine, they have what they call a “safety stand down”…everything stops until everyone knows what the problem was and how to fix it. We did the same thing with every CIA analyst. Whether they worked on Russia or Latin America, terrorism or finance, every one of them need to know what had gone wrong and how we proposed to fix it.
It was our responsibility to help future intel officers avoid similar mistakes.
The challenges we face as a country are daunting.
The world order is changing, as is our place in it. We face a rising China with its strongest leader in decades propelling it forward and doing so increasingly through one-man rule.
Our planet is fragile and in danger. The science is clear and action is needed.
Just think about how many apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster movies start with some politician ignoring the scientists’ warnings.
I am just sayin’.
As our country pulls back from the international stage, our enemies see opportunities, and our allies are questioning our commitment to them.
For the last two generations, our global leadership has been buttressed by our strong economy. Now our fiscal deficits are ballooning and soon we will no longer be the world’s largest economy. It is folly to focus solely on short-term metrics, and ignore the long-term ramifications of these changes.
The technological transformation we face is unprecedented. Automation, robotics, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and quantum computing will change our lives in the next 10 years. Some jobs will be created, but many more will be lost and people will be displaced during the transition.
It will be an economic upheaval on a scale not seen since the industrial revolution. And, note the use of the word “revolution.” One of my colleagues in government used to say, “Revolution is unthinkable, until it is inevitable.”
These are serious challenges and I haven’t even mentioned the Middle East, terrorism, Russia, Brexit, growing income inequality, gun violence, or cyber attacks.
We must work to find new solutions to old problems, and to spot and mitigate new risks as early as possible. We also need to recognize that meeting these challenges will not be without cost and sacrifice. Sacrifice is something we rarely want to consider. But, if we are clear about:
• What we are trying to achieve,
• What we are trying to prevent,
• And what sacrifices we are willing to make.
We can prevail.
We need our leaders and those in public service to focus not on taking us back to our past, but on preparing us to excel in the future. We need the best minds in the country, be it in public sector, the private sector, or in this room to be working to make our country a more perfect union.
Finally, I want to read you one quote:
Our government and our people have never stood so acutely in need of developing the full the talents of our ablest public servants” ….
But, a growing disdain for public service in our Nation as a whole. and in our colleges in particular, is now coupled with the trend of increasingly complex national problems.
We must secure the services of the best minds of our Nation.
This quote is 100 percent applicable today, and yet this was John F. Kennedy speaking in 1958. They had their own worries then. The Soviet Union – our Cold War rival — had just launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, and the Space Race was on.
A few years later, in his Presidential Inaugural Address, Kennedy famously challenged Americans to:
• “Ask not what your country can do for you,” but to
• “Ask what you can do for your country.”
I would urge the same for all of you. Whatever path you have chosen for your personal pursuits make sure there is a public service commitment as well.
Pepperdine’s motto is “Freely Ye Received, Freely Give.” You are part of a privileged community. You are amongst the most able to help our country meet its challenges and prosper. It is both your responsibilityand your opportunity.