Don't Give Up On Serving the Nation

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I teach at two great graduate schools at George Washington and Johns Hopkins Universities.  I am privileged to interact with talented and dedicated students, many of whom aspire to work in the national security sector, primarily in the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).

Since the election, the questions I hear repeatedly are clear and plaintive, “Should I still pursue working in the government in this Administration?  Will I be welcome? Can I uphold the principles of this democracy in a Trump Administration?”

After more than 30 years of service in the Intelligence Community with some of the finest people I know, I cannot sufficiently capture how these questions and concerns trouble and sadden me.  Many of my outstanding colleagues are still in the IC, mentoring new analysts, leading the effort to safeguard this country, devoting all their energy and smarts to the welfare of this Nation. But we are in need of reinforcements, of a new generation of analysts, operators, and leaders.

I’m not immune to the terrible nastiness of this campaign, the generalizations about federal employees by some Trump supporters, their ignorance of the incredible dedication of the national security workforce, and the extraordinary and groundless criticisms denigrating both military and intelligence leadership and staff.    

But here is what I tell my students:

  • Ignore the hateful tweets from the “alt right” and other hangers on.  Most of these folks cannot hold a candle to you – they lack the temperament, the tenacity, and the brains to be part of the National Security Community. Public service is a special and humbling calling that these critics just do not appreciate because of their embittered agenda.  Don’t let their bitterness cause you to abandon the noble cause of ensuring a safe America and defending the Constitution of the United States.
  • Will you be welcome?  There is no such thing as a perfect work place, but my experience is that hard work and dedication will bring its own rewards in the IC  – not in terms of financial gain but of the satisfaction of a mission that is dedicated to our citizens. If you are prepared to reap the rewards that are beyond financial, that make you proud to walk to your desk each morning, then you have the right stuff and we need you.
  • You will learn a great deal from the people around you, many of whom come from completely different backgrounds. You will have the wonderful experience of working with individuals who have different political opinions, upbringings, and religious beliefs, but who come together to do the work of the nation.  I guarantee that you may not always agree, but you will not feel isolated because you will all come together in support of your mission. 
  • I recognize that some of you fear being asked to act in support of a questionable policy or perhaps even an illegal order.  I cannot guarantee that you will be able to avoid the ethical and legal dilemmas inherent in intelligence operations.  You may well face challenges from leaders who do not share your values.  You will have to judge our leaders and your commander-in-chief by their actions, and hopefully these actions will differ markedly from campaign rhetoric. 
  • I urge you to find the right mentors who can teach you to speak truth to power and suggest better solutions.  And I hope that our current intelligence leaders, at the mid-level and higher, will demonstrate the courage of their convictions to you.  The U.S. Intelligence Community must be forthright with any Administration and refuse to diffuse its analysis because of politicization or erroneous perceptions.

The greatest defense to an abuse of power are people like you who understand the law and responsibilities that come with the immense capabilities of our intelligence agencies.  You understand the law and the need to balance the protection of civil liberties with national security. The more people like you who join our Intelligence Community, the less likely that abuse of power becomes.  

When I spoke at my own retirement ceremony, I paraphrased a quotation often ascribed to Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to do nothing.”  I concluded then, as I do now, I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to work with good men and women who did not avoid the fight, but instead committed themselves to stand together for their mission and for our nation.  Especially now, I urge you to do the same.

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