National Counterterrorism Center McLean, VA July 27
It's an honor to be here. I guess you all are the ones that lost the lottery, huh? (Laughter.) You had to be here in person.
Well, I'd like to thank Director Haines and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Christy Abizaid, for showing me around the watch floor.
Folks, the main reason I came — and I mean this sincerely — is to say thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. The American people, almost by definition, are not able to know what you do. And you devote so much of your time, your effort, and many of you end up risking your lives in the Intelligence Community to do things to make sure that your families and people back here are safe — make a difference.
And you'd be amazed — as I traveled the world as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee or member of the Intelligence Committee for all those years, or as Vice President of the United States dealing with national security issues, or as President of the United States — how many of now my foreign counterparts thank you for what you do.
I'd like to introduce you, by the way, to my National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Jake, would you stand up? (Applause.)
And, you know, the leaders of many of our intelligence agencies are here today. And I thank you for your diligence and keeping our country safe, and your commitment to supporting your teams. Because, if there's anything, a team sport is what y'all are doing if there's going to be anything that's going to be accomplished.
Because the people I most want to honor and thank today are the intelligence professionals whose names the public is never, ever going to know, never have any notion of what you've done for us: the analysts; the linguists; the collectors and field officers; scientists; support staff; so many others who are real experts, whose careers started much longer before my administration and whose service to our nation is going to extend well beyond my presidency.
You know, you're the eyes and ears around the world — in the frontlines of our national defense, and in many cases, for the world, through us. And you serve the American people no matter which political party holds power in Congress or the White House. It's so vital — so vital that you are and should be totally free of any political pressure or partisan interference. That's basic.
And I want to be absolutely clear that my administration is getting us back to the basics. To the basics. I promise you: You will never see a time, while I'm President of the United States, when my administration in any way tries to affect or alter your judgments about what you think the situation we face is. I'll never politicize the work you do. You have my word on that. It's too important for our country.
Getting back to basics also making — to make sure the IC scrupulously acts within the legal constraints and abides by our strong traditions of internal and congressional oversight, including respect for whistleblower protections.
And it also means understanding that much of the work you must do is in secret but necessary and for the sake of safety. But we should strive to be as open as possible with the American people about the nature of the threats we face and just how serious they are — and they are.
Every one of you joined up because you believe in being part of something that's bigger than yourself, especially you guys and women in uniform — bigger than yourself. You're patriots. It's a word that we use lightly, but I mean it. It's not — it's not — I don't use it lightly. I really don't.
My son, who spent a year in Iraq and died, he was a patriot. He wasn't just somebody else. You all are patriots. You risk your lives and your sacred honor for all that we need to have done for us.
And you believe in the American idea. And living up to that idea is embracing democratic values that are our greatest strength at the end of the day, leading not just by the example of our power, but by the power of your example. The power of your example.
In addition to thanking you for your bravery, integrity, and your sacrifices, I want to make it clear to everyone here today and to the members of the Intelligence Community working around the globe that you have my full confidence.
That's doesn't mean I don't question what you send me. That meant — doesn't mean — it's not that I — I — you know, I'm not a new guy on the block in terms of these issues. But one of the reasons I question is to push — push you to the limits to determine just how certain you are about what you're doing. Lots of times, the only honest answer: "We're not certain. We're not certain, but this is what our best judgment is."
I know — I really do — know how hard the work you do is. I've been doing this for a long, long time before I became President. I know there's no such thing as 100 percent certainty in the intelligence world. Occasionally that happens, but rarely, rarely, rarely.
But I also know that your work is invaluable to our ability to make informed, strategic national security decisions. And I just had an interesting meeting, as you all know, with my very close friend, Vladimir Putin. (Laughter.) I can tell — one thing: I've been dealing with world leaders a long, long time. And just like all of you men and women, you can sort of sense somebody else after a while.
He knows that you're better than his team, and it bothers the hell out of him. Not a joke. Not a joke. And he, as a consequence of you, think we have capacities he may even exaggerate. That's a good thing. That's a good thing.
You know, one of the things I miss most during the four years between my time serving as Vice President and being a professor in a college — and I mean this sincerely: From the time I was 31 years old, every morning I woke up and got in the train to come to — I commuted every day from Delaware after my wife and daughter were killed. And I'd come every day, and one of the things I would get — I'd get a brief in the morning. And I was more informed than 99 percent of the American people. You know what I miss most, for real, from those four years of being a professor? The PDB. (Laughter.) No, you think I'm joking. I am not. A sense of knowing where all the pieces were. Whether we had it all down, we knew where all the pieces were. We knew where the pieces were.
And so now I have access again — and to the chagrin of many of you, I read it in detail. (Laughter.) And I ask questions of my briefers and follow up with my team. And I ask each of you the same thing I asked Director Haines, "Just give it to me straight." I'm not looking for pablum; I'm looking for straight-from-the-shoulder assessments. And when you're not sure, say you're not sure. But give me your best judgment of what you think is — your best judgment is better than almost anybody else's judgment in the whole world — even if the news is hard, even if the news is bad.
I can't make the decisions I need to make if I'm not getting the best unvarnished, unbiased judgments you can give me. I'm not looking to hear nice things. I'm looking to hear what you think to be the truth.
I greatly appreciate just how much work goes into the analysis that the IC produces and the tactical and intelligence supporting our warfighters and the superb effort to ensure our IT, our human capital, and the facilities are the best in the world. Because, again, without knowing what — without you telling me, I don't know enough to know what to ask for from the Congress — how much money we need, what we need to focus on.
It's a massive, coordinated, global effort to pull together reliable intelligence in a timely way. And all of you, no matter which agency you work for, are part of one team with one shared mission: keeping America strong and secure in the world, or simply making sure your families are safe. It gets down to basic things. Just really basic things.
You know, for most of the last 20 years, much of the work has been focused on counterterrorism, making sure the United States doesn't experience another horror like occurred on September the 11th. And that work has to continue and evolve to address the changing shape of terrorism as we find it today.
And that's no great insight on my part, it's going to change significantly more. It's going to change significantly more.
I always get kidded by my colleagues when I served in the Senate for 36 years for quoting Irish poets. They think I quoted Irish poets because I'm Irish. That's not the reason I quote them; they're simply the best poets in the world. (Laughter.)
And there's a famous poem written by — that says, "All has changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born." The world is changing so rapidly — technologically and in terms of alliances and human intercourse — that war is going to change across the board in the next 10 years than in the last 50 years. That's not hyperbole; that's a fact.
If I talked to you 15 years ago about hypersonic flight, you'd look at me like I was crazy. So much is going to change and that's going to put an enormous burden on you to stay ahead of the curve. It's really going to get tougher.
But we have the best folks in the world. And one of the things that I think — and I don't want to get off too far afield here, but one of the things that is really important is — our greatest strength, in fact, is our diversity, bringing completely different perspectives to it. And I really mean that. That's not hyperbole. I'm not trying to be "Kumbaya, everybody get along." It's just a fact. It's a fact.
And so, threats that are more geographically dispersed than they were 20 years ago are going to continue to require our vigilance. And we have to continue our efforts to better understand some of the hardest and most important intelligence targets we face as a nation.
But, you know, we also need to make sure that we're positioning ourselves to stay ahead of security challenges that will stretch the IC in new ways it has never been stretched before.
You know, we've seen how cyber threats, including ransomware attacks, increasingly are able to cause damage and disruption to the real world. I can't guarantee this, and you're as informed as I am, but I think it's more likely we're going to end up — well, if we end up in a war, a real shooting war with a major power, it's going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach of great consequence. And it's increasing exponentially — the capabilities.
When I was with Mr. Putin, who has a real problem — he is — he's sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wells and nothing else. Nothing else. Their economy is — what? — the eighth smallest in the world now — largest in the world? He knows — he knows he's in real trouble, which makes him even more dangerous, in my view.
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