At the end of any term of office, leaders often look to secure some type of legacy project that will stand the test of time. It might be a policy, an action, a building, or even a particular program. As CIA Director John Brennan looks towards leaving office with the rest of the Obama national security team in January 2017, he’s made his legacy an investment in dialogue and education.
Taking the shape of a day-long program sponsored by the CIA and co-sponsored and hosted by GWU’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, Ethos & Profession of Intelligence 2016 proved to be one of the most thoughtful programs on the state and future of national security issues that DC has hosted in quite some time. With no fluff or fanfare, intelligence professionals from Brennan to his peers from the United Kingdom, Afghanistan, Australia, and assorted organizations and institutions delivered candid and unclassified assessments and insights about where the intelligence profession is going, how it is changing, and what we need to consider keeping watch of in the years ahead.
It was a thoughtful, civil, adult conversation. Sadly, that probably means it will not make the news it should because no one pandered to a particular audience, was called nasty names, or yelled and carried on before TV cameras and microphones. In so many ways, it was a conversation that should probably be given endangered species status in Washington and throughout the country because it is such a rarity to witness or take part in anymore.
This was the third year that the CIA and GWU put this program together, and with any luck, Brennan’s successor will have enough wisdom to keep similar programs on the CIA’s schedule for years to come. Those who think we can have worthwhile or significant discussion about intelligence operations and professions via a 140-character tweet or other social media post are kidding themselves. An open forum where the professions talk and question one another, as well take questions from the assembled audience and media, is not just a legacy piece for Brennan but also a reinforcement of the vision and character of the nation’s first spymaster, George Washington. Every one of those intelligence professions works for, and is accountable to, the public. Period.
Was there universal agreement by everyone on the issues of the day? No, but what was heard were knowledgeable people who were willing to talk (as much as they could or were able) about a challenging profession and mission that is ever-dynamic and difficult. None of them could, would or should make a guarantee about the future, other than to say it’s going to be complex and full of evolving risks. But the fact that the conversation was being held in the first place is a tremendous step to not only informing the public about the state and future of intelligence but also building the next generation of analysts, officers and leaders who want to safeguard the country.
To me, that’s a tremendous legacy for Brennan to have started with the Ethos programs. By design, the public will never know all of the work, talent and sacrifice the CIA and its intelligence partners perform to safeguard our security and way of life. But for one day a year at the GWU campus, it’s rewarding to have the intelligence community share a public conversation about its operations and future. That’s a great legacy to leave behind.