ODNI Director James Clapper’s Remarks

Well, thanks, Barbara, for that very kind introduction, and it is indeed an honor to be a small part of recognizing the best executives in the federal service.

I probably should explain why I'm here because Carol can be pretty intimidating, and I did this 2 or 3 years ago, and she leaned on me to come back. Actually, Carol is one of a small group of icons in this town who is passionate about the mission and her deep convictions about the importance of the senior executive service, and even though now she's emeritus, she's still active. And so tonight, I discovered why I really love Carol, which she too is a martini aficionado.

Last year, I went to the Aspen convention or whatever it is. It's the collection of national security beautiful people out in Colorado. I never went to one before, and I was leaned on to go, so I was interviewed by Andrea Mitchell of NBC. We're asked the requisite heavy questions about intelligence and all that, and we went at it for about 40 minutes or so. And at the end, she said, "Oh, Director Clapper, how do you put up with the pressure and the stress of briefing the President and running the intelligence community and knowing all the secrets and all this sort of thing?" And I said, "Well, when I was in the Pentagon, my last job, I served as Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. About every 6 weeks or so on a Friday night, I'd have a few people in the office after work. Have a glass of beer, a glass of wine, and I would have a martini." This job, every night.

So I do want to talk about what these—I will get to the subject, but what makes these awards special. But first, I thought I'd share with you something that happened to me recently, which is actually a little painful to talk about, but I will. I mean, it's personal, and it hurts a bit. So about 6 months ago, I got a jury summons from Fairfax County Circuit Court. I get a letter, and I brought it into my trustee's secretary, executive assistant, and I said, "Can you see if you can get me out of this?" So she called up the county clerk's office, and she's really laying it on about "Oh, it's the Director of National Intelligence, and there's 17 components in the intelligence community, a $50 billion budget, and brief the President, have to drag a security detail in the courtroom." This lady wasn't having any of that.

But she—being helpful, she said, "We did notice the DNI's age, and as it turns out, we have a special exemption for older people whom we've noticed had a hard time sitting jury duty." So without hesitation, my trustee, executive assistant, said, "We'll take the geezer exemption."

She didn't even hesitate when she said that. So, anyway, I think I have achieved geezerdom in intelligence. I've been doing it for about 53 years or so. In fact, last month, I just turned 75, so three-quarters of a century. That is really old. So I have, accordingly, become somewhat of a student of history, perhaps because I have lived through so much of it, and I was looking through the history of the Senior Executives Association and found it really quite interesting.

The Federal Government established the Senior Executive Service in 1979. Then that same year, the Civil Service Commission and OPM had to convince all the then GS-16s, -17s, and -18s to voluntarily switch over to SES, but they figured the easiest way to do that was to offer money. So they said everyone who switched to SES would get raises, and that a full 50 percent of SES officers would get annual bonuses. So 95 percent of those in the GS-16, -17, and -18 ranks switched to SES, but then a Member of Congress took the floor to denounce all the lavish pay on bureaucrats.

By the way, I'm in a pretty chipper mood tonight because today was my ninth and last hearing. I've always ranked testimony right up there with root canals and folding fitted sheets.

Anyway, the next appropriations bill specifically limited SES bonuses, so that no more than 25 percent of the executive workforce could receive them. So all that promised money failed to materialize, and then when a group of the new SES's complained to the chairman of the Civil Service Commission who made the promises of raises and bonuses, he told them that they should start their own professional organization, to lobby Congress directly on their behalf. So that is how the Senior Executives Association came into being. That bit of history, by the way, I found is shockingly predictable. They say those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Now, inside the Beltway, we're not always the quickest learners. It kind of reminds me—I've watched this over many years. It kind of reminds me of the ancient tribal wisdom that goes when you're riding a dead horse. The best strategy is to dismount. Well, in Washington, we sometimes do things differently. When we find ourselves riding a dead horse, we often try strategies that are less successful, such as buying a stronger whip, changing riders, saying things like, "This is the way we've already ridden this horse." We appoint a committee to study the horse. We lower the standards, so that more dead horses can be included. We appoint a TIGR team to revive the dead horse. We hire outside contractors to ride the dead horse. We hire outside contractors to ride the dead horse. We harness several dead horses together to increase speed. We attempt to mount multiple dead horses in hopes that one of them will spring to life. We provide additional funding and training to increase a dead horse's performance, declaring that since a dead horse doesn't have to be fed, it is less costly, carries lower overhead, and therefore contributes more to the mission than live horses. And, of course, my favorite, we promote the dead horse to a supervisor position.

So it's good to have organizations like the Senior Executives Association around to point out when we mounted a horse that's deceased. So over the past 36 years, the Senior Executives Association has taken a leadership role on a variety of issues, including recently with the proposed changes within the VA, and of course, SEA has sponsored the Presidential Rank Awards, as they have tonight.

And we want to thank Pat Kennedy. Pat, thanks for renting the dance hall for us tonight. What a beautiful venue!

And, of course, tonight we're recognizing the 2015 Presidential Distinguished Rank Awardees publicly for the first time. Well, all but one awardee here tonight are 2015. Robert Cardillo, who was in my office in 2014 when he was selected—we're a little slower in the intelligence community—and now he, I'm proud to say, is Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, my old agency, and of course, Robert is somebody I have mentored for about 20 years, and I'm exceedingly proud of his accomplishments.

Carol Bonosaro reminded me of a related conversation we had a few years ago at the Distinguished Rank Award Dinner, and I was lamenting that we were unable to recognize intelligence community executives at the banquet. So the Association made it a mission to recognize non-Title 5 executives. So tonight with Robert here, the Association has accomplished that mission. So, Carol, thanks to you and everyone else who made this happen.

Now, in that same conversation with Carol, she remembered that the last time I spoke here, I told a story from my childhood. When I was about 5 years old, my mother and I were on the first boatload of dependents to go anywhere after World War II towards Europe. It took us 8 weeks to make our way from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Asmara, Eritrea. And we took a troop ship into Naples, Italy, hit a mine left over from the war, which blew the rudder off the ship, and we were laid up a couple weeks in Naples to repair the ship. And the reason we were there was to pick up 500 Italian war brides. We eventually found our way to Alexandria, Egypt, landed there and were driven in a bus to the old Shepherd's Hotel, which has since burned down, a two-story wooden place. So my mother and dad parked me at the top of this flight of stairs in kind of a sweet area and went down to the bottom of the stairs, and there was a little bar area in there. And it turns out the bar was frequented by King Farouk. So King Farouk shows up and starts hitting on my mother. And my dad was a first lieutenant in the Army, and he took a swing at the king, which is not a good thing to do.

So the next thing I know, it's about two o'clock in the morning, and we're packing our bags. We're out of here. We weren't supposed to get a plane ride down Asmara for another 5 days, and we were gone. Anyway, so Carol asked me to tell that story. There it is.

So I have one other story from my childhood, which I think—which is a long time ago, but it sort of explains—I thought I'd tell it because it kind of explains why I ended up with a career in the intelligence business. My dad, my aforementioned dad, was a signals intelligence officer in World War II, collecting messages from the Germans and the Japanese, and after the war, he decided to make the Army a career and stuck with it for about 28 years, and so as a result of kind of growing up with him, I literally was in antenna farms around the world. So some of my earliest memories were living in Eritrea right after World War II and in Japan during the Korean War. So I sort of got semi-interested in that.

Then in 1953, we came back to the States, and as military families often did, they would park the kids at the grandparents' house while they would go find a new—at the new duty station, a new place to live. So my parents left me in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with my grandparents and my sister, who is 7 years younger than I. I was about 12 years old, and bear in mind, this is way before the days of Wi-Fi or Netflix, and back when there were only—this is a TV story.

So my grandparents, as grandparents are wont to do because—as we were discussing, it's in the grandparents' job description to spoil the grandchildren, so they let me run wild. I could stay up as late as I wanted, watch TV, whatever. So one of my favorite things was to watch the Schmidt's Beer Mystery Hour on Friday nights. They showed these old campy Charlie Chan movies from the '30s. I loved them.

So one Friday night after the movie was over, about midnight, I was surfing, but in those days, you actually had a—for some of you that don't know about this, you actually had to walk up to the television and turn the dial. It had Channels 2 through 13, and it was black and white. So there were three channels in Philadelphia. I'd turn in between Channel 4 and 5, and I'm hearing people talking. What's that? So I'd sit there and held it, and I figured out it was the Philadelphia Police Department dispatcher. Well, on Friday nights and Saturday nights in Philadelphia, there's a lot of murder and mayhems, pretty interesting. So I got tired holding the selector knob. So I went out to the kitchen and got a toothpick and stuck it in there, so I guess I hacked my grandparents' television set with a toothpick.

So I listened until about three o'clock in the morning. So the next night, I'm at it again. This time, I got a map of the City of Philadelphia. I started plotting where the calls were. Then I got these card files out, and I started figuring out all the call signs for the police cruisers, and I figured out which one was assigned to which district. And then I found out that all the police in the grade of lieutenant or above had their own personal call signs. I figured out the 10 codes, 10-4, 10-5, what they all meant, so I had all these, which we now call metadata, but I had these card files. Of course, I just thought it was cool to do, you know.

So, about 6 weeks later, my dad shows up, my dad and mom to pick us up and take us to our new home in Massachusetts, but my dad says, "So what have you been doing?" So I whip out my map, my card files and all this, and this look on my dad's face. He said, "My God, I've raised my own replacement."

So I tell the story because it also illustrates something about what intelligence is all about, drawing inferences from limited information, and it required some patience and perseverance to draw conclusions about how the Philadelphia Police Department was organized and how it operated.

Anyway, so intelligence work, as I say, it still boils down to a lot of what I did that summer, and it's research, determination, continuity, drawing inferences, and taking advantages, as we still do today, of any vulnerabilities or insecurities in what our adversaries do. So that avocation, 63 years ago when I was a 12-year-old kid, started me down the path to a career of service in the intel business. We all came into the service from different places and for different reasons, and one of my favorite parts of this banquet—and I've been to many of them—is hearing Carol talk about the varied journeys tonight's awardees have taken. It's actually awesome. We all have a tendency to get in our own cloister. I certainly do in intelligence, but when you listen to the breadth and the scope of accomplishment that's represented in this room, it is eye-watering.
And I will tell you, I've spent a lot of time traveling overseas, been to a lot of countries, and there's no other country that comes close to the caliber of people that we have in federal service represented here tonight.

Through all of the personal conduct and results-oriented leadership, all of our federal workforce, our seniors, represented by the elite who's here tonight, have earned and kept a high degree of public confidence and trust, despite a lot of the hits we've all taken in recent years. And you've demonstrated success in balancing the needs and perspectives of customers, stakeholders, and employees with organizational results. And in reaching the pinnacle of achievement, Rank Award recipients will also have demonstrated strong leadership abilities, inspire their employees, and earn the respect of those they serve, meaning the taxpayers. These awards recognize senior officers who have achieved exceptional long-term results and consistently demonstrated strength and integrity and a relentless commitment to excellence in public service, and it's that last point, public service, that means so much to me.

After I retired from the Air Force about 20 years ago, I spent several years in the private sector. The money was nice, but I just didn't get the same psychic income that I had while I was in uniform. And fortunately, I had the great honor to return to public service as director of the agency that is now NGA. That was in 2001, 2 days after 9/11, and I stayed in the government for 15 more years in three other capacities, but happily, 274 more days and I'm done.

I did all that because of what public service means to me, because I'm surrounded by bright and talented people who are also committed to service, including and particularly the exceptional men and women we recognize tonight. I had my staff run the numbers just to show how prestigious this award is. Of about 2.7 million men and women currently employed as civilians by the Federal Government, less than 8,000 are senior executives, and of those 8,000, only about 80, max, can be recognized with a Distinguished Presidential Rank Award in any year, and I can attest to that same strict selection criteria in the intelligence community. And we're only recognizing 47 tonight.
So this is a rare public distinction, and there are very, very few federal employees who are selected by the President for this award, and I can also attest, trying to push this through the White House, how tough that is. So my heartfelt congratulations to each of you, and from the heart, thanks for what you've done and what you will continue to do for our nation. Thanks for having me.

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