By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), got a chance to address the best and the brightest in Birmingham Tuesday with stops at the Central office of the Birmingham Board of Education and Miles College.
In the morning, Brennan met with Birmingham high school seniors to discuss career opportunities with the agency and later in the day he was keynote speaker at Miles College’s 7th Annual National Security Colloquium.
Birmingham high school students, wearing professional attire, sat in the auditorium of the Central Office and learned from Brennan about the possibility of working with the CIA and the challenges of being an agent.
Brennan told students that he is looking to make the CIA more diverse. It is one area that the agency has fallen short, he said.
“I don’t want the agency to be full of individuals who look like me and talk like me, who have similar backgrounds and experiences as me,” he said.
That used to be the CIA when it was formed in the late 1940s: white men from the Northeast, who mostly went to Ivy League schools, with the exception of just a few African-Americans and women, he said.
“I think that if you all are looking the same and thinking the same, you tend to have a group think, which does not help us understand the complexities of this world,” he said.
Brennan also took questions from students.
“How do you cope with the responsibility of being director of the CIA?” asked Shannon Buchanan, 16, from Woodlawn High School.
“One of the ways I get through with my days is realizing that I am part of an organization that has, in my mind, the most dedicated, selfless, capable devoted workforce this country and government has to offer,” Brennan said. “I realize that we’re not going to bat 1,000 every time but I recognize how important our role is.”
Brennan answered questions about technology in the agency, how knowing Arabic has helped in his job, and the most interesting thing that has happened to him.
“President [George H.W.] Bush wanted CIA agents to come in and talk to him and his advisers about what are the implications of [the issues with Saddam Hussein], what would be the way the U.S. would go in and liberate Kuwait,” Brennan said. “As I approached the Oval Office I could literally hear my teeth chatter and my knees knock. I had to pinch myself. What’s a kid from Jersey doing going into the Oval Office and representing the CIA?”
Brennan, who has been director since 2013 first joined the CIA in 1980, said he has regretted not speaking up when people would make prejudice comments.
“I was intimidated because I wanted to be seen as one of the group,” Brennan said. “We are people of this great country and I want to make sure that I am never again silent, whether we are speaking about an individual’s race, heritage or sexual orientation.”
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who traveled with Brennan, said, “Ultimately, I believe [his] visit to Birmingham will expose our students to the myriad of job opportunities at the CIA and within the Intelligence community generally. Our preeminence in national security depends on having an excellent, diverse workforce,” she said. “Diversity in every sense of the word breeds creativity and is a critical component to our continued ability to protect and preserve our national security interests.”
Later in the day, Brennan spoke at Miles College.
“This is the first time that Director Brennan has served as a keynote speaker for a National Security Colloquium for a Historically Black College & University (HBCU),” said school President George T. French, Jr. “I am extremely excited along with the Miles College Family for this experience with the Intelligence Community as we diversify strategic partnerships and meet the national security interests of our nation.”
Dr. Ba-Shen Welch, Director of Miles College’s Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence, said, “We are proud to serve our state and our nation in this capacity. Our National Security Colloquium is an annual, robust dialogue by academia, government, and non-profit sectors on topics relevant to the country’s strategic security.”
Welch added, “This year we have the honor of Director Brennan as our keynote speaker. Director Brennan leads the CIA as a forward thinker, an intellectual and an implementer. He has demonstrated the capability to amalgamate a wide array of complex data points to garner meaning, often from the less obvious. He is inclusive and values the advantage of varied viewpoints. His being at Miles College is indicative of such.”