"Monday Musings” are designed to get quick, insightful thoughts based around three questions from those interested in strategy, from the most experienced and lauded, to our newest thinkers/writers.
1. Who had the greatest impact on you intellectually (whether through writing, mentorship, etc.)?
My time as a staff assistant to former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, John McLaughlin, was unquestionably the most important in my development as an intelligence officer, operational leader, and policy official. I arrived as an aide on the executive floor of CIA’s Langley headquarters exactly one week before the 9/11 attacks, and I was a witness to the extraordinary leadership Mr. McLaughlin and Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet provided to the intelligence community, CIA, and our government during that extremely tense and consequential period. John McLaughlin is without doubt one of the most respected and beloved figures in US intelligence, and daily embodied the ethos of deep substantive expertise, analytic objectivity, and selfless service. Mr. McLaughlin was (and remains) a role-model to countless intelligence and policy officials who worked closely with him. Serving on his staff for nearly three years provided a daily reminder of the power of humility, hard work, and sincere concern for the well-being of an important national institution like the CIA. It’s never bad advice in assessing a complex national security or leadership challenge to pause and ask how John McLaughlin might approach the task.
2. What book (fiction, history, or academic) do you think best explains strategy?
As a national security practitioner (and only lightly-qualified academic), I’m inclined toward more brief and impactful strategy declarations. I was reminded earlier this year of the 70th Anniversary of George Kennan’s legendary “Long Telegram,” dispatched in 1946 from Embassy Moscow where he served as Chargé. I cannot imagine a more timely, prescient, and impactful statement (proposal, actually) of a national security strategy. Kennan accurately assessed the aims, behavior and fears of the Soviet Union, that was rapidly emerging as America’s peer competitor for global influence. He anticipated flash points on the near horizon, the nature of the Cold War competition that would unfold, and prescribed how the U.S. should organize itself and respond to what emerged as a bona fide threat to our national survival. Most of what passes for strategic debate in American political circles today involves little more than tactics and/or suspect analogies. In 1946, America was entering a new world confronted by a unique threat and the wisdom of Kennan’s strategic assessment was borne out over decades. The Long Telegram—an unsolicited analysis by a mid-level civil servant—is always worth a re-read.
3. What do you want your legacy to be?
During an immensely satisfying career as an intelligence officer, I was fortunate to experience first hand (and contribute in minuscule ways) to significant historical events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and birth of new post-Soviet states, the (latest) Balkan Wars, and the US Government’s response to the 9/11 attacks to include a restructuring of our national security institutions to address new threats. My next chapter offers an opportunity to prepare students for careers in the national security field, with the potential to multiply the impact of lessons painfully learned over almost three decades in service. This, along with selective participation in responsible democratic debate about our little understood but powerful intelligence community, offers the opportunity for modest input into how we oversee institutions that help keep our fellow citizens safe. We’re all fortunate to have the opportunity to serve the public, and having done that conscientiously over many years in multiple locales is a professional legacy I’ll happily claim.
Stephen B. Slick is the Director of the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas-Austin. He served 28 years in CIA's clandestine service, including as a special assistant to the president and the Senior Director for Intelligence Programs and Reform on the staff of the National Security Council.
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