Michael Morell was deputy director and twice acting director of the CIA.
As you walk through the main lobby of the CIA, your gaze is drawn to the right — toward the Memorial Wall, with its 117 stars, one for each CIA officer who has died in the line of duty; toward the Book of Honor listing the names of those officers, where cover considerations allow; and toward the fresh flowers that are almost always there, placed by friends and colleagues inspired by their sacrifice.
It was this wall that drew so much negative commentary about President Trump’s visit to the CIA this month — the president’s brief, almost offhand reference to a memorial that is the soul of the agency, and his clear elevation of his ego above the sacrifices of those memorialized on the wall. Such commentaries were on the mark, and they captured my own feelings as well.
But there is another wall in the lobby that carries almost as much significance as the Memorial Wall — the wall that is to the left as you enter, the wall that your eye often misses. On that wall is a verse from the Gospel of John that reads, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
The quote was carved into the stone at the insistence of Allen Dulles, the CIA’s fifth director. Dulles, the son of a Presbyterian minister, felt strongly that a biblical verse needed to guide the work of his officers.
The CIA website notes that this verse is the agency’s “motto,” but it is much more. It is the ethos of the agency — the strongly held belief that is the job of the CIA, as it relates to national security, to discover the truth and share it with the president, no matter what the implications might be for policy, politics or the president himself.
This ethos is discussed on an employee’s first day on the job, when a young officer raises his or her right hand and takes the oath of office — in the very lobby where Trump spoke. The ethos is stressed in training classes, directors reference it in speeches, and it is reinforced in the lore shared when officers gather to have a drink after a long week. The ethos is a key tenet of both the operational and analytic sides of the organization. It is a deeply embedded part of the culture.
Any perception of someone trying to alter the truth, as the officers see it, creates immediate antibodies — complaints to management, complaints to the agency ombudsman (itself a creation of the ethos), complaints to Congress and, unfortunately, occasional leaks to the media. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, these perceptions are not accurate, but that is not the point. The point is how strongly the men and women of the CIA feel about the essence of their job, how strongly they feel about that verse on the wall.
It was, therefore, a deep irony that Trump chose the CIA lobby, with its quote from John’s Gospel, as the location of his first official act as president. It is an irony because, as has become clear, the president seems to shun the truth and he alters it with alarming frequency. In speaking to the American people, he misrepresents the facts almost daily.
Why is it important to point out the irony that played out at the CIA? Because, while this ethos is perhaps strongest there, every executive branch department and agency shares it to some degree. Trump’s first frustration with the men and women whom he leads was with his intelligence community — and its conclusion that the Russians interfered in the election — but it will certainly play out with others in government over the next four years.
My hope is that employees at all departments and agencies take inspiration from the CIA’s ethos, and that they speak truth to the president, no matter what he wants to hear or what he is tweeting about on any particular day.
As he spoke at the CIA, Trump had his back to the Memorial Wall, which means that he was facing the verse from John’s Gospel. He was looking right at it. Near the end of his speech, Trump, taking Time magazine to task for not correcting an error in its reporting (which, of course, it had already done) said, “So I only . . . say that because I love honesty.” I wish he really did.
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