Last Thursday evening, some of the biggest names in American intelligence gathered at the United States Institute for Peace just across from Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. It was the 2017 Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) Achievement Awards.

“It’s fitting we’re here at the United States Institute of Peace talking about the practice of defense and intelligence and keeping the peace, because that’s what we’re all about,” said keynote speaker, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart. “Our work prevents wars, saves lives, and ensures a peaceful society, and that peaceful society can continue to face today’s threats and challenges.”

According to INSA, the Achievement Awards “are presented as an early and possibly first recognition of an individual’s professional contribution and potential.” Commonly, awardees demonstrate high degrees of leadership, proficiency, team-building and interpersonal skills, strong values, and influence.

“Our six awardees have all demonstrated impressive talents and skills in their fields, but they have two qualities that they all possess, and all of us can look to emulate,” said Lt. Gen. Stewart. “They have great leadership skills, and they’re committed to service. Tonight’s recipients are just doing excellent work.” Further, he said, the awardees are “lifting up those around them, they’re setting the example, and they may not realize yet, but they are today’s influencers and mentors and the ones who will shape the world, who will teach and lead our sons, our daughters, our grandchildren and . . . our great grandchildren.”

This year’s six distinguished INSA awardees selected from the military, government, private- sector, and academia were Sara Jamshidi of Penn State University’s Applied Research Laboratory (Sidney D. Drell Academic Award), Mandy Rogers of Northrop Grumman Corporation (Edwin H. Land Industry Award), U.S. Army S2 Captain Brigid K. Calhoun of the 1-503rd Infantry Battalion (William O. Studeman Military Award), Department of Treasury’s Thomas D. Smith (Richard J. Kerr Government Award), Homeland Security’s Sean Sullivan (John W. Warner Homeland Security Award), and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Janna Scott-Tarman (Joan A. Dempsey Mentorship Award).

DIA Director Lt. Gen. Stewart opened the formal portion of the ceremony with remarks that were motivational, serious, and entertaining, as well. “Last year, Jim Clapper was here,” Steward said. “So I’m feeling just a little bit nervous trying to walk in the shadows of a Jim Clapper.” Along with Lt. Gen. Stewart’s remarks, both those presenting and those receiving awards shared what were very often insightful and revealing observations about their work in and with the intelligence community.

The Intelligence Community’s Challenges

Gen. Stewart shared three areas of his concern as a leader at the top of the intelligence profession. One is that the intelligence model being applied today is a model of the past that may not be as relevant, if relevant at all, in the rapidly techno-environment of today.

“When I was a young man,” he said, “we did intelligence analysis based on 50, 100 documents that gave us insights about what was going on in the world. Today, think about the volume and velocity of data that’s coming at our analysts, who have to sift through all that data and make sense of it . . . . If it was finding a needle in a haystack it would be simple. It’s finding the precise needle in a stack of needles.”

In Gen Stewart’s view, the art of intelligence is stuck in the past.

“We are stuck, unfortunately, in the ideas of the past,” said Gen. Stewart. “And I need this young generation, these young men and women here, to look at the world differently, to challenge conventional wisdom, to push the boundaries and make us think about this next 50 years in a little bit different way than we thought about the last 50 years.”

Gen. Stewart’s concern about and Intelligence Community guided by the past is buoyed by his belief that the current world order is under siege.

“I’m increasingly seeing the fault lines that cause great concern about stability in the international order. Think about this,” he explained, “The international order that we grew up with, that we grew up with since the end of the Second World War, is being challenged by states and proto-states around the world. Russia seeks to have a different international order. China seeks a different international order. Daesh, ISIS, Al Qaeda seek a different international order. Iran threatens the international order.”

Finally, Gen. Stewart shared that one of his top concerns is the rhetoric about the professionalism and objectivity of the intelligence community that’s been reported in the news over the past several weeks—that is, he said, “that somehow the intelligence community, if annoyed by our President, will do everything we can to undermine our elected President of the United States. We have to fight that idea that our intelligence community will turn against our elected officials. That’s why, every time I go out I talk about the oath that we take. We take the oath to support the Constitution.”

Earlier, Gen. Stewart had spoken at some length on the meaning and purpose of the oath of office that public servants take.

“We never swear an oath to an individual, to a political party. We swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States,” he said “Many of our friends really don’t understand the power of that oath. And the idea that pundits will get on television and talk about the intelligence community turning against our elected officials is a dangerous, dangerous idea. And we all, every one of us, must rile against that, whenever we hear that. Because we turn against the enemies of our country, never against our elected officials.

“All of you in this room have chosen this life, that of the silent professional, committed to speak truth to power no matter the cost, and it’s not easy. Sometimes the price is high in terms of our professional lives, and often in our personal ones. . . . But our work is crucial to the safety of the United States and the ideals it embodies—freedom, equality, diversity, and of course those inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.