Former CIA Executive Deputy Director Martin Petersen discussed his Cold War-era career – defined by a clear-cut enemy – in contrast to the culture of intelligence gathering today, a period where international threats are more difficult to identify, during a speech Monday night at the Elliott School of International Affairs.
“(The Soviet Union) was a rival with borders and security and territorial interests to defend,” Petersen said.
Today we face a decentralized enemy that, unlike the USSR, is unwilling to negotiate and difficult to identify, he said. The terrorists of today are hidden and have an uncompromising commitment to violence.
“We face a new threat from a source we do not know nearly as well,” he added.
Petersen highlighted the limitations of intelligence and said despite intelligence gatherers’ best efforts, they cannot predict the future or remove all danger as there are simply too many different players and variables. As such, policymakers and legislators have to ask themselves a fundamental question.
“Where do you put that marker (in between security and privacy)?” Petersen asked his audience.
In spite of the limitations of intelligence, Petersen also stressed the usefulness and important roles it can play in reducing risk and guiding policymakers toward making informed decisions.
As many of Petersen’s audience members were GW students, he spoke not only on the details of his career in the CIA but also spoke about the pros and cons of joining the CIA today. He said the CIA is a unique organization because it is clandestine and engages in every different kind of intelligence activity. However, operatives often have to leave their families for long periods of time and keep secrets from them.
“I could talk about some things to my wife,” Petersen said. “But not everything.”
Petersen added that working in intelligence requires a comfort with the unknown. Petersen said it is difficult for an operative to know if he or she did the right thing or how the decision he or she made will turn out.
“If you crave certainty, (intelligence) is probably not your field,” Petersen said.
Petersen concluded his remarks by hypothesizing that acts of terrorism, rather than a particular nation or region, will define the next generation of intelligence gathering. He also made a grave prediction about the implications of this trend.
“I think its likely I’m going to live to see a WMD used on U.S. soil, and I’m almost certain you will.”
Petersen stated that knowledge, rather than intelligence, will defeat the problem of terrorism. He stressed that a respect and understanding for the values and cultures of others is important and intelligence can help in this respect.
The International Affairs Society and the Kappa Sigma fraternity cosponsored the event. Petersen, a Kappa Sigma member at Arizona State University, retired from government service in 2005.
This article appeared in the September 20, 2007 issue of the Hatchet.