Special Guest: Hank Crumpton
Veteran CIA officer and former State Department counterterrorism official Hank Crumpton joins Bellum today for some exclusive Q&A. After 9/11, he led CIA operations in Afghanistan as we hunted for Osama bin Laden and overthrew the Taliban. Now the head of the Crumpton Group, an international business consulting firm, he was kind enough to sit for an interview in his D.C. office earlier this month. Widely regarded as a seasoned professional, Ambassador Crumpton walks us through his thoughts on America’s “exceptional” global role and the “virtue of intelligence” in what he describes as a “very complex, very dangerous world.”
“Finding opportunities in an uncertain world” — your company’s slogan. What does it mean?
It means that we think that the challenges, the threats, and the complexities of a global marketplace are going to increase, but we also think that the opportunities will increase along with the challenges. To the extent that investors can understand this rapidly changing terrain I think that’s going to make them more profitable. Our mission is to help them to understand, to help them map that terrain of both risk and opportunity.
We have an increasingly interconnected world on the hand, but on the other, your own background in the CIA entailed dedication to one country. How should the American layman think about what it means to be an American?
When I was with the CIA — and it was a grand opportunity, a privilege, really, to serve my country there, and also at the Department of State for the last couple years — I learned that one of the fundamentals of success in terms of advancing America’s national security agenda was rooted in the strengths of our partnerships, our foreign partnerships, whether they were related to intelligence, war, law enforcement, economic development, peace and prosperity writ large. I think that some of those same lessons learned in government service can be applied to the private sector. I believe that free trade is critical to the advancement of not only the United States, but to the global economy, and we’re a big part of that. I think that the interdependence is going to grow. I don’t see that as a bad thing, I see it as an opportunity for us to influence the way that interdependence works, whether you’re talking about security issues, energy, health, agriculture, just a range of different topics. Where we succeed is where we have partnerships.
What is an example of a lesson learned that can be applied to the private sector?
Trusted networks, understanding the needs and preferences of our foreign partners, building trust with them for specific missions, and then from that you can take it, really, as far as both parties want. I think that’s a fundamental part of the world we live in. It’ll be more and more about those types of flexible, dynamic, trusted networks, I believe, and less about command and control, whether it’s in the government structure or corporate structure.
Without getting into politics, is there something to the notion of American exceptionalism?
Yeah, I think that America is exceptional in terms of its history, in terms of its values, and that’s where our emphasis should be, on that exceptionalism, not some writ that allows us to act unilaterally without consideirng the needs, the preferences, the interests of others. I do believe that the US must act unilaterally at times, but that is not the preference. The exceptionalism really is about who we are, not what our particular rights might be in the global marketplace or on the global battlefield.
At Bellum we’re well aware of the saturation in the mainstream consciousness and media over issues like Iraq and rogue states. Are there trends or problems that you think aren’t getting enough attention?
A couple things. First, the advancement of technology and the impact that will have on us as a society and a community of nations. If you look at robotics and nanotechnology, and you consider the advancements in quantum computing, they fundamentally change how we fight, how we spy, how we live. I don’t know if we’re looking far enough into the future, and in fact it might not be that far at all, so the impact of technology on society — there doesn’t seem to be enough attention on that. And then, if you look geographically, I would say two places: Africa and south of our border, throughout Latin America. Enormous opportunities there but also some unique challenges, not just in terms of national security or business but in terms of demographics, migration, humanitarian concerns.
The challenge for my grandparents’ generation was World War II. For my father’s generation, it was the Cold War. Is there a generational challenge for mine?
Yes. First, I’m more than pleased and really proud of your generation. I see their concern manifested in issues related to energy, to the environment, to national security - just look at the young men and women that are fighting for our country in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, or the young entrepreneurs that are advancing our society. So I’m very optimistic when I look to your generation, but there are some big challenges: the fundamental shifts in the nature of warfare, the degree of asymmetry that we see, energy challenges, climate change that is going to come far quicker than most people realize, and the issue of leadership through networks. How do you work independently to achieve your objectives? And so there are a number of challenges, and of course some of the biggest challenges will hit us five years from now, and no one knows what they are.
There is a popular perception that American values and spying are opposed to each other: covert warfare is a dirty business that is antithetical to pristine American values of fair play and so forth. Do you have thoughts on this as a seasoned operator?
I think there is a conflict there, a paradox, if you will. I believe that in popular culture there generally is respect for the operator, for the CIA officer, but there is an ambivalence or even suspicion or fear of that service or the agency that particular officer might represent. It’s often reflected in cinema, in books where you’ve got some heroic officer but more often than not he’s not just battling our nation’s enemies, he’s struggling against some type of twisted conspiracy in Washington, DC, or in his own agency. That really is tiresome, frankly, from my perspective. I think that America will learn more about the threats that we face and that America will learn more to appreciate the value of intelligence, the virtue of intelligence. I think that we could do a better job, and by “we” I mean professionals such as myself, our policy leaders, we could do a better job of educating the public. Part of that, of course, is that some of our policymakers do not have a full understanding and appreciation for the business of intelligence. So it’s a great question and a great challenge that we have not fully addressed. The American people need to understand the virtue of intelligence and I think that will help relieve some of their concerns.
What would you say to the 12-year-old Boy Scout who wants to know what the virtue of intelligence is?
The virtue of intelligence, ultimately, is about the truth - finding the truth, providing that truth, or at least the best approximation possible, given the gray areas of the world, given the challenges of collection, the challenges of analysis, but providing the policymakers the best information, the best insight possible so he or she can make decisions that advance the virtues of America. It can be someone in law enforcement, or in the military, or in diplomacy, or making economy policy. Intelligence applies to all those different instruments of statecraft. Granted, in the collection of intelligence there is a degree of clandestine activity, which includes lying, cheating, and stealing, and if you’re talking about covert action, in some cases lethal activities. But I don’t see that as being in any way detrimental or at odds with advancing America’s objectives, nor in the information ultimately provided that helps keep this country, and our allies, and our people safe. It’s not an easy black-or-white issue. Every day, brave men and women in the Clandestine Service have to address these fundamental issues because they have to make decisions day and night, in all parts of the world, about how to advance that particular mission in what is a very complex, very dangerous world.