"The military and intelligence communities really are joint, which is a reflection of our intelligence team's strength," Panetta said. "History will look back at this moment and say we have come together in a strong partnership to protect the country in every way."
A onetime Army intelligence officer who was briefly assigned to DIA in the 1960s, Panetta recalled the frightening nuclear war brinksmanship of the Cuban missile crisis, saying this era "defined the DIA as a vital vehicle" soon after its creation on Oct. 1, 1961. It was DIA that supplied the flight paths for the American U-2 spy planes that spotted the Russian missile on the island just off U.S. shores, prompting a special commendation for the agency from President Kennedy, Panetta noted.
The other defining moment, he continued, was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which took the lives of seven DIA employees at the Pentagon and prompted the agency to focus more on deploying employees overseas. "DIA emerged as stronger and better integrated with intelligence and military craft coming together" for taking on the task of disrupting and defeating al Qaeda, he said.
Panetta praised the "tireless efforts of men and women who are quiet heroes, the silent warriors, who collect, distill and distribute to the battlefield," and he presented the agency a joint merit award for its work during the 2008-2011 period fighting al Qaeda.
James Clapper, director of the Office of National Intelligence who was head of DIA in the early 1990s, said, "The golden age of the DIA is the past 10 years -- they've been at war that whole time." He said in performing its mission the agency "has matured and blossomed, both at national intelligence and combat support."
DIA Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess Jr. said, "DIA is now more capable than at any time in its past" while addressing the challenges of the next 50 years in continuing the agency's mission to be "first in all-source defense intelligence to prevent strategic surprise and deliver a decision advantage to warfighters, defense planners and policymakers."
Burgess sees DIA as the "engine integrating national and military intelligence." That means continuing "to tell leaders what they need to know not what they want to hear," he said. He also promised to pursue "information sharing and cooperation not just because it's in vogue, but because it's part of the agency's DNA."
Thursday's nationally televised ceremony featured a color guard, a military brass band and a singer, as well as video tributes to fallen DIA employees and introductions of the seven past directors in attendance. From the stage, Burgess ceremonially placed a letter in a metal time capsule containing DIA artifacts that will be buried in a tree-lined grove south of the headquarters and opened in 50 years.
In the spirit of the new general openness among intelligence agencies, DIA also marked the event by releasing a special historical publication detailing how its analysts contributed to U.S. handling of such major events as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the 1980 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s and the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.
The global reach of DIA was accentuated by presentations from foreign dignitaries. A representative of the Australian intelligence service presented director Burgess with a didgeridoo, an aboriginal musical instrument used for centuries to transmit intelligence messages. The Canadian defense intelligence representative gave a native North American canoe paddle from the Pacific Northwest, which is symbolic of teamwork in rowing together. And the British representative presented an early-20th-century engraving of the war department building in London.