The "silent" DNI is not afraid to talk about himself.
Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, likes to remind people that his is a secret profession. When it comes to the job, he plays things close to the vest. But when given the chance to talk about himself in front of a crowd, McConnell has never been reluctant to tell people what he thinks-or how.
This trait was on display in May, when McConnell addressed graduates of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at The George Washington University. The speech featured his usual dry witticisms and self-deprecating humor, and he devoted his attention to the profession that has occupied most of his life.
"I've been an intelligence officer, either directly as active duty or serving for over 40 years," McConnell said. "Except for a few days testifying on the Hill, I wouldn't trade a single day of it." (The line got some laughs.) The DNI characterized his career as "exciting, challenging, interesting, fascinating, and I would argue, necessary." In his calculation, public service should emphasize "service."
McConnell appears to enjoy public speaking, though he's not particularly graceful or flamboyant. He is known to stray from his written remarks-or those prepared for him by his staff-and on some occasions he has misstated facts and had to correct himself later. Sometimes, when McConnell speaks, you understand what he's trying to say, even if a few missing words distort his meaning. For example, in praising the intelligence community's historic espionage successes, he told the GW graduates, "We have worked to achieve deep penetration of those who wish us harm."
But eloquence is not something he has aspired to. "I grew up in the aftermath of the Great Depression," said McConnell, who is 64. "I believe in an honest and hard day's work. I'm structured and disciplined. I'm self-sacrificing. And I have great respect for authority." McConnell claimed membership in "the silent generation," a term coined by Time in 1951, which observed: "Youth today is waiting for the hand of fate to fall on its shoulders, meanwhile working fairly hard and saying almost nothing. . . . It does not issue manifestoes, make speeches or carry posters."
These children preceded the baby boomers, whom McConnell sized up thusly: "Focused on personal achievement. They are egocentric." (That got a laugh.) "They have less respect for authority. They started something called workaholic. They are very optimistic, however. They have ruled the workplace and they are very resistant to change." By contrast, the graduates in attendance, the boomers' kids, are "the best educated, most technically literate of any generation of Americans," he said. "You know no limits. You feel like you're entitled to everything." (That also got a laugh.) "You are highly creative and technologically advanced. . . . You crave teamwork, you crave fun and you demand social relationships with everyone to include your boss."
All that seems to suit McConnell just fine. "Advice to me from someone who prepared this information is, if . . . my community is going to be relevant to you, we have to create a team-oriented environment where you are challenged to multitask. . . . You don't take yourself too seriously; you don't want your bosses to take themselves too seriously. And that's my challenge."
It's one he takes seriously. McConnell's tenure as the second DNI will be marked by an uncommon devotion to hiring the next generation of intelligence professionals. He has repeatedly emphasized that it's the intelligence community that must change, not its future recruits. The jury is out on how successfully McConnell has transformed the intelligence community, but no one can say he hasn't tried.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.