My professor, who met me one Sunday after we both had left our respective church services, explained that he had an aunt living outside Washington, D.C., who would be interested in speaking to me. Telling me little more than that, he gave me a phone number, shook my hand, and wished me luck.
I somehow knew exactly what this was about, and that evening called my professor’s aunt. After a few conversations with her over the next several weeks, I went away for a summer of Army training and promised to call her when I returned.
That summer, part of which I spent at Fort Bragg doing an internship of sorts with the 82d Airborne Division, confirmed that I wanted to be an Army officer. In the fall, I called my professor’s aunt and politely informed her that I had decided to take a commission in the Army. The truth—and the reason I mention any of this—was that I was also intimidated: I wanted to serve my country, but at the age of 21, I couldn’t imagine choosing a career where I might face no end of hazards and not see my family for upwards of a year at a time.
Last year, while working at the Department of Defense, I went to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency for some meetings. On my way out, one of my Agency colleagues asked me if I had ever visited the Memorial Wall, which I had passed on the way in. I had not, and we walked over.
The Memorial Wall is one of the most haunting memorials I have ever seen in the U.S. federal government—more unsettling than any military cemetery I have visited, from Gettysburg to Normandy. Below the famous anonymous stars themselves sits a book that explains the year each star was added and, sometimes, offers the name of the Agency case officer or analyst killed. Some stars—even some stars going back decades, to the height of the Cold War—do not have a name that accompanies them.
It is sobering to realize that each of those stars on that wall represent hundreds of men and women who had the courage to do what I could not bring myself to do: leave their friends and family and sign up for one of the most lonely, demanding jobs in the U.S. government—all with the knowledge that if they were caught, they faced not only torture and a gruesome death but the prospect that their families might never learn how or why they died.
That’s why the Agency employees with whom I spoke over the weekend were appalled by the president’s speech—that he would cheapen the most sacred space at the Agency, that their leadership would allow it to happen, and that some of their co-workers would disgrace themselves and the Agency by raucously applauding lines from a stump speech.
It’s tough to place too much blame on the Agency’s leadership: Their position with the new president is tenuous, at best. The Agency needs some very important things from the president. It needs him to take his daily briefing, and to take seriously—and keep quiet about—the clandestine operations for which the Agency puts the lives of Americans at grave danger. There is little reason for optimism thus far that the president will deliver on either requirement.