Cornellians packed into Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium Thursday to hear David Cohen ’85, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, discuss his path from Cornell to the CIA and the future of the agency.
According to Cohen, his interactions with Cornell professors were what first “sparked [his] interest” in foreign policy and national security. He spoke fondly of a course he took called “American Foreign Policy from 1914 to the Present,” taught by Prof. Emeritus Walter LaFeber, history — one of the professors after whom the lecture series was dedicated.
“I still have my notes from that class,” Cohen said. “I was looking them over just a few days ago, and I couldn’t believe that I once knew all those things.”
Cohen began his talk by stressing the importance of the CIA in “a world that is more unstable than it has been for several decades.”
He mentioned areas of conflict such as the Middle East and South China Sea, as well as challenges to U.S. security from countries like China and Russia.
“The human toll of the conflicts in these countries is reflected in the front pages of our papers,” he said. “The number of refugees and internally displaced persons in the world today is the highest it has been since the end of World War II.”
Cohen also explained the importance of human intelligence in handling these conflicts. He emphasized the difficult nature of a CIA officer’s job, calling the process of developing a foreign asset “difficult and often dangerous work.”
“Our case officers can’t just sit in their offices and wait for sources to fall into their laps,” he said. “[An officer] needs to find a way to meet them, build a relationship with them, earn their trust, [and] persuade them to help our government. … Every meeting with a source is fraught with uncertainty.”
According to Cohen, a major change in the CIA’s future operations is the addition of its first new directorate since 1963 — the Directorate of Digital Invasion, which will begin running last October.
The DDI’s responsibilities will involve adapting CIA operations to the digital domain — from defense against cyber attacks to making acquired data easier to use, according to Cohen.
“Given the variety, complexity and volume of the data that we take in, this calls for some of the most sophisticated and cutting-edge programming and big data analysis being performed anywhere today,” he said.
One of the problems inherent in this process is keeping digital information secure, according to Cohen.
“We only recently figured out how to allow some personnel to takes notes in a meeting on a laptop, instead of with a pen and paper,” Cohen said.
The availability of open-source information on the internet, on the contrary, may be helpful, Cohen said. He gave the example of the Islamic State’s Twitter account.
“ISIL’s tweets and other social media messages publicizing their activities often produce information that — especially in the aggregate — provides real intelligence value,” he said.
Cohen also mentioned initiatives to increase diversity within the agency — especially in the higher ranks, where only one in ten officers is a minority. According to Cohen, these initiatives have practical benefits besides better representing the U.S. population.
“We need officers who are comfortable with operating in foreign environments,” he said. “We [also] need a workforce that can bring to bear a range of perspectives on the challenges that we face.”
When asked what students interest in joining the CIA should do, Cohen told Cornellians to “stay engaged [and] get engaged with the world around you.”
“You’ve got four years ahead of you here, where you can take fantastic classes from fantastic professors,” he said. “Learn about the world and maintain your interest in what the United States is doing.”