Living a Life of Intelligence by Heather Biehl '89
Delivered at the Westminster College Undergraduate Scholars Forum on April 19, 2012
In 1985, I graduated from JCHS and made my way the entire 25 miles north to Westminster College!
I had it all planned out… I would be a pre-med major. I would compete for the Cranshaw scholarship since it was the only way I thought I'd ever get overseas. I also was certain that I would have a date any time I wanted since the College was only about 15% women then. And maybe, just maybe, I'd be fortunate enough to find a professor who would inspire me to do great things.
Well… a lot happens at a liberal arts college in four years! I still love biology, but I graduated with a History/Poly Sci degree. I DID get the Cranshaw and spent an amazing year in Durham, England…but that wasn't my only trip overseas. The whole dating thing didn't quite work out the way I had expected either, as the boys seemed to prefer "Woodsies" at that time.
However, I was on completely on the mark with the hope that I would find someone here to inspire me! I am lucky to call many of the faculty and staff that were & are here at Westminster mentors and friends: Bill Young, Russ Jones, Wayne Zade, John Langton, Peter Kim, Pat Kirby, Bob Hanson and many more. One of our professors celebrating his retirement this year is Dr. Collins. Because of Dave, I'll never look at a Shakespeare play again without blushing. But more importantly, throughout the years, we have continued to comment on poetry, novels, and the joys and struggles of parenthood and pet ownership!
Although he'll kill me for singling him out, I have to make special mention of Butch Lael, who also is celebrating his retirement this week. Dr. Lael was randomly assigned as my freshman advisor when I entered Westminster. However, it was his "quiet encouragement" (ok… constant badgering) and his Vietnam class that turned me into a History major and set me on an entirely unexpected career path. Since then, Butch and Ann, have patiently listened to my stories, encouraged me to take chances, opened their home to me on Fulton visits, and shared their lives with me. I'd like to dedicate my comments today to Butch in appreciation for his friendship and the many lives he has touched at Westminster.
As Carolyn mentioned, I left Westminster and embarked on a career with the Central Intelligence Agency. I wanted a grand adventure…and just the process of moving to Washington DC seemed like a good start.
Within six months of graduation, not only I had a moved to the East Coast, I had entered a special competitive program at the CIA which provides military training, internships across the Intelligence and Defense Communities, and instruction in all of the traditional CIA groups:
- Analytic (which would become my home component)
- Operative (You know… the spies)
- & Scientists (aka, inventors and engineers like "Q" from the James Bond movies)
Over the next year, I found myself getting paid to jump out of helicopters, took a course on how to build bombs, learned how to drive "defensively" in case I was ever being chased around a foreign country, and fired over 100 different kinds of firearms. This included a rocket propelled grenade that I got to shoot at an old tank. I also learned how to recruit spies and did internships at the Pentagon and the White House.
Hard-to-believe, but the most exciting events were yet to come. I started working on the Iraq account in 1990 the same day Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I spent several years going to the UN to address Security Council members on Iraqi human rights violations. I got to brief kings and prime ministers. I worked with the FBI and CIA to track the activities of a little known group called al-Qaeda.
Since 2003, I've worked with two companies that are filled with PhDs from MIT who truly are rocket scientists, quantum physic experts, world leaders in speech and language technologies, and cyber security pioneers. It has been a Westminster graduate's dream come true. I work with these geniuses to take new technologies into the Intelligence Community to solve continued hard problems.
I also met my husband at the Agency. As an engineer, he spent over a decade making cool widgets (some of which still sit in my basement) and deploying with Special Forces counterterrorism teams to rescue US persons being held in foreign countries. I'm proud to say that he won the Intelligence Commendation Medal for rescuing an important US agent from a Panama jail in the hours before we moved to capture Noriega.
Between the two of us, we have some interesting stories to tell. I hope you will bear with me as I share a few of them with you today, as I think they reflect just how rewarding it is when you challenge yourself, follow your passions, and find yourself "changing the world," or least your part of it.
It really comes down to the same thing in ANY pursuit. To live a life of "Intelligence" (pun intended), no matter your chosen field of study or profession, one must find and practice your passion, understand the needs of yourself and others, and work harder than you imagined possible.
The effort that you all have put into your presentations today is an indication that you already are well on your way to finding that passion.
SO let's begin…
Lesson Number One: YOU Can Be the Expert
Before I went to Washington, I had the notion that folks who worked on Foreign Policy or in the Intelligence Community (IC) were brilliant and anointed with a magical power of understanding the right thing to say or do. It IS true that we have amazing and creative public servants who work tirelessly to try to "do the right thing." It just never occurred to me that I could become one of those experts simply by doing my job day in and day out.
My first rotation as an analyst landed me in the East European section on the Romanian desk in 1990, following the fall of the dictator Ceausescu. The senior analyst there had worked this account for 20 years, but that summer she took leave to take care of her ill mother. That left ME to cover the election of the new Romanian leader and to make the call if these elections were "free and fair" by US Standards. This, despite the fact I had just turned 23 years old and had not yet published a formal government report.
I spent three months reading all of the information from the field and collaborated with the military, the National Security Agency, the State Department, and other agencies. I literally slept on a cot at the office to stay "on top" of the fast paced and ever changing situation. Man… I was hooked! I could not imagine doing anything more exciting in my life. At the critical moment, I wrote a paper stating that the elections were NOT, in fact, free or fair.
The next day, my boss returned from Romania, where he had been monitoring the elections in person. He called me in to question my analysis. He said he personally had not seen any indication that the interim government had kept people away from the polls and intimidated opposition candidates. He listened to my recitation of the evidence (or "sources" in intel speak), my consideration of the various hypotheses, and an estimation of what information we lacked to give the full picture. He finally said I had convinced him that my line of analysis was sound. He then bundled me into a car to go brief "some guy" at the State Department.
Upon arrival, I was taken to a very nice office and met a Mr. John Fox. Mr. Fox put me through the same grilling as my boss. He wanted me to justify my conclusions, give solid evidence to back up my analysis, and point out what I didn't know that might affect that bottom line. At the end of 2 hours, he smiled, put his feet up on the desk, and said, "I hope you realize you just cost the new Romanian government $195 million in US Gov't aid and support."
I stared at him and said the first brilliant thing that came to my mind, which was, "Are you sure? I'm just a kid from mid-MO. Don't you want to ask your experts?" He laughed and said, "I think you are the expert. You've memorized every cable you've read, you did hours of homework on Romanian history to understand the nuances of their speeches, you considered every hypothesis I can think of, and you made a case for why our inevitable information gaps would not fundamentally change the bottom line. Hard work and preparation is all any expert really is."
I learned several lessons that day:
- If you work hard and do your best to be prepared, YOU can be the expert… even if you are a 23-year-old first assignment geek from mid-Missouri.
- Make sure you carefully think about every situation AND about the possible alternatives to yours or others actions. This way, you can give your listener the BEST, complete, and informed answer possible.
- ALWAYS do your homework about whom you are talking too, what they will want to know, and what they need in order to look good for their boss! You can't lose by helping others succeed.
Lesson Number Two:
Your Boss can be a Wuss, but you don't have to imitate him!
During my career, I traveled to over 30 countries, primarily in the Middle East and Europe. However, once I found myself on a very interesting two-week trip outside Tokyo participating in an Intelligence exchange about the Middle East. In particular, we were trying to get the Japanese government to sign a document to back the United States on a new approach to dealing with Iraq's refusal to abide by UN sanctions.
As the only female member of the entire group, I got the dubious "honor" of sitting at right hand of the Japanese Army Colonel, who was our host and also guided us through a different "ceremonial dinner" each night. As a result, my comrades could pass up all the raw and "weird" food, but I felt obligated to try a bit of everything. (A reminder here… I grew up in Jeff City in the '80s. Not a lot of Sushi bars to prepare me for this occasion).
A very senior CIA officer led the US delegation, and I worked closely with him to explain to the Japanese why the US felt so strongly that we needed their support. Day after day we conducted business while my boss pestered the Colonel for his signature. We got to the last evening without the paper in hand.
As the four hour dinner came to close that night, my boss became quite irritated and sulked about the Japanese intransigence. The Colonel just smiled and said he was saving a "special treat" for we honored guests.
- Soon the lights dimmed and a parade of women in spectacular ceremonial garb carried in a large basket that seemed to be squirming, a very large decorative bowl, and 8 jars of special Saki.
- They placed the bowl in front of the Colonel, poured the Saki in, and then uncovered the basket. Inside was the largest bug I had ever seen. Its body segment was at least 18 inches long and its head and tail added another foot to the length.
- They dropped the giant cockroach-looking creature into the bowl, where it essentially almost drowned in the Saki as it became numb. Then the Colonel took the bug out, flipped it on its back, opened up the stomach and scooped out the insides.
- The Colonel then handed the "treat" to my boss and told him that as the most senior guest, it was his responsibility to accept this great gift and demonstrate that the US honored Japanese friendship. Then, said the Colonel, he would sign the paper of support.
My boss looked at the mess and grew very pale. He said he could not accept this gift and clearly balked at eating the "delicacy." I stared at him, and could not believe that he would let the chance to cement the deal pass us by. The whole trip and a very important US policy interest hung in the balance and he couldn't "Man up?" Then he looked at me and blurted "she'll do it."
The Colonel looked at me and said, "In Japan, we teach that a boss should never pass a job to his underling that he cannot do himself. Heather, what do you think the underling's role should be in a case like this?" I smiled and said, "Sir, I believe that the underling should do her best to make her host know how much she and her entourage appreciate the hospitality and courage shown to them. She should accept the honor and gift for her boss… but expect that the boss will repay her with a nice hefty bonus for doing his job."
The Colonel roared with laughter. I wish he had also just signed the paper… but I had to eat that bug! Honestly, I haven't had Sushi since! However, I learned a number of new lessons:
- Sometimes service, whether to community or country, really is more important than your sensibilities.
- Just because your boss is a wuss… doesn't mean you have to be. Doing the right thing is, in fact, better than taking the easy way out!
- Bug guts really don't taste good
Final Lesson: Your Character Will be Tested
You can imagine that there were many times when my husband and I have had to deeply examine the ethics of what our jobs require. The last thing we wanted to do was to go to work one day, and end up testifying to Congress the next! (Trust me; having to testify about your analysis is plenty scary enough).
There are certainly morale cases where the "right" choice is obvious, even when the results are difficult. As an example, my parents grew up 6 blocks apart in Louisiana, MO. They starting dating at ages 14 and 16 and got married when my dad turned 20. It was tough marrying young, starting a family, and having to drop out of college. At age 30, and years of hard work, my Dad got a big break and was offered the position of manager at a company in Jeff City.
Unfortunately, my father's boss turned out to be a loser. The next day, he pulled Dad aside and told him that he realized my father would soon discover that he was cooking the books. He offered my Dad a substantial sum if he would keep his mouth shut and go along with the activities.
My father walked away from his job that day…but the consequences were harsh. He spent the next six months living above my Uncle's auto repair shop in Hannibal and pumped gas 6 days a week in order to keep our home and feed my family. My mother had to raise a 10 and 6 year old by herself while she waited for her third child to arrive. It took my Dad six months to find another job (at lower pay) and be able to move back to Jeff City. But he took the course that he knew was right, and stayed true to who he wanted to be.
It is not always so clear that you are getting near the ethical boundaries, however. In the Intel Community, it is quite simply required that you deal with some "bad guys" as these are the ones who have the information we need to keep our nation from harm. Likewise, when living overseas, the customs and moral values often differ from our own. My husband was faced with the chance that he might have to take another's life to save his own. We often had the opportunity (untaken, I assure you) to financially benefit in questionable ways as we both handled large amounts of cash.
Understanding that need to check and double check your motives and your actions is imperative. This is true even, if like my father, it means you have to put your continued employment at risk. Fortunately, Bob and I both had great bosses and leaders around us who deeply believed that doing right was just as important as doing well.
Even if you don't work for the government, there are always issues at any job that will test your moral codes. For example, folks are sometimes tempted to add a few minutes to a time card to make up for that lunch that ran over 10 minutes. It also can mean that you simply do not give full credit to other team members for their ideas.
Right now is probably the most important time in your life to think about… even write down… those basic fundamental truths you hope to maintain as you move out to practice the academic passions you are demonstrating here today. Look back at your list often, adjust as necessary, and work your way through the inevitable grey areas as honestly as you can. Truly, this is one of the best ways to live the "Intelligent" life that we all aspire too.
Well, now that the preaching is over….
Hopefully some of the stories and "lessons learned" that I shared this morning will resonate as you start down your own path.
Let me say again how very grateful I am to be here and have the chance to talk with you today. I have worked very hard in my career… but I had a lot of support, help, and luck along the way from my family, co-workers, AND my Westminster family. My sincerest hope for all of you is that you embrace everything that this College and the AMAZING faculty and staff here can offer you. ENJOY your academic efforts and subsequent careers.
I challenge you to allow yourself to be constantly intrigued by everything around you. May you wake up every day before the alarm goes off… excited to get started all over again.
My best wishes to all of you and God Bless Westminster College.