What I've Learned: John McLaughlin

SAIS fellow, ex-CIA director, and amateur magician

John McLaughlin is a senior fellow and distinguished practitioner-in-residence at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, where he received a master's degree in 1966. After a tour in Vietnam, McLaughlin spent 30-plus years working for the CIA, rising to the rank of deputy director (2000–2004) and then acting director following George J. Tenet's resignation. He founded the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis at CIA University.


At SAIS, he teaches a course on American intelligence, involving issues related to defense policy, counterterrorism, irregular warfare, U.S. homeland security, and weapons of mass destruction.

I grew up in McKeesport, Pa. I worked in the steel mills in the summers during college; everyone did. I cleaned coke ovens, which means you go inside an oven that is about 120 degrees. You stay in there about three minutes—you can't stay much longer than that—and chip out the old brick. I also drove tractors. I dug ditches. I did everything you do when you're in the labor pool in a steel mill.

I started college as an English major, but in 1960 in Ohio—I was at Wittenberg University in Springfield—the presidential campaign was on, and John Kennedy came to speak at our campus. I changed my major to political science the next day. I was so taken by the presidential campaign and Kennedy's inspirational demeanor, I said I either want to do politics or something connected to global affairs.

I "lettered" in debate [laughs] both in high school and in college. The valuable skill I took away from [it] was the ability to see different sides of the argument. You take a proposition, like the opinion that labor unions should be abolished, and then on one day you have to be in favor of that and the other you have to be against it. I think you come away from an intensive involvement in debate with a sense that things are often a little gray.

I got to SAIS purely by accident. I was thinking of going to law school, and I was an RA at my college, and there was a fellow student struggling, and I took him under my wing of sorts and he did better. He said, Why don't you come down and visit me in D.C. around Christmas? My family would like that. This is 1963. I drove down to Washington, and my friend's dad was John Dreier, a professor at SAIS and a former ambassador. His dad showed me around the school, and I was like, This is interesting. I'd like to apply here.

Sometimes when students ask me about careers, I say, Let me quote John Lennon. He once said, "Life is what happens [to you] when you're [busy] making [other] plans."

Your first job is probably the most important. Work hard at it. Do the best you can. Impress people, and someone will come along and say, I have something better for you.

SAIS was quite dazzling to me, having grown up in a small town in western Pennsylvania and gone to a college in Ohio. I was in awe of my fellow students, many of whom spoke multiple languages.

During my last week or so at Bologna, I got a telegram from my mother telling me I just got my draft notice. It's 1966, and I was thinking of going on to a PhD program. I considered my options and I thought, I know where this is headed. So I went to the Army and asked, What happens if I enlist? They said, You could compete for Officer Candidate School and get a second lieutenant commission. And I said, Let's do that.

Second lieutenants were not the best survivors at that time, but still you had more control than if you were a PFC carrying a rifle. I went to the infantry school, but they commissioned me in intelligence, which is the first exposure I had to the intelligence world. I had no idea that was in my future at all.

What you learn in the Army is that you can do things you didn't think you could do. You could swim across a river with a pack and a rifle, survive in deplorable conditions, and make your way in a different society.

Officer Candidate School tests your sense of humor in that basically they are trying to break you. But as long as you had the right mental attitude—that they weren't really trying to kill you and didn't really hate you, and that this is just a test—then you could get through it. Some people could not grasp that it wasn't about them. It's not always about you.

I was assigned to a small base near Biên Hòa. My first job was as what they call an order of battle officer. You would go through captured documents, interrogation reports, intercepted radio traffic, and look for unit identifications. This is before the computer era, so you'd fill out 3 x 5 cards. Some prisoner tells you, My unit carries only some vintage AK-47s; someone else tells you they were short food all of last year. You write that down and develop a history or a picture of these units, so when you anticipate an engagement with one of these units, you have some capacity to tell the commander, Here's what you are likely to be up against.

Since I spoke Vietnamese, my general would deploy me out to special forces bases near the Cambodian border and places where actions had occurred to help police up prisoners and that sort of thing. Yup, that was my first job.

I always had a rifle, an M14. We did have perimeter duty, but we were not attacked while I was on duty. Still it was tense because you could not tell the friendlies from the bad guys. As a lieutenant, my duty was to go from bunker to bunker to make sure everyone was OK, and not smoking pot.

Vietnam was a strange war. Although I wasn't completely aware of the bigger geopolitical picture, most of us knew what the United States was doing there wasn't right strategically.

I remember as a graduate student sitting outside SAIS in April 1965 in my car, I had a little TR3 sports car, and [President Lyndon] Johnson was giving his escalation speech. As I listened, I remember sitting there and saying it didn't make sense. We didn't understand this place. The whole domino theory is a little too facile. Are these people in the south really as committed as those in the north seemed to be? So, I didn't go with zeal. I went because it was my duty. My number had come up. All of my uncles had fought in World War II. The idea of saying I'm not going was just not in my gene pool.

When I came back from Vietnam, I said to my wife, I don't have anything else to complain about the rest of my life. Nothing is going to happen to me lower than what I just experienced. So, it's all up from here [laughs].

I went back to school at the University of Pennsylvania and got close to a PhD but then got a job offer from the CIA. I took it, and I never looked back.

I was initially an analyst working on Communist parties in southern Europe. As an analyst in those days, it was about trying to understand a complex situation and writing about it in fairly straightforward and direct terms that could be understood by senior policy leaders. The trick was to strike the balance between simple and not simple-minded.

Eventually I became a supervisor of other analysts. After that I did a year at the State Department on a rotational assignment working as a liaison with the intelligence world. I got to see what it was like on the receiving end of intelligence, to see up close what people really needed.

Being in the military prepared me for being in a fast-moving, crisis-laden, high-pressure, short-deadline environment where you have to respond to events. That's kind of the nature of the intelligence business.

Gauging success and failure in the intelligence business is hard. But sometimes it's obvious. When something happens in the world that nobody has said anything about and everyone is totally surprised, you failed. Success is harder to gauge. Sometimes your success comes about because nothing happens. The embassy wasn't attacked because you had quietly warned about it. No one has a clue there was a threat. That is a good day.

Sometimes success is woven into a successful policy that the United States pursues. The Balkans is a classic case. Intelligence was very involved as the U.S. moved from an arm's length posture to deep engagement, starting in about 1995. Intelligence was very involved in supporting our military engagement, such as finding out who was capable of displacing [Slobodan] Milosevic. I was deeply involved in that effort, and I felt very good about it. Intelligence played a vital role in transforming the place where war raged to a relatively peaceful environment.

There were things we didn't do, like—well, I can't go into it [laughs].

We figure out in 2002 that North Korea is building a covert capability to enrich uranium and not telling us about it. This is at a time when they are telling us that they have plutonium capability and are giving it up so they can get fuel and food from us. I come along and give a briefing to say, Guess what, they are designing a way to enrich weapons-grade material by using uranium. That was not proven to be accurate until eight years later, but that was another good day. A bad day was Iraq WMD. We got that wrong. It was a really bad day.

Things seldom come to a conclusion in the intelligence world. You go a step at a time. You might find out there's a place in Iran where they are enriching uranium, but the next day you find out they've been doing it for longer than you thought, and that's bad.

The world outside sees intelligence in black-and-white terms. It's either success or failure.

Some movies get it right. What was the recent film about rescuing the Americans in Tehran, Argo? It was a little hyped and the idea of them chasing down the plane on the runway, probably not [accurate]. But the whole thing of them coming up with an out-of-the-box idea to go in there and get these people out was pretty close.

Showtime's Homeland is way over the top, but there's a core of truth there in the two lead characters. I knew plenty of people who were every bit as intense as Carrie but didn't have her personal problems, and people like Saul, who had more or less given up their personal lives to be successful in this business. One thing we say is that you never take your pack off—you're on call all the time. And if you're working on something hot and violent, you're going to be in there a lot and interrupted at dinner and elsewhere. Maintaining that life-work balance gets difficult.

Maybe I did become Saul. I was pretty 24/7 for a while. Everyone has a little Saul in them. But luckily I had a pretty understanding wife.

Running up the back alleys with a gun with people shooting at you and then jumping in the car might happen now and then, but that is not the average day. Someone once described the average day in the field as fairly routine, sometimes boring, with sudden moments of intense panic and crisis.

Leadership? In short, the key thing is to gain the trust of the people who work for you. You gain their trust by being honest, and being who you say you are and doing what you say you are going to do. And showing respect to everyone and thanking them for their work and not taking them for granted.

When I took over an office of 300 or so people, it was in some trouble morale-wise. The first thing I did was meet with all the managers in the office and told them who I was and what I stood for. Then I walked to every desk and cubicle and introduced myself. Because when you become the boss, you are the most important person in that person's life other than their partner, so they need to know who you are. You can't be locked up in an office somewhere. Walk-around management is still the best way to do it. You learn stuff walking down the hall that you wouldn't learn any way else.

You actually have to like your people; you have to love them. If you don't like people, don't do this. [Former CIA Director] Leon Panetta is a great example. If you met Leon for the second time, he was hugging you. He really liked people and was a very popular director.

I'm a self-taught magician. I saw a movie about Houdini in 1953 starring Tony Curtis. I was so intrigued by the life he led that I ran immediately to the library and got Houdini's biography and books on magic. I went to my room and started building little magic tricks.

Magic is a head game. The hand is not quicker than the eye. It's mostly about psychology and presentation.

Magic has to be entertaining. If the magician's demeanor is basically I know something you don't know, it's a nuisance. Magic can be just a puzzle, so the art is to elevate it above the level of puzzle into entertainment. It has to have some meaning. Why am I standing here with these rings?

I perform magic in class, just for a light moment. Maybe a trick that lasts 30 seconds. In the human side of intelligence, you need to influence people, so what if I can influence you to take a certain card from this deck and name a certain card? Would that be interesting? And what if I knew what card you picked?

Sometimes the illusion changes. I have here a rope with a knot in it. What kind of a knot? It's a slipknot, so you slide it around. And now it's turned red—another piece of data. So I slide the red knot, and you know the rope is all red with no knot. So your perception of what I'm holding has changed dramatically from a moment ago. And that is what an analyst goes through, because you're always dealing with incomplete information. You have a theory or mindset, but then someone adds a piece of data that tells you you're wrong.