In this special episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Gina Bennett, one of the longest-serving intelligence analysts on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Bennett and Morell discuss how the CIA first became aware of the work of Osama bin Laden, and how the earliest warnings of al Qaeda’s ambitions went largely unheeded. Bennett shares recollections from the day of the 9/11 attacks, including how she and CIA colleagues refused to evacuate headquarters despite being told Langley was a credible target.
Ahead of the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Morell is curating a series of conversations with former senior American officials who had notable proximity to the tragic events of the day and its immediate aftermath. Morell, who served as President George W. Bush’s daily intelligence briefer and was traveling with the president on the day the planes hit the towers, will also share personal reflections and new details about the CIA’s race to provide answers and protect the country from further terror attacks. The series launched the week of August 9 and run for five weeks, with its first episode premiering on August 11, 2021 and its final episode running on September 8, 2021.
- Unheeded early warnings: “2000 came and went and we didn’t see any attacks. And so what happened for the rest of 2000 and even leading into 2001 was a skepticism of all of our warning. Even colleagues, to some degree, felt like we were over-warning that we were, you know, we considered Osama bin Laden a boogeyman.”
- The moment the first plane hit: “I remember standing next to a really good friend and colleague, and we were standing there, looking. And you can see the hole and the fire and everything, the smoke coming out of the North Tower. And you realize that could not have been a commuter plane, that’s huge. And right as you’re watching that, the surreal image of the other plane hitting the South Tower and how large it was against the top of the South Tower; it just didn’t look real. But when it hits, we just immediately knew, we just immediately knew that that was al Qaeda.”
- Refusing to evacuate CIA headquarters: “[W]e heard that, too, that the building had been evacuated and you know, we were asking, ‘Wait, wait, wait, we have to stay, though.’ Because we needed to chase down all sorts of things – manifests, try to figure out who was on the plane. What was coming next was our biggest concern, because – I mean, it took us years to believe that it was over. Right? I mean, there was no reason for us to believe that it was just those two, or that it was just the three with the Pentagon, or it was just the four with Pennsylvania. We knew the ambition of al Qaeda and we needed to track down every single plot. So we didn’t want to leave.”
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – Gina Bennett
PRODUCER: Olivia Gazis
MICHAEL MORELL: Gina, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It’s an honor to have you on our show.
GINA BENNETT: Well, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Gina, you’re the the the fifth and final guest in what’s been a series of interviews for us on where people were on 9/11 and how they experienced it. We had Steve Hadley. We had Andy Card. We had Winston Wiley, who I know you know, and we had Sandy Winnefeld, who was the commander of the USS Enterprise on station on 9/11.
But I think we’ve saved the best for last, because you were a member of a team of analysts that followed al Qaeda and followed bin Laden since its very beginning. And so it’s a really special way to end this series. And I’d love to start, Gina, with some background. And I’d love to ask you, how did you end up working on terrorism in the intelligence community?
GINA BENNETT: Quite accidentally, actually. I started off as – we actually had these back then, a GS-4 – clerk typist over at the Department of State. So I literally typed very quickly and alphabetized. And those are two skills that I still have, which is great. They come in handy, believe it or not. So that’s where I started, you know, straight out of college, undergraduate. I just knew I wanted to work in foreign policy and national security arena. So I took the first job I could.
And within a few months, my boss promoted me to the next level up so that I could get a job that was more along the lines of an analytic position. And she straight up told me, “You need to go work in intelligence. You don’t belong here alphabetizing,” which I thought was very encouraging because my father had always told me, “Nobody is going to know you’re smart just because you have a piece of paper, you’re going to have to prove it.”
So I applied for a terrorism watch officer position in the Intelligence and Research Bureau at the Department of State. And I have to say, I didn’t get it. But as it turned out, about a week later, the the man who interviewed me, the head of the watch office, said, “Hey, the person who we gave the job to decided not to take it. And you were our next candidate.” So there you go.
So I started off as a terrorism watch officer. And here I was, you know, twenty-one years old, straight out of college. And we had – it was right around the time of Pan Am 103 in December of 1988. And so, when that attack occurred, a lot of the passengers were students coming home from studying abroad. And so they were only a year or two younger than me. And so it really impacted me. I really felt it.
And because I was working as a terrorism watch officer, I was doing a lot of the updates – What we were finding? Who were the perpetrators? – as we tried to track that down, which took years. And so I was very close to that investigation for the length of it and then and beyond, really.
And I remember at one point having the opportunity at the State Department, working with consular officers and keeping them up to date, to actually meet a handful of the victims’ family members. And one of them was a mother. And at some point – you know, I was just a little peon in the room taking notes, which is fine, that’s all I had the courage for at that time – and I remember walking, trying to walk by her at some point when the meeting was breaking up and she caught my eye and she said, “Hello, who are you?” And I explained, you know, who I was. And she’s like, “OK, well, thank you for listening to us.”
And I just looked at her and I said, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” It just hit me. I was talking to a mother. And she gave me a hug and said, ‘Thank you for that.”And I just felt in that moment, ‘This is a woman who whose daughter was only a couple of years, if not even younger than me.” And I just thought, “She’s never going to hold her daughter again.”
And there was something about that hug, I’ll be honest with you, Michael, there was something about that hug that has never left me. And I think that’s the sort of thing that will drive you, sort of like a cop looking for a serial killer. It’ll just drive you until you think you’re finished. So that’s how I got into it to begin with.
And that very quickly went to, you know, tracking people leaving Afghanistan, which, of course, bin Laden was one of. And that led me over to the CIA because Mike Scheuer and Paul Pillar and others like that were over there and trying to get me to come over and bring that account with me, so I eventually did that.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Gina, you mentioned that you took the clerk typist job because you wanted to serve your country. Where did that passion come from?
GINA BENNETT: Oh, hands down, that came from my father. I was the youngest of five. And so when I was little – I was about three, when my father retired from active duty in the Navy. He had been a Korean War veteran, and he immediately went into civil service working for the Navy. And over the course of his career, he served forty-seven years. So he just always seemed to have a higher purpose and a real sense of self-sacrifice and selflessness that I just admired. He was the most humble, patient, quiet man you can possibly imagine. He said very little. But what he said was very wise. And I just really admired that.
I guess I was your typical youngest daughter. I was the baby of the family. And I just adored my father. And so that’s I think that’s where it came from, because he always seemed to be -he just wasn’t bogged down by little things in the world and little dramas, he just had this sense of purpose and I really wanted that.
MICHAEL MORELL: So you go over to CIA to work on terrorism, and I’m sure you know that being a terrorism analyst prior to 9/11 was a little bit different than being one before 9/11. In fact, when we had Winston Wiley on the show just a little while ago, he talked about the fact that before 9/11, terrorism analysts weren’t the cool kids, but then after 9/11, they were the cool kids. Did you feel that?
GINA BENNETT: Well, I don’t think I felt it from the perspective of how it impacted us in the career as much as how everything we had to say before 9/11, people dismissed because we were the analysts who are saying, “Hey, guess what, tomorrow may not look like today.” And nobody really wanted to believe that or hear that. Which is understandable, because usually tomorrow does look like today. So I get it in hindsight.
But at the time, it’s certainly frustrating. And then afterwards, or even really after the 1998 embassy bombings, too, you started to get the sense that people were believing that maybe we were on to something. And that was really the switch that I felt.
MICHAEL MORELL: So Gina, I’d do a little bit more background here before we get to 9/11 itself. And I’m wondering if you can take a couple of minutes and walk us through the narrative of the intelligence community’s understanding of bin Laden and al Qaeda from where the story starts and really right up to the East Africa bombings and your role in that understanding.
GINA BENNETT: Sure. I will say that when I came into the story, there were others who were already very familiar, obviously, with the Afghan Soviet war. When I first started as an analyst, there were still Soviet troops in Afghanistan. So when I was first a terrorism watch officer, that was still a war that was going on. And, you know, that seems like ancient history, I know, but in 1989, when the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, it left behind Najibullah, a regime that was still of its making. So there were still a lot of, not only the Afghan parties – then there were seven official Afghan parties fighting the Soviet Union. So not only them, but also tens of thousands of volunteers who had gone to Afghanistan during the 1980s to help fight the Soviet Union or Soviet troops and get them out of the country. And they came from all over the world. And bin Laden was, like so many others, one of them. So in a sense, on the same side of the mission there.
But when the troops pulled out in 1989, right up until April of 1992, which is when Najibullah was assassinated, there was a little bit of a fracture in whether or not this was considered a legitimate jihad, because now it was Afghans fighting Afghans as opposed to Afghans with their volunteer forces from elsewhere fighting an alien occupying military.
But really, when Najibullah was assassinated in April ’92, that really changed things. A lot of people who were volunteers left because they didn’t want to be involved in a civil war. That wasn’t what they were there for. They were there to fight an occupying country. So that’s where – you know, in 1992, the rest of the world is focused on the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain crumbling and all that, and we were noticing this basically outflow of thousands of individuals who had been fighting in Afghanistan alongside various Afghan parties, and they were going back or trying to get back to their home countries.
In some cases, though, they were moving on to other areas where we were seeing fundamentalist Islamic extremists or or just Islamist opposition groups fighting some other kind of occupying forces or their own government. So you started to see this volunteer, almost a professional volunteer force, dispersing and going to other places to volunteer and to bring that knowledge elsewhere.
And so that is really in the early 90s that we start to see that outflow. And it was also around then that we start hearing about this guy named Abu Abdullah at the time. That’s who we knew him as, a Saudi. He was originally portrayed as a Saudi renegade or a little bit of a rogue who had fought in Afghanistan, who was famous and very popular, very charismatic, and who had a lot of money.
Now, the money thing eventually became something of a myth, but that was our hook at the time, seeing, you know, reporting of him having a lot of money and being able to give money to people who were in extremist or violent opposition groups, terrorist organizations. It was a way for us to try to track him. I mean, we didn’t have foreign terrorist organization legislation back then. So there was no other way. He wasn’t a part of a state. There was no other way for us to really try to track him.
So that’s what we did for several years, and it was, I think it’s important to remember, too, that in the context of this time, we were just coming out of the Cold War. We had survived this era of the fear of mutually assured destruction. And we were seeing what we thought was democracy breaking out all over the world, our really only understanding of terrorism had been either groups that were sponsored by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. And so they were more Marxist types of groups or groups that were sponsored by a state like Iran or others, and to grapple with a group that had no state sponsorship, that was having to scrap by and just get whatever it could and whose members were not even the same ethnicity or nationality, could probably in some cases barely understand each other’s version of Arabic or Pashto or whatever else they spoke just did not seem possible that that could be a threat. So I think it’s important to remember that because there are things today that seem impossible, that they could be a threat. And so just because you can’t imagine it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Gina, when did we identify bin Laden as a significant threat?
GINA BENNETT: Well, that depends who you mean by “we.” “We” in the counterterrorism community, the very small group of folks who were collecting information and analyzing it across the IC, by 1995, I had gathered individuals in different agencies and turned us into an interagency intel community working group under the leadership of the Counterterrorist Center. So the Counterterrorist Center at the time, you know, was the community. And so we tried to grab all and leverage all of the expertise that we possibly could, because what was happening is there were individuals in each of the intelligence community agencies that were noticing this outflow, they were hearing about this individual named Abu Abdullah, who we eventually identified as bin Laden, Osama bin Laden. And having the same kinds of concerns – I was by no means the only person who was picking up on this, but we were a small group.
So what happens is you’re if you’re one person within an organization, that’s pretty big, you don’t really have a lot of influence. So we banded together and we created an interagency working group and we started to produce this multi-sealed analytic work to to bring attention to the possibility of what bin Laden – and we thought we thought the name back then was the Islamic Army. That’s how they were referred to in a lot of the rumors and information that we were picking up. So trying to bring attention to this as a real possible threat. There wasn’t a lot of people believing us back then. You know, in 1993, I remember somebody telling me that I was making a mountain out of a molehill within the intelligence community when I was trying to provide a warning, an analytic warning about it. And again, it was just a really tough thing, to believe this kind of threat.
So there were a really small group of us, eventually, most of us in the counterterrorist center who who believed this this was our assessment. And in everything that we gathered continued to add to it rather than detract. So that is, I don’t know, I mean, I can’t really say that beyond the small cadre of people, there was much belief in the significance of it, of al-Qaeda, of Osama bin Laden, really until after the Africa embassy bombings.
MICHAEL MORELL: Where were you for those?
GINA BENNETT: Oh, goodness. I had just delivered my third child, which was a kind of a constant theme for me because I have five children. So there were a lot of them. And I had just delivered my third, my first daughter, and I got the phone call from work because I had been working on one of the networks in in East Africa. And so I came in with my baby and just started working like everybody else.
MICHAEL MORELL: So we have the East Africa bombings in August of , Gina, and then we have the planned attacks around the millennium in Jordan, elsewhere; those were disrupted. And then we have the bombing of the USS Cole in October of 2000. So people are starting to pay attention at this point, correct?
GINA BENNETT: Yes. I mean, the 1998 Africa embassy bombings really caused people to see that. We don’t think that that was the first incident that involved al-Qaeda sponsorship or al-Qaeda operatives. But that was the one that got a lot of notice. But I think it’s important in setting the stage for 2001 to really correct the perception, because what happened in 1998 with those bombings, of course, our embassies were were nearly destroyed and we had a lot of casualties, but largely the casualties were African Muslims, locals, and bin Laden himself got a lot of criticism for that.
So there was a feeling among the community that his next attacks were going to focus more on just Americans. And he was feeling that pressure. So there was this increased sense of dread and probably fear among many. And as we approach the millennium, as you pointed out, again, that was, of all of the things, that was like such a ticking time bomb situation because al Qaeda was looking at the millennium as the whole Western world was celebrating the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ. So they were mirror imaging thinking that we were celebrating it as a very Christian kind of celebration. Otherwise, they weren’t really into specific dates.
But at any rate, we felt like we were seeing, as George Tenet said, the system blinking red, a top-down type of attack plotting occurring. And so while there were a number of attacks disrupted, we didn’t really think that those were the ones. It was really frustrating at that time. Of course, the rest of the world is worried about Y2K and our computers.
And we’re working 24/7 in the Counterterrorist Center trying to figure out what this top down plot is. It didn’t seem like it was Ahmed Ressam. It didn’t seem like it was the plots in Jordan, because those were very dispersed in terms of who was in charge. And we never really got closure on that.
And, of course, as you know, 2000 came and went and we didn’t see any attacks. And so what happened for the rest of 2000 and even leading into 2001 was a skepticism of all of our warning. Even colleagues, to some degree, felt like we were over-warning, that we were, you know, we considered Osama bin Laden a boogeyman. I even had somebody tell me that. And they just weren’t as keen to do some of the things that we asked to be done as when we see another time when the system was blinking red.
So, for example, in the summer of 2001, because there was this skepticism of our analysis -and I get it. I understand. But it was very frustrating. And I think to understand that we weren’t really going from 1998 awareness to 2001, we were going from 1998 awareness to a dip in trust and faith in our analysis into 2001.
So, you know, the Cole attack in October of 2000 led a number of people to also believe that al Qaeda was going to go for hardened military American targets because of the criticism in 1998 of killing too many civilians. So, again, that also presented a bit of a of a hurdle for us in trying to gin up the sort of concern that we felt we needed throughout 2001 as we were seeing a plot unfold then.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, Gina, so on 9/11, where were you working? And can you walk us through your day?
GINA BENNETT: On 9/11 I was in DC, I was working at CIA headquarters and another colleague of mine, we both worked in CTC together. We carpooled. So she picked me up, we drove in like we normally do, and, you know, it was just a beautiful day. And D.C. doesn’t have a lot of crisp, dry days in September. They’re usually quite muggy and gross. But this day was just gorgeous. It was one of those days.
And when we were driving in and walking in and we first got in the building, what was on our mind, what we were talking about ,was the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood, which had just occurred a couple of days before on the 9th of September in Afghanistan. So, going back to that Afghan Soviet war, this was one of the leaders, a very tough individual, one of the leaders of the seven parties that fought the Soviets, and he was still in there fighting the Taliban in the north.
And, you know, we had a good relationship with him back then. And so his assassination just felt like a bad omen. And it was a pretty sophisticated plot, that was used in that. And so you had this sense of, something, this can’t be good, right, this can’t portend anything good.
We went into work, we did what we usually do, you know, pretty early morning. And you go through all of the information that has come in overnight, as analysts, you pick up on the plots that you were tracking on the individuals who you are tracking and, you know, just try to figure out what has happened in the eight hours that you dared to be away. And so it’s a little overwhelming in the morning.
And it was oh, I don’t know. But I guess it was quarter to nine or so when we heard, like everybody else, that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. And it was very confusing at first, because unlike what people see on TV, there aren’t big, huge television screens all over the place. You know, you’re in this little cubicle working side by side with other people in your little cubicles. And there were only a couple of dozen of us, you know, in the analytic part of CTC pre-9/11. So, you know, we’re all just huddling, doing our thing. And we hear from FAA, which was, of course, the organization that preceded TSA, the Federal Air Administration, that a plane had hit the North Tower.
And so we thought it must be a commuter plane that had just tremendous mechanical difficulties. It was bewildering, but we didn’t hit a panic button. And without being able to see it, you know, we didn’t realize the size of the hole in the building. So we’re waiting to hear updates and continue doing what we always did, obviously looking at plots that had anything to do with airplanes.
And then I don’t know, a few minutes into it, we just weren’t getting a lot of clarity, so we went into an empty office and turned on the TV, a handful of us analysts. And I remember standing next to a really good friend and colleague, and we were standing there looking. And you can see the hole and the fire and everything, the smoke coming out of the North Tower. And you realize that could not have been a commuter plane, that’s huge. And right as you’re watching that, the surreal image of the other plane hitting the South Tower and how large it was against the top of the South Tower; it just didn’t look real. But when it hits, we just immediately knew, we just immediately knew that that was al Qaeda.
MICHAEL MORELL: No doubt in your mind.
GINA BENNETT: I mean, nobody had any doubt in their mind. It just. Nobody does that. You know, we had no other adversary at the time there was there was just no other explanation.
MICHAEL MORELL: There was concern about somebody flying a plane into CIA headquarters and George Tenet evacuated the place, but you and the other counterterrorism analysts stayed.
GINA BENNETT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we heard that, too, that the building had been evacuated and you know, we were asking, “Wait, wait, wait, we have to stay, though.” Because we needed to chase down all sorts of things – manifests, try to figure out who was on the plane. What was coming next was our biggest concern, because – I mean, it took us years to believe that it was over. Right? I mean, there was no reason for us to believe that it was just those two, or that it was just the three with the Pentagon, or it was just the four with Pennsylvania. We knew the ambition of al Qaeda and we needed to track down every single plot. So we didn’t want to leave.
And then when we were told no, Counterterrorist Center is expected to stay, we know what our job is right now and we’re going to do it. So that was a relief, and we went back to our desks and started working. But it was also right around then – because we were hearing schools were evacuating, like there’s a lot of panic going on around the D.C. area, understandably so.
But a whole stream of colleagues from other missions, you know, in the agency, other parts of the agency just started flooding down into CTC to volunteer to help us. Which I’ll never forget, like I will never forget those faces of people who are just like and some of these were people who were skeptical of our analysis in the year and a half beforehand. And they were there like, “We are here. We we are here for you. We’ve got this. We want to help.”
MICHAEL MORELL: Gina, do you remember what time you got home that night?
GINA BENNETT: No, I don’t remember anything other than work. I don’t. And I was pregnant, so that may account for some of my memory loss because I was in the early stages of my fourth pregnancy and nobody knew I was pregnant, other than the women would be in the bathroom while I was throwing up. And they got, you know, we’re pretty quick at picking up what’s going on. So I don’t remember.
Really, the next thing I remember other than work was my 11-year-old son’s baseball game. And that was on Saturday morning. So four days went by in a blur. And, you know, everyone was at work constantly, so I wasn’t the only one at all. But I remember being at this baseball game, and I do recall that I was very shabbily dressed, like in sweats, and probably hadn’t showered much, if at all. I don’t even remember. And so I stood to the side because number one, I was conscious of the fact that I probably smelled bad. But I also I was afraid if I sat in the stands, I might just fall, fall, sound asleep or fall over or whatever. I didn’t trust my balance at that point.
So I was standing off to the side near the dugout. And, you know, the kids were out on the baselines, you know, the nine, ten boys on each base line. And they were listening to the national anthem before the start of their game. And when the national anthem ended, the head coach said, “And now we’re going to have a moment of silence for the tragedy of Tuesday.” And it hit me, like, “This is real.” I think that was my first external experience and I realized everybody else knows this is real. This wasn’t just something that happened that we were aware of. I mean, I don’t know why it just suddenly hit me as, “Oh, my God, this is actually real. And everybody is experiencing this.”
But then after the moment of silence was over, Michael, the most amazing thing. Those little boys sped to their dugouts, grabbed their gear and just dashed out to the field and, hamming it up like only 11-year-old baseball players can, emerge practicing their ESPN moments, you know, sliding into the bases. And I realized also in that moment that we were going to be OK. You know, America was going to be OK. And maybe that’s why I don’t remember the days before that, because it was just such a powerful feeling.
And like those faces of my colleagues who came down and, you know, who said, “Hey, we’re here, we believe you, we’re going to help,” it just is one of those scenes, you know, one of those feelings that I’ll never forget and it carries me, still carries me.
MICHAEL MORELL: Gina, let me finish up here with some maybe broad questions. It’s obviously been 20 years since that horrific day. When you look back over the last 20 years, what do you think the key lessons learned are?
GINA BENNETT: There’s so many, and I don’t think we should ever stop questioning. You know, one thing I’ve learned is over time you start to question what you believed you thought before. And that’s a good thing.
I know for sure, the first thing I learned that day when my colleagues came in is you cannot do this alone. You have to look for help everywhere, and I think we’ve done that on an international scale. I mean, we’ve collaborated and cooperated and built alliances against terrorism, much like, you know, nations beforehand have tried to build alliances against biological weapons, things like this.
So I think that’s a really important, humbling lesson, learning that you really do need help. You need friends.
We’ve learned that you have to constantly question, constantly. Just when you think you know what’s going on, when you think all is right with the world, like the end of the Cold War and the beautiful September 11th day in 2001, and then the world has a way of humbling you. So I think we, especially at CIA, we have learned to embrace challenge to, you know, really almost build a culture of insubordination. You know, you need to challenge each other and question, “Why do you think that? I’m not so sure.” And I think that’s critically important.
But I think most of all, to me, it goes back to the little boys playing baseball. It’s knowing that if you don’t let the fear in, then they lose. And so it’s really building on that resiliency that we all naturally have against our adversaries, but really owning it and recognizing that that is the best way to defeat any adversary and certainly terrorists, because they feed off of relevance.
You know, the more they influence, the more power they have. So the more you take their relevance away, the less power they have.
So I think those are to me, those are the three big lessons. And I think for the agency, it’s not dissimilar. You know, we build coalitions. And we’re really good at it. And we we know we have to challenge each other and we don’t take it personally. It’s an important part of the job. And, you know, we build that into our training.
And I think, you know, knowing also that resilience, look, we’ve lost colleagues and friends in all of this, and we’re going to lose colleagues and friends in the future, whether it’s terrorism or some other tragedy in the world. But we know we’ve got each other’s backs and we’re going to keep on doing what we have to do. We’ve always got to be on guard. And that’s the job.
MICHAEL MORELL: You know, you have a public persona. You’ve done interviews. You’ve been in documentaries. You wrote a book, a terrific book. Most serving intelligence officers don’t do those things. Why have you chosen to do so?
GINA BENNETT: Well, that’s a good question. Actually, what happened was during the 9/11 Commission period, some of my earliest analysis that we were talking about earlier on bin Laden was was the subject of a Freedom of Information Act request, and it was declassified and it had my name on it.
So back in those early days, some of that analysis still had our actual names, and for whatever reason, it wasn’t excised. So there I was right in the public. And I remember giving a presentation for a women’s council event at CIA, and it was about work-life balance. And I thought, you know, “Everything that I do at work, I do at home.”
And so when I was presenting, along with some really wonderful women at the CIA and the leadership back then, I said, “You know what? Everything I do to secure my family is really what I do here to secure the nation. It’s what we do to secure the nation. It’s not just about safety. I can’t just, you know, lock my doors and keep my kids from getting sick. I have to teach them how to bounce back, you know? How to be resilient and stick to their own character and not be bullied and things like this.”
And I think that’s what we do, also, in national security. And so it just became to me is like, oh, national security, this is parenting on a on an international scale. But some of the objectives are very, very similar. And it was at that presentation, actually, someone from the public affairs office at the agency asked me if I would write that up for a newsletter, which I did. And then they suggested it be external, which it was. So then it was shared publicly on the website. And next thing you know, I had somebody say, “Hey, can we put that in a magazine?” And it just kind of spiraled from there.
But I have to say, you know, as a mother of five and being able to talk to other mothers and young women and help them understand that, in fact, national security isn’t just about the military, it isn’t just about special forces and top secret things that are hard for your average high school girl or or just average person to be exposed to, it’s also about something much deeper. I think I hope that that makes it a little bit more accessible to, just, everyone. That was my purpose.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, and it absolutely does all of those things. So you should be proud of that. Just one more question. You teach at the university level at Georgetown and GW, I think. What do you want your students to walk out of your classes having learned? What’s really important to you in terms of what they get out of your class?
GINA BENNETT: Oh, thank you for asking that. Actually, two things, really. And it’s funny, because last night I just had my first class for the fall semester at Georgetown, the Security Studies Program. So I teach ethics in intelligence support to national security. And I told them there’s two things. One is the Constitution. You need to understand when you raise your hand and swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, what you’re doing and what that means. And how hard that is going to be, but how powerful it is. Right?
And sometimes it’s hard to understand, why am I doing it? Why is the regulation this or why can’t we do that? And the answer is because you have to consider whether or not in the short or the long term you might do harm to the Constitution, and we do no harm to the Constitution, right? Fundamentally, that’s like number one.
So I think really being very intimate with the tensions in the Constitution and the complexities of it and how much it demands of every individual, but especially those who raise their hand and swear to defend it with their life and their lives. You know, living people defending it. So that’s one.
The other is I want them to know what their own ethical compass is. Are they ends-based thinkers or are they rules-based thinkers? Does it come from a moral religious doctrine? You know, whatever it is, know your own code, know your own compass, because you want to know when you’re getting into a situation that might be breaking it. Because I want to give them the tools to help navigate that space, because at the end of the day, I don’t think any of us want to leave – I mean, I’ve got 33 years in the intelligence community, and when I retire, I want to leave a whole person, you know, with my integrity and my ethical compass intact. And I want that for them, too. So you just need to know when maybe it’s in danger and how to navigate that space.
So those are the two things.
MICHAEL MORELL: That’s great. That’s terrific, actually.
Gina, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a really special conversation. Thank you.
GINA BENNETT: Thank you. I really appreciate being able to be here and and talk about 9/11 like this.