Sunday, October 23, 2005

A Good Magician (almost) Never Tells: John McLaughlin in the Spotlight


President George W. Bush was an officer in his college fraternity. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a wrestler for his high school team, and General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was a ROTC cadet as an undergraduate. The extracurricular interests of these influential policymakers foreshadowed the roles they would assume years later in government.

So what activity engrossed John McLaughlin, former Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as a young man?

Magic, of course.

“As an eleven-year old, I began practicing magic like you’d practice a musical instrument. Today, I perform at a yearly outdoor fair in Loudoun country in a little town called Waterford,” said Mr. McLaughlin, who joined SAIS this year as a Senior Fellow at the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. “I perform what you would call parlor magic, not stage magic like David Copperfield. For example, I recreate illusions that were performed three thousands years ago in the palaces of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. That’s my theme - I weave it into history.”

Mr. McLaughlin made history firsthand during a 32-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency, including a stint as Acting Director from July to September 2004.

And magic has not been an idle hobby. Some of the same skills that have benefited him as a magician, McLaughlin said, have served him well in his career with the spy agency. “Houdini once said something applicable to my business. Someone asked him after he had escaped from being buried alive- they said what’s your secret? He replied, ‘never panic - if you panic, you’ll die, if you keep your head and take things step by step, you can do these things.’”

When his career in government ended, McLaughlin was considering full-time job offers to work in business when, at SAIS’ 60th Anniversary party, Professor Eliot Cohen mentioned to him that a new Senior Fellow position was vacant.

“I didn’t want to do something that felt like my old job – suiting up and showing up every morning at 8 and being there until after the sun went down or sweating in a corporate culture somewhere," said McLaughlin. "I wanted to free myself to do a lot of different things that I hadn’t had time to do in the past four or five years.”

In the spring of 2005, McLaughlin joined the faculty at SAIS, where he presents seminars on intelligence and policy, participates in Strategic Studies courses involving intelligence analysis, and consults with students who wish to learn more about the field of intelligence. He is considering teaching a course on intelligence-related issues.

Before his career at the agency, McLaughlin developed an interest in international affairs as a member of the debate team in high school. During his senior year at Wittenberg College in Pennsylvania, while considering attending law school, he learned about SAIS from a fellow student. “I happened to have a colleague whose father taught in the Latin America program at SAIS. I visited the school and I said, 'Wow, wouldn’t I love to come here.'"

After being admitted, McLaughlin concentrated in European Studies and spent his second year in Bologna. The policy experience of the faculty there impressed him, and motivated him to work in government. “There was a commitment to being a contemporary person. [The faculty felt] the need to be grounded in some substantive field but to remain involved, concerned about, and desirous of affecting what’s happening now – because ultimately it turns into history.”

Even then, McLaughlin said, SAIS professors were focused on current events and policy as much as academia. “One of my professors would always begin his class with a review of what happened in the Middle East that week. It always impressed me that we would then go to the nineteenth century.”

After graduating from SAIS, McLaughlin joined the U.S. Army, attended Officer Training School and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He spent a year working in Army intelligence in Vietnam, where he said his background at SAIS served him well. “I don’t think a day has gone by in my intelligence career where something that happened to me during my SAIS experience has not resonated.”

After returning to the United States, McLaughlin joined the CIA as an analyst in 1972, working on European, Russian, and Eurasian affairs. Later, he founded the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis, an institution “dedicated to teaching the history, mission, and essential skills of the analytic profession to new CIA employees.”

In 2000, McLaughlin was promoted to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence. In that role he represented the intelligence community in briefings with the President, at meetings of the National Security Council Deputies Committee, and at hearings on Capitol Hill.

McLaughlin is animated when talking about current SAIS students' career prospects. “This feels a lot like 1947 or 1918, one of those moments in time when what the US does in the world can be pivotal. Which means that as an individual you’re going to have a great opportunity to affect things and challenges that will leave you very satisfied.”

The key skill to develop in graduate school, McLaughlin said, is an ability to learn rather than mastering any particular subject. “There was a time in international relations when you could master a few major texts and have your conceptual framework for some years to come, but we’re past that now. The future belongs to those that are continuously learning, are flexible, engaged, and willing to roll with the punches.”
-- Eric