Welcome to Summer Camp for National Security Geeks! But you may know it by its more official name, the Aspen Security Forum. Held in the small and exclusive valley town of Aspen, Colo., which is etched within the breathtaking Colorado Rockies, several hundred of the nation’s and world’s most-recognized leaders have gathered again for what can only be called an annual pilgrimage of geopolitical summer campers.
The only things more breathtaking than the mountain vistas and elevation (whew!) are the assembled program agenda and attendees. There are lots of head-turning moments of people who are current national security leaders, former leaders and hope to be leaders again someday soon leaders, on top of the notable reporters, pundits and corporate types that are milling about catching up with friends and lots of former colleagues.
But there is something else in the thin, dry mountain air this time. It’s a gasp of dizzying exhaustion. I saw a lot of it when I arrived on Wednesday afternoon. It was most obvious when you watched people looking at their phones to see what breaking news story or Twitter-verse had come out of Washington. They would move their phones back and forth towards their faces to verify what they are seeing. Then they might adjust their glasses to see if they are reading it right. Then they would hand their phone to someone else and ask them to verify that they are reading whatever it says.
Even listening to the banter between one of the attending TV types and the accompanying production team, you would hear something like, “He changed his answer again?” Or, “So the previous comment that they made yesterday is now completely irrelevant because he believes the Russians aren’t cyber hacking us now?” I heard one exasperated production assistant say, “Who are we supposed to believe?”
It wasn’t just the media types dumbfounded by the dramatic position changes over the past week dealing with NATO, the EU, Russian hacking, election interference, spy arrests, indictments, etc. Everyone’s head was spinning.
People who make a career in intelligence, law enforcement and other national security professions were all finding themselves challenged by so many things (and responses) all spinning out of control. No one knew for sure what was up or what was down. All anyone knew was that all of the long-established norms and notions about America’s allies, competitors, threats, positions and relationships that had been in place for decades had all been upended over the past few days and were now going in completely different directions.
In reflecting on the exhausting and jaw-dropping pace of this tornado churning environment, Clark Ervin, the chairman of the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program, reminded the attendees, “It’s only Wednesday.”
The nervous laughter of the crowd was just a reminder that even more turbulence could be on the immediate horizon, but something happened that brought a measure of calm to all of the spinning heads. In what I will describe as a conversational interview between NBC News’ Lester Holt and FBI Director Christopher Wray, the head-spinning slowed down and a measure of calm came over the attendees.
Maybe it was Lester Holt’s style of interview, or maybe it was the self-described nature of FBI Director Wray as a “low-key guy,” but an air of confidence that the right person was in the right spot at the right time took over. Wray’s responses to Holt’s questions were very straightforward and even-keeled. What he could talk about, he did. What he couldn’t discuss, he didn’t. While that may seem like no big deal to many people, it was Wray’s style and response of leading a revered institution that has had its credibility, independence and integrity challenged by the president, members of Congress and even a skeptical public that caught all of the “Summer Campers” by pleasant surprise.
When asked what he thought Russia was up to in trying to influence and interfere with the 2016 election, Wray explained, “They are sowing discord and divisiveness and watching us go at each other.”
Holt then pressed him about whether his views and that of the FBI’s had changed based upon the president’s Helsinki press conference remarks where he conferred that Vladimir Putin denied Russia doing any such thing.
With no hesitation Wray responded that his “views had not changed and neither had the Intelligence community’s” on this issue. As he said this, sitting in the front row before him was Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. It was a powerful moment and a public confidence-building one, too.
With so much disruption all around us, Wray’s presence and responses to Holt’s questioning reminded everyone of the independence, the credibility and “the process” by which the FBI operates. Wray strongly emphasized “the process” by which everyone in the FBI is to do their job. He spoke of it reverently and with passion that was more than obvious to anyone in the audience and anyone who saw the interview broadcast.
With none of the cable TV bombast that we see from so many people, Wray drew a very sharp and respectful distinction between the politics that have been so disruptive of late and the professionalism and dedication to which the 37,000 members of the FBI adhere. As he explained, that is the mission that they serve, love and perform every day. To back up his words, Wray shared that not only were the FBI’s recruitment numbers up but attrition within its ranks was below 1 percent.
Wray’s levity, occasional touches of humor and confident demeanor were powerful reminders of the bedrock that still exists within America – even as so many people are busy spinning in dizzying circles and trying to keep track of it all. It was also reassuring to an audience that, like much of the country and world, has seen so many things spin in directions never seen or heard before.
Which is why one of FBI Director Wray’s last comments gave this national security summer camp enthusiast and the others like him great comfort: “I’m a low-key, understated guy, but that should not be mistaken for what my spine is made out of.”
And with a smile to the audience he added, “Let’s just leave it at that.”
For many of us attending the Aspen Security Forum, that’s when the spinning distractions of the week stopped. We learned we have Director Wray on our side and a whole lot more like him.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.