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Transcript: Meroe Park talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - MEROE PARK
CORRESPONDENT: MICHAEL MORELL
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL:
Welcome to the show. It is terrific to have you.
MEROE PARK:
Thank you.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Our listeners should know that not only were we colleagues for much of our career but we're also friends, so it's important for people to know my biases going into this interview. Full transparency toward everybody. Meroe, you were a career C.I.A. officer who rose through the ranks in a number of different jobs to be not only the number three at the agency but also for a weekend to be the acting director of the C.I.A. So there's a lot to talk about, but I'd love to start with the acting director thing. How did you end up as the acting director?
MEROE PARK:
I had a feeling you would start with that (LAUGH) question. Well, I actually was never supposed to be the acting director, and there are a couple of things that led to that occurring. The first was that, you know, we'd talked, as you know whenever there's a transition, the director and the deputy director and any political appointee has to submit their letter of resignation. And so we know Friday at noon that both John Brennan and David Cohen would be stepping down. But--
MICHAEL MORELL:
Because the president accepted the resignations?
MEROE PARK:
Well, so interestingly in agency history, never before have both the director and the deputy stepped down at the same time. Generally, one of them is asked to stay on for some period of time for continuity because C.I.A. does things and takes actions that must continue.

So interestingly, as we got closer to that date, no one took them up on that offer and so we started to realize that probably someone else was going to have to be acting director. And I remember huddling in my office with the general counsel's office and we went through the laws and regulations. And we decided that it was the order of succession and I was the next one in line. So I knew at that point it would be maybe a handful of hours, was the speculation.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Because the speculation was that the Senate was going to confirm Mike Pompeo on that Friday?
MEROE PARK:
That's correct. The plan was he was going to get confirmed that afternoon, the president would swear him in, and so there would just be a matter of hours. The next thing that happened that changed that dynamic was that, as we got closer to that Friday, it started to become apparent that someone was going to hold his nomination up on the Senate side.

And so at that point, what we realized was that it could be actually quite some time. It was unclear at that point when. And I would also add, parallel to all this happening, we also learned that the president-elect, at that time, wanted to come out and swear Mike in on Saturday morning. This was a little unusual, that the president would want to come on his first full day, but he also made it clear to Mike that he wanted-- it was a gesture of also trying to make some bridges with the intelligence community. It had been sort of a rough ride over the previous weeks--
MICHAEL MORELL:
Because of some things the president had said publicly?
MEROE PARK:
Absolutely. And in the press, in particular, there was a lot of speculation about the relationship with the new president and the intelligence community. And we all believed it was important to mend those fences as quickly as possible.

So we were planning for a presidential visit, which we have done many times before, but generally not in the first day of a new administration. But regardless, as we got closer, we found that it was unlikely that Mike was going to get confirmed in time; in fact, it was looking like the next week that he was going to come on board.

And I remember calling him maybe Thursday evening, we had a conversation and I said, "Mike, surely the president's not going to come now. He's going to cancel his visit because you're not going to be confirmed in time." And he said, "Well, actually, the president is still going to come. And I'm just a congressman and you're the acting director. So you're going to have to host the visit."

I believe I used a few vocabulary words that are not generally ones that I use, but we moved on. And in the course of sort of a busy 24, 48 hours, put on a visit. I would add a couple of things that probably most people don't realize. One is that, as I mentioned earlier, the purpose really was to help the president and his national security team understand all that the intelligence community was capable of.
MICHAEL MORELL:
You gave him briefings when he came out?
MEROE PARK:
Yes. And unlike most White House visits, you've experienced them, it's usually like clockwork. You know, president arrives at 8:02, moves down the hall at 8:04. This was a complete-- we had complete control over the schedule. I had trouble actually finding someone to talk to about the visit in advance because it was so unexpected.

And what happened was I said, "How much time do we have?" And they said, "How much time do you want?" And I said, "How 'bout two hours?" So we actually had him in the building for quite some time. We had him briefed on a number of issues. He met a lot of employees. He met the senior leadership team.

And it was a great opportunity to talk to him about all that not just C.I.A. was able to do, but we were very careful about making sure that the intelligence community was part of that. And so despite all of the press that came out afterwards about the visit, you know, it really was, in my view, a success in that we established the importance of intelligence early on, on the first day of his administration. And interestingly, the vice president decided to join that visit the morning of, along with the majority of his national security team. So we were able to meet with all of them and showcase what we're--
MICHAEL MORELL:
So I think what's important--
MEROE PARK:
--capable of.
MICHAEL MORELL:
--for people to know here is that, while all the swirl was going on publicly, you saw the visit as a success in terms of getting him familiar with the C.I.A. and everything the C.I.A. did, and with C.I.A. officers. And it's an interesting perspective, right, that people wouldn't--
MEROE PARK:
Yeah.
MICHAEL MORELL:
--normally think, right? Everybody would be focused on the public comments rather than the larger picture of the visit.
MEROE PARK:
That's right. It made it very real for him. You know how it is. When you meet the people who are doing the work, in their offices, in their conference rooms, and you see them firsthand, you see what they're capable of, it changes your view of this intelligence community being some amorphous entity. You actually see that it's made up of incredibly capable people.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Meroe, can you give us a summary of your career at C.I.A.? Give us a sense, to the extent that you can, of all the different kinds of jobs you've had. Because you're a little unusual in that respect, that you've worked in a variety of different places in the organization.
MEROE PARK:
Sure. I was incredibly fortunate to have a varied career at C.I.A., a little unconventional in that I started out on the analytic side of the business. I came right out of college. And it became clear to me over time that perhaps analysis was not something I wanted to do for my full career, so I started moving around quite a bit laterally, which was a little bit unusual, especially at the time.

And I really did some introspection on what I liked to do and what was interesting, and I really was drawn toward support work. At the agency, we have a very robust cadre of officers who make everything work at the organization. And frankly, we couldn't do what we do without them. I loved the aspect of solving problems and helping people and being an expert on various aspects of how to get things done in the organization.

And so it took me a while to migrate over to that particular field. I know, at the time, there were many on the analytic side who tried to talk me out of it. They thought it was sort of a lesser job. However, I think this actually spurred me on even more (LAUGH) to want to do it.

And so I had an opportunity to work within the office I was in at the time, doing some support work. I then had an opportunity to work for John McLaughlin as his executive assistant. He was, at the time, I believe the newly appointed head of intelligence, director of intelligence. And--
MICHAEL MORELL:
The head of analysis at C.I.A.
MEROE PARK:
Right. I did that for two years. And at the time, I also had an opportunity to meet George Tenet, who was the director. And got to know him a little bit, got to know you a little bit, frankly, in that role. And so I then, after two years with John, moved on to work for George for a year as his executive assistant.

Those two experiences really made me want to stay. I had been considering leaving the agency; in fact, I had applied for a job outside the U.S. Foreign Service. And really seeing the organization, and at the time the intelligence community from those perspectives, those vantage points, really was inspiring and made me even more motivated to want to remain and continue.

I then spent a couple of tours overseas. My view was that it would be very difficult for me to be as an effective a support officer if I had not had that field experience. It's very important to our mission. We are a global mission. So I did that for a few years. Sort of had a couple kids during that time, to complicate life even further.

And then when I came back, I had a series of I guess ever-increasing jobs of scope and responsibility. I was chief of payroll. I came back and worked for you and sort of established a support office under the director--
MICHAEL MORELL:
Ran my business--
MEROE PARK:
--of intelligence.
MICHAEL MORELL:
--piece of the analytic side of the agency--
MEROE PARK:
That's right. Then I became chief of human resources for the organization, and then ended up as the chief operating officer --
MICHAEL MORELL:
So what was your favorite job?
MEROE PARK:
So I'm going to cheat a little bit and give you two answers. The first is the last job I had, chief operating officer, was fantastic. It was incredibly difficult and challenging, but I loved every minute of it. And so I really enjoyed that, and I felt like it was a culmination of all these different experiences I'd had at the organization.

But my favorite job was (LAUGH) being chief of payroll, which probably surprises some people. But the function of payroll is incredibly complicated at the agency, as you might imagine. And it also is run by a whole group of employees who are under-recognized. They often don't get accolades for what they do. And as you can imagine, most of the phone calls I received were people complaining about pay, not complimenting us on getting their (LAUGH) paycheck.

And being able to be part of that group and help them see how they connected to mission and the important role that they played in the organization was very rewarding. So that was my favorite job.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Meroe, what advice would you have for young professionals? And a lot of the people who listen to this show are college students, graduate students, young professionals. What advice would you have for them about getting ahead in any organization?
MEROE PARK:
I get asked that question a lot because I, frankly, spend a lot of time with young people who are considering roles in public service for their career. And I share with them usually a few things. First, I always emphasize that the most important thing to do is to perform in an excellent way. To be a strong performer, an absolutely great employee, whom everyone thinks, "I want that person on my team. I want that person to do this particular task." It's the bedrock, I think, for success at the organization.

I think a second thing I would share with anyone new or contemplating this is that, as much as it's important to be ambitious and to want to think about what your next step is, to try to avoid the temptation of always fixating on getting promoted.

What I have seen happen is people will take a role or a job that they're not particularly suited for, and really not interested in, just because they think it will get them promoted. And you see time and time again that then they don't perform particularly well, and you get into a bad cycle. So I think as much as you can really focus on taking roles that are interesting to you, that you enjoy, and that you feel like you can make a difference, I think will eventually lead you to success.

Personally, I never took roles simply because I thought I would get promoted. In fact, I took many lateral assignments that people thought it was odd that I was taking a role--
MICHAEL MORELL:
I remember you had to be dragged into some (LAUGH) assignments that would actually get you promoted. (LAUGH)
MEROE PARK:
Yes. I believe there were certain people that I'm (LAUGH) talking to right now who did some of that dragging. And I was pretty good at coming up (LAUGH) with lists for why I shouldn't--
MICHAEL MORELL:
I remember.
MEROE PARK:
--get particular jobs. And I was also quite unhappy about being promoted, in some cases--
MICHAEL MORELL:
I remember.
MEROE PARK:
--because I felt like it limited my options. You know, the farther up you move in an organization, the less mobility you have.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So, Meroe, diversity at the agency. It's a priority, at least a stated priority for all directors. It was a particular priority for Director Brennan. Why is it so important there?
MEROE PARK:
So I have thought and focused on diversity for many years, and have come to realize that not only is it important for the work-- in other words, I'm not a big fan of those who define the importance of diversity as, "It's the right thing to do," or, "We just should because that's how the country is."

I actually think the case for diversity is that you get better outcomes. You get better decisions. You get more diversity of thought if you have people of different backgrounds in the room with you. I always found, and you probably did as well, that if you are trying to tackle a difficult subject, you might have a view on it or an opinion; almost always, we did. But you are enriched in terms of your thinking the more people you bring into that circle to get their input and takes on things.

And so I think, absolutely, in any field, intelligence in particular, you're going to get better results, better intelligence, better analysis, better operations if you have a diverse cadre of officers working on that. And I've also come to learn over time that, if you don't create an atmosphere where diversity is part of how you do your work, you can do all you want on bringing diverse candidates in, but they either will not be engaged or they won't stay. So I think investing in creating an environment where diversity is valued is the first step that has to be taken.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Meroe, let's say on the diversity topic here. As a woman, and as a minority, you're a Korean American, what advice would you have for females or for minorities about getting ahead in an organization? Is it any different from the advice you just gave a minute ago for everybody else?
MEROE PARK:
That (LAUGH) is a great question. I believe that diversity in my case, the first half of my career, I really ignored the fact that I was diverse. I was raised by my parents to be just like everybody else, and so I never really thought of myself as a woman, or a minority. I was just another person.

And so I worked hard. I did my job well. I followed up on things. I followed through. All the things that I would have told any young person at an organization to focus on. But as I became more senior in the organization, I started to recognize more and more that I had a role to play that I did not necessarily embrace at first. But I had several senior officers sit me down and explain that, whether I liked it or not, I was a role model to others, and people were watching what I was doing and how I went about my work.

And although my basic work practices didn't change, I still did the things the way I thought they should be done, I did have a different perspective on some of the challenges people face in an organization. And certainly, I faced them as well.

I think one of the things that I struggled with the most was I was an introvert in an organization that taught that leadership was essentially an extroverted activity. So for many years, I decided that I wasn't actually a leader. I could manage, but I wasn't going to be a leader. And it took a while to overcome some of those things.

But I think that women and minorities and, frankly, all people bear a responsibility to mentor and sponsor others who might be struggling as they come up through an organization, regardless of why. Whether it is race or ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, where you went to school, what part of the country you're from. All these factors that go into diversity can make the workplace challenging, and it is our responsibility, as senior officers, to try to help people through that.
MICHAEL MORELL:
How do you think the agency's doing on diversity?
MEROE PARK:
I think it is doing great. I think there is still work to be done. I don't think any organization ever gets to nirvana when it comes to this. But when I think about, in my 27 years there, how much has changed, how much more accepting people are of others than when I started, it's really quite astounding.

I'll share one story which is when I worked for John Brennan, and this is then the last job I was in. We had the head of another agency come to visit with a team. We were talking about a particular substantive area that was something having to do with data. And the director's conference room is this huge, long wooden table with wood-paneled walls.

And on one side was the visiting director and his team, and on my side was John Brennan and our team. And I looked around and I realized that, on the opposite side of me, they were all men. And on our side, with the exception of John Brennan, it was all women. And this was not deliberate. He had come who needed to come, whoever the experts were. And I (LAUGH) thought, "This is incredible. There has been so much change here that this was not manufactured, it just happened organically."
MICHAEL MORELL:
So, Meroe, since you've left C.I.A., you've done a number of interesting things. One of those things, that you serve on a board for a for-profit company. And another is that you help run a nonprofit organization, which I want to get to in a minute.

But what I want ask you is, Have you learned things being on that board and in working with this nonprofit that would have led you to do things differently had you known them when you were at C.I.A.?
MEROE PARK:
The thing I think I have learned the most, let me just address it in two days. In terms of the board that I'm on, the thing I've learned the most from that experience is on the financial side of the business. Certainly in my role as chief operating officer and, frankly, you were in that role as well, you know that we are responsible really for the agency's budget.

There's obviously a chief financial officer and others who are as well, but as the chief operating officer, you are accountable for that. And it's complicated and, you know, complex, and there are a lot of specific issues having to do with the agency's budget. But it is very different from a private sector financial statement, for example.

And so there is much that I've learned there that I think I would have applied differently to the agency in terms of how you plan ahead, how you think-- although obviously there's no profit and loss in the government sense, but you still can do planning around that concept. So I think there are things I would have done differently on the budgetary side. In terms of the role I'm in now, I think my biggest regret is that I did not network well. The agency can be a somewhat insular place, and although I had moments--
MICHAEL MORELL:
Not somewhat. (LAUGHTER)
MEROE PARK:
Perhaps that was an understatement. And although I had opportunities and had contact with individuals outside of the organization, the reality is, for the most part, you're very internally focused, or you're focused on other government. And I've been exposed in my current role to so many private sector, university, so many other individuals out there who have expertise and would bring so much to what we try to do in the government, and we just don't tap into that effectively. So that is something I would have done differently.
MICHAEL MORELL:
You know, one of the things that I've learned, and maybe the main thing, is in the private sector there is a very significant emphasis on succession. It is a board issue. It's something the CEO thinks about constantly, and works constantly. And that's just not the case in government, right? Because these very senior principals in government actually have a job outside the agency to do, so they're not very inward looking, right?

And that's one of the things that gets lost a little bit, that succession planning. And if I ever had the opportunity to run a government agency again, there would be a much, much bigger emphasis on succession planning. Does that--
MEROE PARK:
Yes, I think--
MICHAEL MORELL:
--ring true?
MEROE PARK:
--deliberately developing people for roles. I remember-- I think it was somewhat of an accident that I ended up having a series of experiences that led me to be able to be--
MICHAEL MORELL:
Me too.
MEROE PARK:
--chief operating officer.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Me too.
MEROE PARK:
That was not by design. In fact, the organization as a whole discouraged that sort of movement laterally. So I agree. I think one difference I would say is that the government, because it tends to have career officers, it can be easy to just rely on that fact that people are just gonna be around. And in the private sector, people leave. They go off and do other jobs. And so, if you haven't really planned ahead, you're really in trouble because you have no bench necessarily that you can go to.
MICHAEL MORELL:
And if you're not developing them, they say, "Heck, I'm gonna go someplace where I get developed."
MEROE PARK:
Absolutely.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Meroe, I wanted talk a little bit about your current job at the Partnership for Public Service. Let me ask you a few questions about that. And the first one is why did you end up there rather than someplace else?

You know, most government seniors end up with, you know, Beltway bandits is what we call them, right? Big contractors. Why did you end up at this Partnership for Public Service, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization?
MEROE PARK:
So when I retired, I spent a fair amount of time, as most people do, trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. I'd only been at C.I.A. really, so that was what I knew. Someone very wise suggested that I write down on a piece of paper the attributes I was looking for in a job.

And the first two things on that list were mission and people, and way far down were things like salary. (LAUGH) And because of that sort of self-reflection, it helped me navigate that process so that I avoided taking on roles that that I fundamentally would not have liked.

It took a long time. It took six months, really, for me to find a good match. I gravitated toward academia and, frankly, the nonprofit sector because the missions there are very compelling. It took me a while to convince those sectors that I had transferable skills, because I think there is the sense that government individuals are not particularly creative or innovative or et cetera. There are many different stereotypes about government employees.

But once I did, and I had some options there, what drew me to the Partnership is I had such alignment with the mission which, at a very high level, is about making the government more effective. And I thought back to all the jobs I had had particularly over the last decade, and it really was about doing that at the C.I.A. And I was attracted to being able to do that, and to be able to help on that front across the entire government spectrum.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So how does the organization, how does the partnership go about trying to make the government more effective? How does that work?
MEROE PARK:
So we do it in many ways. As you know, the government is huge. We think about it, frankly, as the largest organization in the world. It has over 2 million civilian employees; that's not even including military, does not include Congress and the legislative branch.

So if you think about it as an organization, it is incredibly complex, but also incredibly important. And we believe at the Partnership that the foundational aspect of successful government is around leadership. You and I have had many discussions about leadership and what it is, and we've come to believe that, all the way from the top of the house all the way down through the organization, if you don't have strong leadership, you end up having less strong performance. You have employees who really aren't engaged in their work. And, worst case, leave because they have a supervisory situation that's not good.

So that is the principal way that we try to help government agencies increase their effectiveness. You might have heard of the Best Places to Work rankings. We manage those. And that is a way to sort of help agencies understand what their strengths are and what are their areas for development when it comes to leadership, along with a number of other factors.

We also do other things. We bring private and public sector together. Referring back to my earlier comment about my wish that I had done more of that, certainly exposing the government and government employees to more of that external stimulus really makes a big difference.
MICHAEL MORELL:
You must interact a lot with different government agencies. What's your sense of the morale of the government workforce at this moment, who've been used as a bit of a political football, right, in fights between the two parties? What's your sense?
MEROE PARK:
So I have found the government, federal workforce to be incredibly resilient. This is not the first administration where we've had government employees sort of not talked about in the most positive manner. Let's be honest, this has been going on for decades now. And if you look at some of the studies that have been done or surveys, trust in government overall has been declining for years.

So this idea that the federal employee is not working hard or not responsible or not expert, you and I know that is hardly the case. But for some reason, it has become a political football, and we believe that is incredibly damaging, and I believe incredibly damaging to our ability to attract and retain talent.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Do you see that in numbers--
MEROE PARK:
Well, so--
MICHAEL MORELL:
--now?
MEROE PARK:
--interestingly, 6% of the federal workforce is under the age of 30. That is a worrying statistic that we should all be concerned about. It means that we are both not getting enough young people in, and they're not staying in the numbers that we need them to stay. So when you talk about the importance of succession, we have a lot of people getting ready to or eligible to retire, yet we have a dearth of young people joining.

And I think there are a number of factors at play, obviously things like student debt, that make public service maybe unaffordable. But also I talk to a lot of students who wonder about taking on a career where they wonder if they're going to be valued.

And what I always tell them is you absolutely will be. You should, you know, come in. Once you see mission, once you see how it actually works when you're inside, we are, the federal workforce is so resilient and hardworking and focused on mission that, even in times of the recent shutdown, we still had federal employees frankly who asked us if they could come volunteer and work at the Partnership because they did not want to stay home and do nothing. And I remember during shutdown periods at the C.I.A., we had employees asking could they come to work, even if they weren't considered essential personnel. So--
MICHAEL MORELL:
You unfortunately can't.
MEROE PARK:
Yes, that's correct.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Meroe, you have been terrific with your time. Just a couple of more questions. What did you learn from your best boss? No names.
MEROE PARK:
(LAUGH) Good, I'm glad you're not asking (LAUGHTER) me for any names. So one of the most valuable lessons I learned was that everyone has something to contribute. And that sometimes, you get someone in the wrong job or that's the wrong fit or you have them paired with the wrong supervisor, but there's always something that someone has to contribute. And your job, as a manager, as a peer, as a colleague, is to help figure out what that is. Because if we don't do that, then we end up discarding people who may have things to contribute.
MICHAEL MORELL:
What about what you learned from your worst boss? Maybe the same thing. (LAUGHTER)
MEROE PARK:
Maybe. I think that a little humility can go a long way. I think if you are someone who wants to make the best decisions for the organization, thinking that you are the one who has all of the answers, or has the best answer, can often lead to not the best decisions--
MICHAEL MORELL:
Or you're going to shut down--
MEROE PARK:
--from the organization.
MICHAEL MORELL:
--dialogue, aren't you? You can shut down--
MEROE PARK:
Yes. And -- to your own detriment, because you're really shutting down the other ideas that will help you come to the best possible course of action.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Who do you think the best role model is for public service?
MEROE PARK:
So this is also a trick question, I think.
MICHAEL MORELL:
No trick. (LAUGH) No tricks at all.
MEROE PARK:
So obviously there are many role models, but I'm going to go in a slightly different direction on this which is, to me, the most amazing role models are the ones that you don't know. The ones you don't see. There is someone I think of who I've always thought of, her name's Mary, and I won't use her last name because she would come after me if I did.

She was an example of selflessness. She was someone who would go the extra mile for the job that she did. She was never looking for recognition or accolades. She was 100% focused on mission. I remember one meeting I was in, this was earlier in my career. At the time, we didn't have something called the Emergency Leave Bank, which is a place where you can borrow leave if you become ill or a family member becomes ill.
MICHAEL MORELL:
And your sick leave--
MEROE PARK:
And so what--
MICHAEL MORELL:
--has run out.
MEROE PARK:
--you had to do is you had to go out and solicit from employees, "Would you please donate some leave for this person?" And so we sat around the table. This person was not present, but we were having a discussion about how much leave had been donated.

And she had donated her entire leave balance. Because she herself had been helped by others, and felt like she had to give back. Now, I had donated, you know, four hours, and I have never felt so small (LAUGH) in my life. But she is just an illustration of so many public servants who are invisible to the American public and do their work every day on their behalf.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Meroe, thank you very much for joining us.
MEROE PARK:
Thank you. It was a pleasure.
* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *

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