Friday, April 20, 2012
When Jefferson City native Heather Triplett Biehl graduated from Westminster College in 1989, she probably didn’t know that she would spend the next two decades working for the CIA, analyzing intelligence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
But the WMC alum did just that, and when she was asked to be the keynote speaker at Thursday’s annual Westminster College Undergraduate Scholars Forum, a comprehensive program during which students present research they’ve gathered over the course of their studies, she drew from her experiences to encourage students to achieve greatness without compromising their personal morals.
Biehl took the stage 9 a.m. in Champ Auditorium, after a brief introduction from WMC Dean of Faculty Carolyn Perry, where Biehl told a packed auditorium of undergraduate students about her days as an analyst for the CIA. Biehl said she believes that what she learned there was applicable to just about anyone.
“To live a life of intelligence, one must find and practice their passion, understand the needs and skills of others, and work harder than you’d ever imagine,” said Biehl.
Biehl had three key points for her listeners, with the first being that “you can be the expert.” She learned this from her first post as a CIA analyst in 1990 Romania, shortly after the fall of prolific Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. She was only 23 and had never filed an intelligence report, but after her supervisor had a personal emergency, Biehl found herself responsible for making the call whether Romania’s first elections in the new regime were truly free and fair by U.S. standards. She ultimately determined they were not — but other people in the agency hadn’t come to the same conclusion. After she was able to present her evidence, she changed their minds.
“Hard work and preparation is all any expert really is,” Biehl said, recalling the words of John Fox, a State Department official at the time.
Biehl went on to warn her audience that sometimes they would have to pick up the slack for the people above them, recalling a time she saved an intelligence deal with the Japanese military by accepting a Japanese delicacy — the guts of a very large, very squirmy bug — that her supervisor had squeamishly declined.
Her final point was to warn students that their “character will be tested.” Biehl recalled moments where she witnessed the torture of operatives and had “opportunities to financially benefit in questionable ways,” but what most stood out was her recollection of her father, who took a job in Jefferson City as an office manager, only to find out his boss was cooking the books.
“His boss offered money to keep his mouth shut,” said Biehl. “He walked away that day … it took him six months to find another job at lower pay, but he did what he knew was right.”