"From an intelligence mission standpoint, I have five no-fail missions that represent some of our greatest challenges around the world," Stewart said in Washington on Thursday, referring to the core functions of his agency.
"On a personal level, I have one no-fail mission," he continued. "I cannot fail. And I don't talk about that a whole lot, but there's tremendous pressure to be the first and hope that you're not the last."
The crowd at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual conference murmured in understanding.
Stewart was one of a panel of top national security officials addressing the conference as US intelligence agencies wrestle with a national security imperative that starts at home: recruiting and retaining diverse talent.
Statistics from the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence show minorities make up roughly one-quarter of their agencies' workforce, far behind the full federal government mark of 35%.
Leaders say there are many challenges to changing this reality, including common barriers such as access to recruitment and internships for minorities. There are also industry-specific issues, such as having good credit to get a security clearance and overcoming the mistrust of many in the black community toward the US intelligence apparatus.
But now agencies including the CIA, ODNI, DIA and Department of Homeland Security are working to overcome these obstacles and address lagging diversity within their ranks in terms of race, gender, disability status, sexual orientation and religion.
While diversity might be an American value, intelligence community leaders say that for their industry, it's a matter of mission.
"I really believe there is an exceptionally strong -- if not the strongest -- business case possible that CIA can make within the government for why we need to be diverse," CIA Director John Brennan said Thursday, appearing at a conference panel alongside Stewart.
"We don't want to suffer from that group think," he said. "I need to make sure our organization has the diversity in it ... so that we can cover the world's problems."
At times the panel got personal. Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, another participant, spoke about joining the House Intelligence Committee, which holds mostly classified hearings, and waiting months to see diverse faces before it.
"I had been a member of the committee for nine months before I saw the first woman give a presentation," Sewell said. "I'm just being honest. And it wasn't until two years later I saw an African-American."
Brennan and the CIA have led the way in efforts to close diversity gaps, the panelists said. Brennan has prioritized making the CIA more diverse since he took over the top job there in 2013.
In 2015, the agency released a study commissioned by Brennan that found the CIA lacking in its minority recruitment. The report found that only 24% of the CIA workforce and 10.8% of its top Senior Intelligence Service, the highest echelons of the service, were minorities. The percent in positions that feed into leadership jobs, known as GS-15s in government lingo, was only 15.2%.
The numbers have been trending downward, as well, with only 19.3% of recruits minorities in 2015, down from 31.5% in 2008.
Brennan has continued efforts to change that trend. Earlier this week, he spoke at Miles College, a historically black college in Alabama, and met with high school students in Birmingham.
"I don't want the agency to just look like me," he told them, according
to the Alabama Media Group.
On the heels of the report, the CIA released
a Diversity and Inclusion Strategy for the next three years.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence followed suit in June, releasing its first public demographics report. That agency increased its minority percentage of the workforce to 25% in 2015, but both agencies lag far behind the overall federal government, which is at 35%, according to ODNI.
While the participants hailed the work of the leaders in identifying the problem and increasing their outreach, they said work still remains.
"I think that the outreach has been incremental. It hasn't been monumental or transformative," Democratic Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana, another panelist, told CNN after the event. "We can always do more."
But he also gave Brennan credit for his work, including actively engaging with Historically Black Colleges and Universities like Miles.
"For him to actively recruit at HBCUs is unprecedented, so I give him a lot of credit for that," Carson said.
"The outreach is needed, but beyond the outreach, being able to go and have an environment that's welcoming, that's accepting" is key, according to Ba-Shen Welch, vice president of strategic initiatives at Miles College. "Because once you get in the door, it's about staying there too."
Recruiting a diverse staff has its challenges, the national security officials acknowledged.
Stewart stressed that outreach has to start early, and that for many in the black community, there used to be "tremendous distrust" of the intelligence community that still persists to some extent. Many in the community believe African-Americans are targets of the government's surveillance apparatus, and the distrust grew when the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover secretly spied on African-Americans.
"We've got to work our way down the ladder and demystify that job," Stewart said. "We're losing great candidates by the time they're 13."
The panel repeatedly returned to security clearance tests as barriers to diversity, since they often require having good credit and a mostly blemish-free record.
The officials joked that it doesn't have to be perfect -- Brennan said some drug experimentation and activism, for example, can be understood.
"I would not be up here if that was disqualifying," he noted, recounting that he admitted during his polygraph exam in the 1980s that he once voted for a Communist Party candidate.
But there are advantages to coming from less-represented backgrounds, according to Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Stephanie O'Sullivan, who encouraged the crowd of students, professionals, educators and politicians to embrace what makes them unique.
"Don't underestimate the value of being different," she said. "You come at problems differently. Each one of you is unique."