Thomas Leo Briggs: CIA Subpar Spies Deja Vu

Government, Ineptitude
Thomas Leo Briggs
Thomas Leo Briggs

In relation to Bryan Dean Wright: CIA’s Problem – Subpar Spies I find it interesting to read what Bryan Dean Wright has written about the CIA and its recruitment of A and B students, especially since I published something very much like that in 2009 in the final chapter of my book, Cash on Delivery: CIA Special Operations During the Secret War in Laos.  The final chapter contains what I called Briggs’ Axiom, a theory I often described to colleagues in the 1980s and 1990s.   Mr. Wright and I are in agreement.

Mr. Wright writes:

“The answer:  “Well, think of the students that you knew in school. We can’t retain the ‘A’ or ‘B’ students… they eventually quit in frustration because of too many bad managers and too much bureaucracy. So… we look for the ‘C’ students now.”

The CIA had started hiring average.

Make no mistake, the majority of my CIA peers were exceptional.  Yet I knew that my colleague was right:  We were losing the best and brightest because of a broken system that promoted the worst of us to positions of leadership and management. How?”

I think, however, my point of view might be more interesting.  The following is from my final chapter, Speaking Truth to Power: Lesson Learned.

“That said there is a crisis of leadership. That crisis is the result of a vicious cycle. Talented young officers are recruited but do not remain because they recognize the lack of quality leadership. The CIA has always attracted new recruits from the middle of average to the very best. The problem has always been that only a small percentage of the very best stay on for careers of twenty or more years. Only a small percentage of the very best remain long enough to move up to the senior levels of management. Of those that remain, the ones who rise to the top are the ones who have mastered the bureaucratic skills for rising in such an environment. Those skills do not include taking risks, telling higher management and the policy makers when something cannot or shouldnot be undertaken, being totally honest all the time about all subjects. To be very blunt, you learn whose ass to kiss and how or you do not make it very high. There must be many reasons why larger numbers of the very best do not stay on but you can imagine that if the average and only slightly above average are populating a high percentage of the upper management positions, they do not encourage the very best to stay on and challenge them. You can also understand that if the very best, with a variety of opportunities available to them in other career fields, see the type of manager that makes it to the top they can more easily make the decision to move on. Someone else said this more succinctly than I have, “Higher rank means longer organizational experience, greater commitment to the organization, and more selecting out of deviant perspectives”.

Back in the late 1970’s I used to stop by to chat with a colleague of mine, a fellow Special Operations Division case officer, who occupied a small office for two. The other occupant was a young African-American man who had graduated from an ivy-league university and an ivy-league law school. He also had an aunt who was well connected in Detroit politics. My friend and I would sometimes exchange war stories about Vietnam and Laos and the young officer would often turn his chair around to join us by listening to our stories. As I came to know his background after one or two visits, I finally asked him what a young man, with such credentials and connections, was doing working in a bureaucracy like the CIA.

As part of our conversations, we would often tell stories of this or that mid level or upper level manager who had done something we thought was well below what we expected of the managers we thought we should have in the CIA. Having been overseas in combat zones, we thought it was incredible that we had encountered such incompetence at the leadership levels. The young man took it all in but really did not comment much on our stories. One day I visited and his desk was bare. I asked where he was and was told he had resigned. I do not think anything we had said was the direct cause of his resignation; I believe he just added what we were saying about life in the field to what he had seen in the headquarters environment. He realized it was not going to get any better.

Contrary to Mr. Wright, I didn’t call them A or B students but rather I described their abilities as either A level, B level or C level.  I didn’t think we did not attract the A or B level recruits but rather that we could not keep them.  When a large number of your A or B level recruits leave in less than five years, it leaves a very large pool of C level recruits to form the future management.

Moreover, one other angle has emerged.  A or B level students from prestigious universities may have heavy load debt burdens.  The money in the business world is so much more for them than the USG can offer and they never consider working for the government.  Of course, some do, but then they run into the management mediocrity and leave in just a few years.  This leaves the CIA an even smaller pool of A or B level recruits to entice into government work and a smaller pool of high quality employees to become upper managers should they decide to stay for a career.

-Thomas Leo Briggs