Journal: Commentary on Moonlighting at the CIA

Government, Intelligence (Government/Secret), Leadership-Integrity
Thomas Leo Briggs

In a 1 February 2010 article adapted from the his forthcoming book, ‘Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage,' Eamon Javers wrote:

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“In the midst of two wars and the fight against Al Qaeda, the CIA is offering operatives a chance to peddle their expertise to private companies on the side — a policy that gives financial firms and hedge funds access to the nation’s top-level intelligence talent, POLITICO has learned.”

“The never-before-revealed policy comes to light as the CIA and other intelligence agencies are once again under fire for failing to “connect the dots,” this time in the Christmas Day bombing plot on Northwest Flight 253.”

“But sources familiar with the CIA’s moonlighting policy defend it as a vital tool to prevent brain-drain at Langley, which has seen an exodus of highly trained, badly needed intelligence officers to the private sector, where they can easily double or even triple their government salaries. The policy gives agents a chance to earn more while still staying on the government payroll.”

Commentary Below the Fold

When I joined the CIA in 1969 government service was not as lucrative as the private sector, in terms of earnings,  but there was an attractive retirement plan that was unique to the CIA.  There was an incentive to remain in the CIA for a career and that helped fuel the supply of mid-level journeymen intelligence officers who provided the backbone, the tribal memory and the mentors for the up and coming officers.  A vital mid-level also provides the candidates for future leadership.  It doesn't insure that the “system” will identify and promote the best and brightest to leadership but the possibility is there.

During the “business is best”, “make the government like business and it will function better” phase that engulfed CIA at one time, the CIA was forced to join other government agencies and adopted FERS.  Congress created the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) in 1986, and it became effective on January 1, 1987.  Since that time, new Federal civilian employees who have retirement coverage are covered by FERS.  This did away with the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), the system under which I joined and retired from the CIA.

It also did away with any financial reason to stay in the CIA. With a portable 401k, if you do not like your job or your supervisors, or you want to make more money, you just pick up your 401k retirement and move on.  What a surprise that “Langley” now finds itself in short supply of highly trained, badly needed intelligence officers; and make no mistake, some of the best make the move to the private sector, they are the ones capable of making big money and they are the ones who have the talent and ambition to be very valuable to the CIA.

So, what would you do if you faced this situation?  If intelligence officers today are anything like we were in my day, the job is full time and more.  But, let's say that today they only put in 50 or 60 hours a week, easy to do overseas where your job, if you are doing it well is not 9-5, and in “Langley” almost the same thing goes, since operations are taking place worldwide in all time zones.  Now, your officers want to moonlight and you might ask how many hours will they need to provide value to their second employer?  If you can imagine adding 10-20 hours per week to your 50-60 you ought to be putting in at CIA, you can imagine an overworked employee.

But wait, in order to keep these valuable officers you decide to let them go work for the very people that are enticing them to leave.  You are letting them get a taste of that more lucrative life and you are letting them make the contacts they will need to make the jump.  You are also letting intelligence officers lead a double life of dedicated public servant and private sector money earner.  Expose your officers to two masters, and don't be surprised if they begin to serve two masters when they need to be dedicated to the business of intelligence, the protection of sources and methods, and to honor and integrity.  Not to say that life in the private sector will lead to anything less than being honorable but trying to live in two disparate worlds can certainly cause trouble.  Once they have the experience and contacts and see they can earn double or triple what they earn in the CIA do you really think they will remain in the CIA?

So, what do I think CIA should do?  Go back and revisit the terms of CIA retirement.  Find a way to make a CIA retirement worth 25-30 years of public service.  You can't compete with the earnings potential of the private sector so you have to add something valuable to the equation.  You won't keep everyone motivated solely by money, but you will keep more than you are now.  Under the old retirement system there were officers who left for the private sector but not at the rates they do today.

Oh, and one more thing, improve leadership top to bottom and make the CIA, once again, an elite organization with the high morale necessary for the important job being done.

There is more to say about such things, and I invite you to read the chapter titled, “Speaking Truth to Power” in my book, “Cash on Delivery: CIA Special Operations During the Secret War in Laos.”

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