The CIA's Problem: Subpar Spies
Bryan Dean Wright, Fox Business, April 01, 2016
One year ago, CIA Director John Brennan announced sweeping changes at Langley, promising to reorganize the spy service by instituting a slew of bureaucratic fixes to its management structure.
Then on Thursday, the CIA acknowledged that it left explosive training material on a children’s school bus in northern Virginia. [Note: Wayne Madsen believes this is an indicator that CIA is about to stage false-flag attacks in the USA, using school buses, and blaming ISIS.]
Director Brennan’s otherwise laudable reforms have missed the mark in one important way: He’s focusing on changing the bureaucracy, not the bureaucrats. And the problem goes all the way to its fabled clandestine service – the spies.
When I worked as a covert officer at the CIA, I asked the recruitment center a simple question: “What do you look for in a successful candidate?”
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?
The CIA promotes officers based on something called a “Performance Appraisal Report” (PAR). Basically, an employee lists their accomplishments and two supervisors provide final comments and a grade. A “good” PAR means you’re on your way to promotion. A “marginal” or “bad” PAR means you’re in trouble.
Unfortunately, the PAR system incentivizes spies to placate and please their supervisors at all costs. You quickly realize that you must avoid irritating or disagreeing with your senior chain of command or you will face reprisals. As a mentor once encouraged me, “If you suck up, you move up.”
The result for the CIA? A culture of “Yes Men” (and Women).
The result for America? Fewer smart spies in less effective teams that are taking on ever-more dangerous challenges. Simply put, America isn’t as safe as we need to be.
Organizational psychologists have long wrestled with what makes teams especially “good” and successful. Through careful study, though, we know how to get it done: An organization’s culture must encourage freedom of thought and expression, combined with social empathy. Team members must believe that it’s safe to speak up without fear of embarrassment, rejection or punishment.
In other words, the exact opposite of how the CIA operates.
Predictably, most of the A and B spies have fled. And Director Brennan – and the country – are left with C spies to keep America safe. Want more proof? Consider that the former director of the Iran Department, a man who was publicly shamed for his bad leadership and management, remains at the CIA to this day.
So how does Brennan fix this problem?
First, modify the PAR system to mirror 360 reviews, with peers, subordinates and supervisors each contributing with equal weight. In other words, the whole team decides performance and potential. No more incentivizing suck-ups.
Second, Brennan should give his department chiefs 60 days to assemble or re-assemble a team; Subordinates should be freed to go elsewhere and choose a new boss if they desire. Through this annual process, bad leaders will be smoked out when too few people want to join him or her. And if you can’t get enough people to join you, it’s time for you to quit or be fired. This “up or out” model is one adopted by the private sector and it’s time for the CIA to embrace it.
The bottom line: There are scores of truly gifted intelligence officers who want to protect their nation. But at some point, the best spies break under the weight of bad leadership. Brennan has an opportunity – indeed the obligation – to change this destructive culture.
America is depending on it.
Bryan Dean Wright is a former CIA officer.
ROBERT STEELE: I was proud to be one of the top-performing clandestine case officers in the Latin American Division — one fitness report singled me out as being responsible for one third of the clandestine recruitments and one third of the foreign intelligence reporting (TDFIR) in a ten case-officer Station — one of the most active in Latin America. I agree totally with the above assessment, and provide below some additional supporting materials.
My 1979 class was one of two — the other occurred in 1982 — when CIA changed the psychological profile from “average” to “self-starter.” As the article above suggests, neither class lasted long. Most of my 1979 class quit within five years — I lasted nine in part because I was blessed with three back-to-back overseas tours and really decent bosses in one combat zone, one major country, and one terrorist cross-roads (where I was one of two Directorate of Operations case officers (C/O) assigned the terrorist target full-time, a first in the 1980's, the other C/O was based in Europe).
I will also mention in passing that when I was still within the DO we were obscenely proud of having the highest alcoholism, adultery, divorce, and suicide rates in the US Government (USG). I have personally recorded 23 professional suicides (and 1 extended family suicide) in my lifetime — my first CIA suicide was an instructor at The Farm who blew his brains out with a shot-gun, my most recent Rick Yanuzzi, an extraordinary talent driven to death by a dysfunctional female, “the Langley Strangler,” who is acutely representative of both the mediocrity of many senior CIA employees, and the passivity of CIA “management” in the face of severe misbehavior and dysfunction.
It has been my experience — and I have testified to both Presidential Commissions and Congressional Commissions — notably the Commission on National Security Information, the Moynihan Commission on Secrecy, the Aspin-Brown Commission, and the 9/11 Commission — that CIA is a massive fraud. Apart from the 2,000 people committing international crimes against humanity with indiscriminate drone assassination that achieves a documented 98% collateral damage kill ratio, and the 200 or so people I believe to still doing rendition, secret prisons, and torture in partnership with some pretty despicable dictatorships, CIA is a bureaucracy that is no longer capable of doing the three things it is supposed to be good at: unilateral clandestine human intelligence operations; all-source analysis; and relevant timely science & technology innovation in the context of missions no one else can do.
In my experience, 90% of what CIA claims to be “clandestine” collection is in fact transferred to CIA from foreign liaison services (for example, Saudi Arabia or Israel) or is collected from domestic legal traveler debriefings here in the USA, and is comprised of 80% outright lies and 20% marginally useful information most of which could be obtained faster, better, cheaper from open sources of information.
Very little has changed since I wrote my first book, ON INTELLIGENCE: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World (2000). If anything, CIA has gotten dumber and more dysfunctional because it has been flooded with money at the same time that its generally fat, white, pasty-faced bureaucrat managers — most decades away from a real operational assignment and most timid of real risk to themselves — have seen they are never held accountable for failure….witness the 21 non-official cover companies they created, 20 of which were soon closed when they figured out they simply do not know how to do non-official cover operations.
As Henry Kissinger has observed, and I find this still to be true today, “Intelligence is not all that important in the exercise of power, and is often, in point of fact, useless.”
Quite right. The White House and Congress do not make evidence-based decisions even if the US Intelligence Community could provide more than 4% “at best” of what major commander's and policy-makers need to know. The White House and Congress are dishonest to the bone, in constant betrayal of the public trust. They do not want an effective intelligence community, only another pork pie that is, as William Binney has so ably stated, “able to keep the problem alive to keep the money moving.”
I wrote the Standard Operating Procedures for a (Clandestine) Field Station, and the Guide to Managing the Support Account,* in 1983-1985 precisely because CIA had never had the professionalism to do this itself. Nor did the CIA take kindly to my trying to bring in a semblance of proper procedure and documentation to a process that is more loosey-goosey Keystone Kops in drag than it is professional spying. [* Audio Penetrations, Break & Entry, Disguise, Clandestine Communications, Surveillance Teams, etcetera]
In 2010, when I was found qualified, referred, and interviewed to be the Defense Intelligence Senior Leader (DISL) for Human Intelligence (HUMINT) at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), I put forward some ideas that did not result in my selection, perhaps because DIA is a mini-me of CIA, just as bureaucratic, just as hollow, just as dysfunctional. I was also one Director too early — Mike Flynn had the right idea and I would have loved to have helped him build a proper non-official cover clandestine and overt human intelligence capability. I am pleased to share here my Army War College Strategic Studies Institute monograph, pre-approved by both CIA and DoD before it was published, and the core graphic.
Reference (2010): Human Intelligence (HUMINT) – All Humans, All Minds, All the Time [Full Text Online for Google Translate]
In 2013 the US Navy asked me for help, because CIA was totally unresponsive to their needs for critical port and maritime intelligence that could only be obtained via clandestine means. Here to the side is the graphic I gave them and a short write-up.
Graphic: Requirements Management & Program Development — FIRST Prove National Secret Intelligence Fails to Satisfy, THEN Make Case to OMB for a Fractional Transfer of Funding to Your Own Intelligence Program
The sorry fact is that no one in the USG — not at CIA, not at DIA, not in the offices of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) or the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence (Technologies) – USDI — is serious about the craft of intelligence, and even less so the heart of the craft of intelligence, human intelligence (which includes all-source analysis with integrity).
HUMINT, properly defined, is about all humans — all minds in all languages all the time — and only four of the fifteen major HUMINT “slices” are in any way secret. The vast majority of HUMINT is not secret, not expensive, not in English, and not online. Until we have a DNI/USDI that respect that fact, we will continue to have not just a CIA, but a US IC, that is a disgrace to the Republic. We can do so much better. I personally am committed to one day creating a national intelligence community that we can be proud of. It will be a community that serves the public interest in all respects, grappling with all threats, all policies, all demographics, all the time.
2015 ANSWERS Robert Steele for Sean Lorenz on OSINT Update 3
2014 Robert Steele On Defense Intelligence – Seven Strikes
Robert David Steele Biography, Appearances, Publications
The Future: Recent “Core” Work by Robert Steele