In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East Paul Pillar reaches into his bottomless bag of excuses for why the IC – in particular the CIA – is blameless for 9/11 and pretty much everything else:
There are three far more promising explanations for why intelligence reforms so often fail to live up to the demands and expectations of U.S. citizens and politicians. First, the American public consistently believes the intelligence community’s record to be worse than it actually is, prompting calls for reform even when none is required.
Frankly even I grow weary of this argument, and I’ve seen my share of successes and failures. Granted, successes tend to remain secret and rarely if ever trotted out, but if US intelligence were so Cracker Jack, the world would be a much better place from a national security perspective. I also find it curious that leaks from within the community are always about “bad” things (whether from a professional perspective that label is deserved or not); why no leaks about a triumph that works to the advantage of candidate X? Well, you’d have to have a large pool of significant successes to draw from for starters . . .
However, [theories about why reform ideas have not succeeded] overlooks the strong bias toward reform among managers inside the intelligence community. Like ambitious managers anywhere, they make their careers not by sitting on the status quo but by championing new initiatives and strategic redirections. The dominant pattern in the U.S. intelligence agencies has been not stasis but almost constant revision, even to the point of disruption.
There is no HTML tag for “guffaw” but I think someone should invent one.
Ask any veteran of the IC to name any truly original idea any of their _managers_ ever came up with: I dare you. Better yet: ask any recently hired IC officer what they think of their first-line or middle-managers and take note of how many times words like “antiquated,” “cold war,” and “pedestrian” come up. Even better: ask any officer who was on the job before 9/11 how much things have changed from a management or systemic perspective.
The simple fact of the matter is that IC managers are rarely leaders but bean counters like mangers anywhere else. They don’t get ahead by rocking the boat; they get ahead by embracing and mastering the bureaucracy. The problem with that sort of mentality is that the status quo – continuing to be organized, trained and deployed to fight a rival hierarchy – is grinding our system and its people into the dirt.
Reform involves a level of risk and you cannot blame the managers for not going out on a limb when doing so endangers their livelihood. Stodgy as they may be, they are still rational actors. That there is no honest multi-track system to success in the IC (to reach the highest ranks you have to give up functional or topical expertise and take up the red pen and spreadsheet) means there is no incentive to do anything but “the way things are done.”
Keep that in mind the next time some old school CIA type tells you reform is for suckers.