Fight the Power!

It’s funny how popular you can get these days by screaming “political interference.” Contrast the experiences of two different intelligence officers: one spent two years in a junior position at one agency and was perpetually oppressed by partisans that ran the show; the other (yours truly) spent nearly 20 years at different agencies and grades and has no idea what the political disposition of either his colleagues or his superiors were. One has a book deal and the other, oddly enough, does not.


The community has serious problems; there is no doubt about that. But the idea that it is rife with political hacks does not stand up to serious scrutiny (or congressional commissions). Pockets of Panda huggers and such? Sure. Individuals with an ideological bent? Of course. A cabal of partisans actively employing our intelligence apparatus against the Executive? That would have to be a conspiracy of dunces because not only does everyone apparently know about it; they’re compiling an impressive record of evidence against it.
Everyone comes to this job with their own biases. There is no getting around it and there is no shame in it. We’re human after all. But that is why we have peer reviews and editing by senior staff; it helps check your own bias and exposes you to opinions and outlooks that you may have missed. It’s not that you might be wrong, you might just not be entirely right. That is, incidentally, why you get paid the big bucks: to do as thorough and neutral a job as possible so that the guy who has to sign the authorization or pull the trigger doesn’t blow up an embassy or wedding by “mistake.”
Still, I’m prepared to accept that a rare pure individual may find his or herself under the thumb of a party operative, in which case I offer the following advice to help achieve analytic virtue:
1. Refuse to do the work. If you’ve feel politics and only politics is the reason you are being pressured to alter your work, and you know that your work is methodologically sound and free of your own political bias (see the bit above about peer review), then state your principles and stand your ground. Work up the food chain as far as you can to protest the interference. More importantly, listen to any response that is not a variation of “do it or else.” As plodding as your seniors may be, they’re not entirely without wisdom or insight. What you don’t want to be is an ex-angry-young-analyst ten, twenty years later saying, “Hey, they had a point.” If you still feel that the vast-X-wing-conspiracy is at work, move on to step 2.
2. Report to the IG. If you’ve got proof of political interference (a witness to an overt injection of politics into the discussion helps), or have compiled record of repeated attempts to alter the results of sound application of methodology applied to solid intelligence evidence, then you need to leave the normal chain of command and work with the appropriate authorities. Let the system run its course, which may take some time, and may result in a long period of unpleasant treatment (it isn’t easy for a reason). If the outcome is not what you feel is just, then move to step 3.
3. Resign. If you’re all about “speaking truth to power” and you’re honestly offended, incised or otherwise torqued about what you are absolutely sure is political interference in your work, then you need to leave. Not only is it the only honorable thing to do, itโ€™s the only way you can avoid being part of the problem you claim to abhor. Leak, and not only are you violating your oath and weakening national security, you’re just perpetuating the problem. Look at all the green/yellow badges around you, the rise of private intelligence services, the state and local push for intelligence capabilities; it’s not like you have to worry about finding work.

4 thoughts on “Fight the Power!

  1. The idea that you might be serving a greater good by leaking – a’la Ellsberg – is predicated on the proposition that, like Ellsberg, you’ve got the full picture. Not picking on “AJ” but let’s say he opted to stay in and leak because he thought it was all about politics. Sorry, but no one with two years on the job has his hands or head around everything there is: especially while there is a shooting war going on.
    If you’re going to fight the power you’ve got to be prepared to take incoming. Investigations take time and the standards are high because, in part, if it were quick and easy every swinging Richard would throw their petty complaints over the wall and you’d spend half your time defending yourself against charges that you looked at someone cross-eyed in the hallway (a slight exaggeration). ๐Ÿ˜‰
    To adapt a common example thrown about these days, if you’ve got s***-hot, irrefutable proof of shady, purely political dealings that will get people killed, then I might call that a righteous leak, but trying to play kingmaker by dropping a tid-bit here and there to friendly reporters is the worst sort of malfeasance.

  2. So leaking is at no point an option?
    The problem with options 2 and 3 (assuming 1 doesn’t work) is that they take time. If you are in a situation where unethical events could happen in the near future, could one defend going to the press to stop that event?
    For what it’s worth, I’ve heard a couple people say that leaks come from the top, not the rank-and-file intel officers.

  3. Bravo. In my 20 years in the IC (Army Intelligence, DOE, the NIC) I never saw any evidence of the dreaded “political influence,” even in cases later presented to the public as explosively political. (E.g., Notra Trulock’s “Kindred Spirit” investigation.) I saw lots of cranky analysts who wouldn’t change their minds no matter how much evidence you shoveled at them, but that’s another problem.

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