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.

3 thoughts on “you can’t be serious

  1. It’s a hard fact that first-line management within the federal government requires cultivating a different skill set from the productive worker environment in which you may have thrived as an analyst. You need to be able to generate a lot of specialized administrative & personnel-related paperwork, which is not as easy as it seems (nor as easy as it should be). In my career as a manager I tried hard to remain a “subject matter expert” and think I succeeded to a modest degree, but it put massive demands on my time and energy. Because, you see, that oft-derided “administrivia” is hugely important to 1) your subordinates in terms of their career aspirations, recognition for work well done, etc., and 2) yourself, to recruit, train, and promote your people, and to protect yourself against grievances. When being a good manager conflicts with keeping abreast of substantive issues, you know what has to give way.
    A parallel career chain of senior analysts reporting directly to higher management levels is definitely the way to go, and these individuals should be empowered to drive specific analytical projects with authority to matrix people from various analytical disciplines — ad hoc task forces, in effect. These senior analysts would also provide feedback to the line managers about the competence of various line analysts. Sounds like a good system, right? OPM and the executive agencies might also think about streamlining their personnel management practices to reduce the workload on first-line managers. Getting promoted into management should not involve kissing your subject-matter expertise goodbye.

  2. I should make it clear that I would not have had an opportunity to do some of the neater things I did without a boss or two who could see past their spreadsheets. They’re not all bums and they’re not all sages, but in the bell curve of division chiefs on up, its largely those who have resigned themselves to their fates. Frankly I don’t know why; its not like anyone gets fired.

  3. @”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.”
    -Unfortunately, this statement describes reality–or perceived reality in the community. This attitude is part of the culture. But, there are some of us challenging the status quo, rocking the boat, and getting ahead for doing so. Some of us will refuse to stay quiet–we will take the risks necessary to transform the community. I’ve been told by several colleagues that I’m risking alienation. But so far, the opposite has occurred.

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