A Real-Time Lesson in Leadership and Ethics from the Impeachment Hearings

Over the last few weeks, the American people have observed a graduate school level course on leadership. Unfortunately, those in command of our national security institutions have failed this course, at times spectacularly and in high definition television. This has cast a terrible spell over the State Department, the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community, where the officers once had a simple but time-tested unofficial pact with their leaders. The rank and file agreed to do the impossible: serve without fanfare in the shadows in the toughest of environments, and only ask that their leaders openly and vocally have their backs when faced with blowback from the political arena. It was a simple but sacred pact. It stood the test of time wherever officers served across the globe. Regrettably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and acting Director of National Intelligence Joe Maguire have broken this pact, as President Trump and his allies attacked and denigrated the career national security officials who bravely chose to testify in the impeachment hearings. The complete and stunning silence of Pompeo, Esper and Maguire to offer even a scant endorsement of their employees has been both shocking and has left a dark and perhaps indelible stain on their legacies.

Yet these past weeks the American people also witnessed a graduate school level course on government ethics, and this was a resounding success story. As we watched these national security officials testify, a common theme emerged that unified them all – their herculean ethical strength. These officials — including the rank and file of our institutions — passed their graduate level final exams with flying colors. I cannot overstate the sense of pride that many of my current and former colleagues in the national security community and I felt as we followed their, at times dramatic, testimony and learned more about their decisions to speak out. In sum, the American people should be grateful that so many career officials deeply believed in the need to “do the right thing,” regardless of personal consequence. It is clear that within our national security institutions, the decades of persistent ethics training and the hiring of the “best and the brightest” has paid off, culminating in this unique moment for so many. Certainly none of these officials wished to be in the dangerous limelight, and for many, their careers will be forever altered.

At CIA, where I served for 26 years, the unofficial motto of the agency is “and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” This is etched into the wall at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA and is a biblical verse that defines the intelligence mission in a free society. Some may wonder how an institution whose main operational missions include stealing secrets and conducting covert action has such a credo. It’s actually quite simple, and similar to what the country asks of the US military. We are tasked with conducting a range of activities to gain accurate information about our key foreign adversaries and at times take action against them. Yet, how we conduct these activities is of critical importance, and in the Directorate of Operations, we did so with honor, integrity and transparency to our bosses at CIA (and by definition the White House) and to Congress as well. From the beginning of the training evolution for a CIA operations officer, the requirements for honesty and integrity are drilled into to every officer-candidate, and failure to adhere to this rule results in immediate disqualification. The same goes for the analytic side. Objectivity is a thread that runs deep in the veins of the Directorate of Intelligence personnel, and there is an overwhelming desire, and frankly a requirement, to allow our analysts the freedom to make analytic judgments without interference from outside parties, including the CIA leadership.

Have all CIA officers been perfect over the years? Most definitely not, but we strive to hold those accountable for ethical lapses, and with mistakes come learning as an organization. In my experiences serving at headquarters and across the globe, CIA officers almost to a person possessed an ironclad moral compass, a healthy dose of skepticism for absolute authority, and a burning desire to always tell the truth. These characteristics have served our officers well and will continue to do so.

It’s clear that such characteristics are shared with our foreign service officer colleagues and military officer corps compatriots who have performed admirably in the murky and troublesome events surrounding Ukraine. I am confident that those who testified are not motivated by the political question of whether the President should be impeached, as that is not a question that is in their lane as it is for Congress to decide. Instead, they simply desired to speak the truth when called by their country to tell it. The American people should celebrate these civil servants and oppose the attempts to degrade them as some in the political arena—many who have never served in a difficult environment or known any such danger—have chosen to do. History will hold in the highest regard these courageous women and men who have come to testify.

This is a teachable moment for America. Ironically, at my son’s high school in northern Virginia, the community just held its annual “Ethics Day,” which was fantastically timed given the events over the past several days that have mesmerized many Americans.  As my son walked out the door for Ethics Day, I asked him to raise with his classmates the impeachment hearings, and to note the bravery of the many officers who had chosen the righteous path to speak out.  I told him that I hoped that if I had been placed in a similar situation as our NSC, State and DoD colleagues had faced, that I would have done the right thing. My hope is that a majority of Americans take notice of this graduate level class on leadership and ethics that we are living through. After all, aren’t the universal ideals of honesty, integrity, moral courage, and telling truth to power precisely what we want to pass on to our children?

Images: Hill (Alex Wroblewski/Getty); Vindman (Wikimedia Commons/Mykola Lazarenko/The Presidential Administration of Ukraine); Yovanovitch (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Kent (Wikimedia Commons/United States Department of State); Holmes (Chip Somodevilla/Getty); Cooper (Wikimedia Commons/Dept. Defense )

 

About the Author(s)

Marc Polymeropoulos

Retired in June 2019 from the Senior Intelligence Service ranks at the CIA after a 26 year career in operational headquarters and field management assignments covering the Middle East, Europe, Eurasia, and Counter Terrorism - Follow him on Twitter (@Mpolymer).