CIA Is Losing Its Best and Brightest and Not Just Because of Trump

If you ask CIA senior leaders if they have a retention problem, they will likely point to perennial low attrition rates—as Chief Operating Officer Andy Makridis told me in his office last year. He did acknowledge, however, that what those stats won’t tell you is who is walking out the door.

CIA has lost much of the post-9/11 generation of intelligence officers who played key roles in some our nation’s greatest national security successes over the past two decades. I joined this group of alumni when I took my final steps across the famous marble CIA seal this summer.

It would be easy to draw a causal relationship between the last four years of the Trump administration’s open hostility toward the Intelligence Community, its politicization of intelligence, and the president’s apathy for the analysis put in his briefing book each morning and these departures. Indeed, Intelligence Community morale is at an all-time low. But the fraught relationship between CIA and the Trump administration is only part of the story and risks overlooking ongoing challenges within the Agency itself.

The most common refrain I hear from colleagues about why they left CIA over the past several years is “I no longer saw a path for me there.”

Raison d’PDB

For over 70 years, CIA has prioritized a strategic product above all others—a daily compilation of written articles akin to a classified newspaper called the President’s Daily Brief (PDB). Ask analysts what metric is valued most in career advancement, and they’ll tell you it’s how many PDBs you’ve written. Support to senior policymakers has culturally become intertwined with the Agency’s reason for being. Each new spy recruited or technical surveillance gadget created is motivated with the ultimate aim of capturing secrets that end up in front of the president.

You can imagine then how depressing it must be to the organization when a president doesn’t value the product you cherish. Few businesses would thrive and retain their top talent while waiting for a customer to eventually realize the value of their product. But CIA’s core product isn’t the PDB itself, it is the insights that help make decisions across government, and there are plenty of customers other than the president eager to consume those.

The main driver behind the low morale is not President Donald Trump. It is because the organization itself has not placed enough importance and value on the work it does to support a diverse set of customers other than the president.

Failure to Modernize

Many who joined CIA after 9/11 didn’t do so with the goal of exclusively supporting senior policymakers. This generation of intelligence officers joined to fight al-Qaeda (and later ISIS) and help win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their experiences over the past two decades were forged in war zones and in joint operations centers where the imperative of mission success — to disrupt individuals and networks — required the deconstruction of antiquated stovepipes and priorities.

This generation’s experience was one of teams of analysts, operators, technologists, digital experts, and support specialists coming together to transform intelligence collection and analysis in support of new operational customers such as foreign liaison partners, U.S. military and law enforcement, or through covert action. A new trust, built to share information among fellow CIA officers despite their different disciplines, broke with longstanding traditions of information compartmentation. This new cross-functional model in support of operations was the key to successes ranging from hunting down Osama bin Laden to countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

This operational model also became the blueprint for the largest reorganization in CIA’s history in 2015 and the creation of 10 Mission Centers, whose aim was to bring integrated capabilities to bear against the most pressing national security problems. Then-CIA Director John Brennan often described the modernization initiative he championed as an effort to stave off the failure to adapt to a changing world that befell companies like Kodak. To be sure, the rollout of these unprecedented changes, plus the involvement of outside consultants, was not perfect. But turnover in CIA leadership in 2016 stymied progress to institutionalize these changes and resurrected parochial interests of CIA’s Directorates that had been resistant to the reorganization, especially the Directorates of Analysis (DA) and Operations (DO).

Although the Mission Centers remain, the Directorates retain power over hiring, training, and, most importantly, promotion. This means that although you might sit in a cross-functional Mission Center with the goal of, let’s say, countering Russia’s malign activities, you are still evaluated and promoted based on the legacy interests and priorities of the Directorate to which you belong. Practically, this puts many officers in the untenable position of either supporting the objectives of the Mission Center or doing the work necessary for advancement in their Directorate. Promotion and future trajectory for DA and DO officers is still largely determined by counting how many papers they’ve written or sources they’ve recruited versus what impact they brought to the overall mission.

Failure to modernize and break free from narrow priorities of the past are also limiting CIA’s ability to tackle a fundamental challenge of its present and future: the exponential explosion of relevant data in the digital age. Every industry in the world is rushing to access the increasing universe of knowable (often open-source) information and building big data analytics capabilities from which to draw decision-making insights. Although the 2015 reorganization established the Directorate of Digital Innovation to address some of these challenges, CIA is still woefully behind the curve and the DA has neither the appropriate budget, staffing, or prioritization from its leadership to make the important cultural shift from an organization dominated by liberal arts majors to one replete with data scientists.

The stranglehold of convention on paths to promotion and advancement have also created gaps in the type of talent and skills necessary to ensure CIA provides a strong and compelling value proposition to customers of the future. There are no positions for strategists, innovators, operational planners, or policy experts that can help the organization improve the way it does business.

Poor Leadership

Compounding CIA’s failure to innovate and modernize the business of intelligence is their dreadful track record of talent management. While the organization is to be commended for the recent ascension of multiple women to positions of power—including Director Gina Haspel—the CIA has done a poor job of putting in place the leaders needed to navigate the Agency’s future.

Nearly every officer I know can point to demoralizing examples of serial sexual harassers and infamous toxic personalities being promoted into the ranks of senior management, creating hostile work environments, and holding on to their positions for years. While other fields have certainly struggled to reject similar behaviors or actions, CIA has a terrible habit of promoting its problems.

Many of the worst examples of toxicity I saw during my CIA career came from the DO, where a “zero-sum” attitude toward fellow officers permeates the organizational culture, as one former DO leader recently described for Just Security. Many case officers often view themselves as having superior standing among their colleagues, in and outside of the DO. This cultural superiority often undermines the effort of many integrated units, especially as CIA has a history of disproportionately placing case officers into general management positions. To be sure, there are many magnificent leaders that have come out of the DO, including a recent former head of the Counterterrorism Mission Center whose simple mantra of “be a good teammate” was a powerful antidote to rebuff the pervasive zero-sum attitude and evoked necessary collaboration in service to the mission, but he too has since left the CIA.

It should come as no surprise that the DO mounted the most forceful pushback against the modernization effort Brennan started out of fear that efforts to homogenize the workforce as “intelligence officers first” might harm their preferred standing for leadership positions at headquarters and overseas. Even Haspel, a career case officer, has reportedly sought to purge use of the term “intelligence officer” from CIA’s lexicon and revert to categorizing employees into the stovepiped Directorate disciplines from which they came.

But CIA’s leadership issues are not exclusive to the DO. Across the CIA, some of the most senior leaders have been with the organization for well over 30 years and most of them have never served in an integrated Mission Center. Their formative experiences are quite literally of a prior century and they lack the necessary understanding and interest in organizational change management. As many of these leaders move about different 7th floor offices, CIA’s talent strategy appears to be “up and shuffle around” rather than healthy turnover of the senior ranks that would bring fresh ideas and new experience, particularly from the post-9/11 generation of officers or from mid-career hires unencumbered with the baggage of how things were done before.

Way forward for Biden Administration

I love the CIA. I was fortunate to serve there with the most elite group of intelligence officers our nation has ever assembled, during an era of enormous consequence. I want a new generation of officers to have that same experience and opportunity to have their work be valued and to make an impact.

CIA, like the rest of the Intelligence Community, is back on its heels and needs to rebuild stronger and better over the years ahead. But those efforts will be hampered if some of the fundamental challenges within the Agency itself are not addressed.

Future presidents and policymakers may also be tempted by the speed and presentation of information from 24/7 news outlets or social media. Leaders from across government and private industry will continue to seek out support from consultancies and big data analytics firms to help them make sense of a world with more relevant data than they can process. CIA faces stiff competition for the attention of consumers of intelligence and can no longer assume that they have preferred standing with those customers simply because of who they are. CIA will need to deliver.

For CIA to remain indispensable, it will need to prioritize service to a more varied set of customers beyond the president, break organizational stovepipes once and for all in favor of an integrated mission-focused business model, and cultivate a new generation of leaders with the experience and temperament necessary to support these necessary evolutions.

There will be a temptation for President-elect Joe Biden to tap a long-time CIA veteran to lead the Agency and perhaps that may be useful in restoring trust between the institution and the White House. But the more glaring issues in need of attention come from within and need fresh leadership and new perspectives willing to restore trust with the workforce and complete the job of modernizing CIA.

In order to retain its best and brightest, CIA may need to part ways with some of its elders.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of his employer.

Image: A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seal in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Matt Castelli

Former CIA officer, serving over 14 years in analytic, operational, and management assignments primarily covering counterterrorism; also served from 2016 to 2018 as Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council. Follow him on Twitter (@CastelliMatt).