Not too long ago, I contacted a friend who is still in the community. He and I keep in regular contact, so the fact that I was calling was not out of the ordinary. The reason for my call, however, was. “Hey man, I have someone that I believe your employer might be interested in.” Sounds Hollywood-esque, but I had learned enough to know that it was not smart, nor was there a need, to give details and use buzzwords and initials like CIA and intelligence on an insecure line (even if I don’t believe that the government is listening to every word I say; I am not that important by any stretch of the imagination).
He was intrigued, so we agreed to meet. Without going into detail, I passed him what I knew: Someone who knew that I worked in some capacity in law enforcement or for some other U.S. government entity at one time had contacted me with information on alleged nefarious activity on the part of a foreign government. He claimed to have secondhand knowledge, and he wanted to get this into the right hands. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Make a call, link the right people up, and that’s that. But no. Once again, the intelligence community allowed its institutional roadblocks to pop up and the information hit a dead end.
Now before I go any further, I must say this: I am not 100 percent, or even five percent, sure that this information would have led to anything of significance. In fact, even if it had, I would not have known it. I have been out of the operations game for a while now, but I do know that once the intel cycle starts, if you are not directly involved or of importance to the case, you are no longer privy to the details and the eventual outcome. And that’s OK—the whole “too many cooks” thing and all that. And it also must be said that I have been at the other end of this cycle, so I know there are a LOT of steps and turning wheels that go into the process, and they are time-consuming, frustrating, and, depending on the case, downright dangerous. Still, in this and many other moments, sometimes it ends up being worth the pain. But you have to be willing to take that first step. Although I know most intel types are more than willing to do so, sometimes that mission creep pops up and our institutional bias kills us.
Historically, the intelligence community at large and the CIA specifically have embraced a culture similar to my youngest daughter: “Ewww…no….” It has taken on different names and terms—risk aversion, operational caution, intel snobbery—but they are all pretty much the same thing. But it was not always like this. In the early days of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), although the risk was high, the attitude of “but it needs to be done” was always higher. Up against ruthless gangsters like Al Capone, or risking capture and certain execution in the European and Pacific theaters, the men and women of the FBI and OSS took that information on board and said, “To hell with it.”
They knew that the risk was well worth the gain. Just like any other organization, there were hurdles to overcome. Bureaucracy is a nomadic animal, and it pops up everywhere. That same issue exists today. I cannot speak for any other agency, but too often in my time at the CIA, I saw potential cases cross my desk or make it to HQS that died on the vise because someone somewhere deemed it to be too dangerous or too risky. The dangerous part I get—sometimes—but the risk issue is one that has baffled and angered me again and again because usually that word, “risk,” was followed by “to my/your career.” And for that, there is no excuse.
Now, I am not suggesting that we should just throw people willy-nilly (Damn I love that term. I will be using it again.) at every tidbit of information that pops up, because not every bit will be of value. Some things are just obvious. If our job as intelligence officers was to get that information not known publicly, then something that was or is being reported by the media is not something we would throw an officer at (although we do have a great open-source program that I believe was underutilized and undervalued until recently). But if someone takes even the smallest amount of risk to bring information to our attention, I believe that we owe it to the nation, the intel community, and that person to at least check it out in the most efficient and safest way possible.
If that means reading emails, then so be it. But if it means a face-to-face meeting, then we need to take the time to flesh out a sound plan to meet this person and see what they have to offer (and yes, a sound plan involves safety for all involved). If we meet and the info proves to be bogus (after all of the proper checks have been done), then fine, we live and learn. But as former case officer and intelligence expert Charles Faddis illustrated in an interview I conducted with him, that asset we drop or that information we ignore because he/she is too expensive or hard to handle—or when we as the “experts” deem that the information or the person who holds it is not worth our time—may at some point become the person that we are scrambling to make contact with again because, oh look, that information actually was pertinent.
Now, I am in no way some super spy, but I have done my fair share of the work, so I know the frustrations of trying to handle multiple cases and do normal human being things like raise a family or date or not pay taxes (KIDDING, IRS, stand down…), so I am certainly not whining. I am also a realist. It’s easy for me to sit here and cry “fix this now!” when I am out of the game, while knowing full well that we have to prioritize our time and resources. It would be great if we could run down every piece of info and every lead to exhaustion, but I know we can’t. As I have said before, I was honored to have served side by side with some of the nation’s finest, and I know that they give 110 percent (OK, most of us. I did say I was a realist.), but there just isn’t enough time in the day.
But I also know this: Sometimes, these things are worth pursuing. At my last station, I had a superb chief and deputy (both of whom I will be writing about in an upcoming piece on leadership, both of whom had an amazing philosophy that helped the station run smoothly and efficiently, and also enabled us to gain some great assets and intel). A conversation with one or both of them would go something along these lines:
“Hey boss, I got a lead about XXX from XXXX.”
“Awesome. Have we run traces on them and the information?”
“Yep, the info is something that the consumers want to know about, but the source is a ghost…not finding much on them.”
“OK, well what is your gut telling you? Do you think that this is worth looking into or meeting about?”
“Yes (if that is the case), I do because reason A – H.”
Usually there was a pause, then it was either, “OK, this is yours to run with. Keep me up to speed,” or “Hey, right now you have X,Y, and Z going, and they are priority, so I think it’s best for now to write this up for HQS, tell them the 5 W’s and the H (who, what, where, when, why, and how), and why we think this is worth it, then let them make the decision. If it becomes a hot topic, we can either pass it off or you drop everything else and ride this horse (my chief had a weird sense of dry humor).”
It didn’t always pan out, even after fighting it out with HQS, and sometimes my bosses killed it on the vine (I trusted their thousands of years of experience on this), but the point was that we tried. In the case that I started this piece with, the guy was never met with because the blurb that he provided as a means of vetting him was “too flowery,” and he was dismissed out of hand. One may have nothing to do with the other, but recent world events have me thinking that what he had to offer may not have been a coincidence. This is the kind of cultural snobbery that hamstrings the community at times, and it is something that we need to work to eradicate.