“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”—Friedrich Nietzsche

My entry into the world of intelligence-gathering began in 1996 when I joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Before my retirement in 2014, most of my career was spent overseas as an operations officer in countries comprising the former Soviet Union.

Serving abroad in the CIA was a great way to increase my understanding of the world. As an operations officer, I was trained and charged to identify, develop, and recruit foreign nationals to provide information to me—which in turn was passed to the U.S. intelligence community (IC). The IC uses HUMINT (human intelligence gathered from live sources),  in conjunction with SIGINT (signals intelligence) and other forms to aid United States policymakers in making clear-eyed decisions about matters of foreign policy.

This is the purpose of the IC. Regarding HUMINT, people’s reasons for spying against their own country are numerous. The motivations of money, ego, or ideology have been behind history’s most damaging spies. Compromise or coercion have also been important factors (most often used as tools against the West by hostile intelligence services).

Recruitment of foreign assets (agents, in CIA parlance) was and is the raison d’etre of my profession. In order to recruit effectively, a good working knowledge of human psychology was essential; understanding how emotions such as pride, jealousy, hatred, and shame can motivate individuals. This knowledge was the most important item in my “toolbox.” A good intelligence officer always views situations, actions, and people in this fashion. It is an excellent technique with which to understand why things are the way they are. For decades now, it is automatic for me to view much of the world and its interactions through this “operational lens.” Looking at history and current events is continually fascinating to me. An ops officer can (or should) divine the personal, institutional, and national motivations that are behind every event that occurs on the world stage.

I have long been fascinated by the subject of failure. It’s important to understand success—in business or politics—but failure is often the more common outcome. Businesses and governments, even individuals, can often learn more by examining cases of failure—what those organizations did wrong and the steps needed to avoid falling into similar traps—than studying success. Business leaders and academics are now studying the phenomenon of failure more closely, as it has become clear that there were many nuggets of wisdom within.

Failures in the intelligence community are some of the more dramatic types of institutional failure. If an intelligence service or a national government should fail in its understanding of a threat, possible national ruin is in the works. Throughout history, governments have fallen due to the insufficient redress of their security challenges. Many people ask, “How can these multi-billion-dollar agencies or governments fail when the stakes are so high?” The answer is because they are made up of fallible, error-prone human beings—the same as in any business or family unit. Emotions or mindsets such as ambition, hubris, jealousy, petulance, hatred, or irrational denial course through their veins as surely as through your own.

Bureaucracies have been designed to filter out, or at least mitigate, this “human factor.” Despite this, how many readers can recall having a problem at the DMV just because the bureaucrat they were dealing with had a fight with his wife at breakfast? Our institutions are thus very fallible.