Lessons from a CIA Heretic

Last week I told a story at the Business Innovation Factory Summit, a wonderful event that I was blessed to attend. The storytellers were awesome. (Let me also give a big shout-out to my friends and reverse mentors Tony and Jen Silbert of Innovation Partners, who were the kind folk who connected me to Saul Kaplan and all the wonderful people at the Business Innovation Factory.) I was talking to a friend last night about all the interesting people I met and I couldn’t talk fast enough to keep up with my memories.

Anyway, even as a retired CIA person, I still need to get public or published comments approved if they deal with subjects pertaining to my CIA employment. And so this forced me to actually write out a draft of my extemporaneous comments to submit to the publications review board. You can catch the differences (not that significant) between what I wrote and what I said here, where you can download the MP-3 file of my remarks. So I thought I would post that text below. I think particularly toward the last half there are some ideas I rushed through or omitted that might be of some interest. I’m sorry it’s so long…

TALK BEGINS

My hope is that 15 minutes from now you will have developed your own answers to the following three questions or at least be provoked to think about them.

The questions are:

1.  Is the perception of the CIA in the popular media accurate, distorted, and/or useful to the organization and US national security?

2.  What is the motor that runs the world? Is it the secret agreements and machinations of men (and historically it’s been men) getting together in smoke-filled rooms generally up to no good; or, Is it the large dynamic and trends that emerge on the planet from God knows where and set in motion events that elude our attempts at prediction and manipulation.

And

3.  Are we the world?

So question 1. The perception of the CIA. Now first I have to tell you that I hate spy fiction and spy films and I even dislike nonfiction about the topic, so I’m not the best person to have an opinion as to whether the common perception out there is accurate. But I can tell you a little bit about my early days at the Agency. That’s a start.

Unlike many young people I’ve met over the years, I never dreamt of working for the CIA. As the first person in my extended family to graduate from college, I of course had no idea what I was supposed to do with the degree I was earning but because I was a college debater I’d always assumed I would be a lawyer. Until at Catholic University I started meeting law school students and went “OOOO….I don’t want to end up anything like them.” At that point I was at a loss. The only thing I was really interested in was the world, and so I thought well, I’ll go to Georgetown for graduate school. And so I did and the first semester there was a CIA recruiter on campus and I said sounds good. That’s the sum total of the story.

Now when I first joined the Agency, in 1978, it wasn’t what we would call a very diverse environment. (and even today Agency leaders are not satisfied with the level of diversity in the organization.) In later years I would tell people that I used to wander the halls searching for another Latino or Latina, because someone had told me there was another Puerto Rican working in the Agency and I was determined to find that person. Now that story is not specifically true, but it is generally accurate, if you get my drift. I used to get strange comments, like people in a conversation suddenly volunteering, in a culinary non sequiter,  how much they liked Mexican food or assuming that I would only want to work on Latin America. But for the most part, the Agency environment was a meritocracy, specifically I can say that about the analytic directorate where I worked, and I can’t point to any particular issues. In fact, when I would speak on college campuses kids were always asking me to comment on how being a woman and Latina affected my career, and I always told them the truth, that neither had as near the effect as being a different type of thinker—but I’ll talk more about that later.

I soon learned that most of the work at the Agency was, well, like the work at any other knowledge organization, although of course we didn’t use that term then. (By the way, given the malodor in which managers and management are generally held, I just don’t understand why consultants banded together and decided they could make a lot of money pitching organizations on Knowledge Management, but I digress.) True, the CIA is by law responsible for carrying out covert actions, an activity that, for my taste, assumed a heck of a lot about the planning abilities and foresight of the average American, whatever, but for some time now great powers (another term I rather dislike) have assumed they needed the ability to do some things secretly to make their way around this big, blue planet and, rather endearingly, the US decided to give this activity a legal structure. But much, most of what most Agency employees do has very little to do with covert action. It has to do with trying to make sense of the world, and trying to gather information about the world that others would rather us not know, so it’s a bit like trying to figure out what Steve Jobs is going to do next at Apple. But for the press the CIA is like the Lindsay Lohan of government. No matter what we do, how insignificant or banal really, it makes headlines and it’s always bad. “CIA uses solar-powered lawn mowers!!” Ridiculous!! I guess stories about the CIA sell newspapers, if anyone bought them anymore. I had a colleague at the Agency, wonderful fellow, who started every morning reading multiple newspapers (and he also has his office decorated with Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia, so you know the type—salt of the earth.) And for the last six or seven years, I would stick my head into his office and say, “You know, newspapers are dying.” It was really mean of me.

So this is a good point to start making the segue to the second question, which as you recall has two parts. So I’ll repeat them.

What do you think is the motor that runs the world?

Is it the secret agreements and machinations of men (and historically it’s been men) getting together in smoke-filled rooms generally up to no good or

Is it the large dynamic and trends that emerge on the planet from God knows where and set in motion events that elude our attempts at prediction and manipulation.

So right about now, I’m going to start connecting my comments to the topic of innovation, which will be very exciting, I think.

So my point in asking you to think about this question is that how you choose and/or what reality is tells you a lot about what kind of intelligence organization you’ll need. If you think that the world is driven mostly by the secret deals and aspirations of powerful people—the Hitlers, the Communist Party of the Soviet Unon, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, I’m desperately trying to think of a likely woman here—then you will conclude that you need some kind of capability to figure out what these people are doing, to ferret out their secrets. To protect our nation from some very nasty ideas these individuals cook up. And you may also want an organization that can impede their plans, cross your fingers.

But if you think that most of the forces the US will need to navigate are not specifically man-made, or at least not specifically made by one man or a small group of them–then you need a different kind of organization. If what matters is that the US understand the trends in the world, like globalization or the emergence of new economies such as India and China and Brazil (which clearly no one is like trying to keep a big secret) than spending a lot of time digging out secrets seems not as important, and what you really want is to have your hand on the pulse of the world, to be out there sensing and in many ways just being part of the whole big ride.

Now of course the question is a false dichotomy, because it is not either/or, and both dynamics can exist at the same time. But what is critical for understanding the CIA and why I spent my last 20 years there as a frustrated innovator, is that much of the Agency’s theology and modus operandi are built on the first assumption. This was the driving principle in the Cold War—countries hostile to us are planning to destroy us and do us harm and we’ve got to get out there and figure out what they’re up to. And of course it’s a Mad Magazine Spy vs. Spy world and the bad guys are trying to figure out what you know, so you have to be secret about everything, be very, very quiet, and trust no one.

It’s all very tiring but it was all very important up until about 1990 or so, which curiously, now that I reflect back on it, was when I published my first article in Studies in Intelligence arguing that we needed to do analysis in new and different ways. We needed to recognize that policymakers often knew as much about the open world as we did and that these newfangled operations like CNN were providing news faster than we could and well we needed to adjust. And then the internet came along and the Agency was really thrown for a loop. One has to understand that for intelligence organizations how one handles information is not a secondary or enabling activity. Handling information is the essence of our mission so that changes here are doctrinal and theological. Well, of course, we had a really hard time figuring out what to do, and I would argue we are still having a hard time.

This period, the 90s, ended up being the most difficult of my Agency career because it just became harder and harder for me to reconcile what I believed needed to be done with what the Agency was actually doing. There was a small group of us that I in any case referred to as the Rebel Alliance. We tried to raise the Agency’s awareness of how the world was changing around it, we would bring in guest speakers to talk about Change—how naïve it all seems in retrospect. During this time, and I’m afraid this is a danger all innovators run, I began to get the reputation of being cynical and negative…positive thinking has its limits, you know. During a reception up in NYC around then, I was approached by someone who had been watching me, I remember she worked for DuPont, who said. “I can see you are a heretic in your organization. And I just want to tell you that you need to learn to live with the feeling of discomfort all heretics get. In fact you need to learn to be comfortable with these feelings of discomfort. Not just comfortable, you need to learn to like, love them, because when you get those feelings then you can be sure you are being true to your convictions.” I never spoke to this person again and I’m convinced she was one of the two guardian angels I’ve encountered in my life. (If you want to know the other one, catch me later!!)

Despite all this doom and gloom, I spent the last ten years or so of my Agency career as a senior executive—and ended up in positions of increasing responsibility. I wish I could tell you exactly how I as a heretic innovator managed to succeed in the system anyway, but part of it was just sticking to it, many good friends and mentors—especially reverse mentors, and that extremely important variable in all plans—luck. By 2005 I was part of the executive team that led the analytic Directorate, the Directorate of Intelligence. Very soon after I assumed that position, a young man and his manager approached me about an idea they had at that time to use the media wiki software to create an Iraqipedia so that analysts throughout the Intelligence Community could collaborate and work together on the problem set. I thought what a great idea but did they know that the Agency was OK with using collaboration software as long as you only collaborated with people within the Agency. No, they didn’t, they said. And I said that was OK because I doubted anyone in the bureaucracy realized any longer this stricture existed so let’s proceed, full speed ahead. (It never ceases to amaze me how bureaucracies create rules at a rate no human can ever remember, not even bureaucrats.)

So that was my small role in getting Intellipedia started, which is still viewed by many as the most important adjustment the intelligence community has made to the Internet Age. Nothing came easily and I remember Sean and Don, the two heroes who ended up pushing the concept throughout the intelligence community and winning last year one of the Service to America awards given to outstanding civil servants, often asking in frustration if we couldn’t just MAKE everyone use Intellipedia. To which I said, wrongly or rightly, no, we can’t. I happen to believe organizational change is a lie—organizations don’t change, people do, and each person changes for particular reasons of their own. You can’t make people think differently. You can create an environment where they can have a Eureka moment. You can MANIPULATE them into thinking differently. But you can’t FORCE the issue.

Not only that, many in the intelligence community then, and perhaps now, didn’t think ideas such as Intellipedia were such good ideas in the first place. Virtues of Intellipedia such as transparency don’t sound too hot to intelligence professionals accustomed to clandestinity. The CIA and Intelligence Community also were hung up on the concept of authoritative views. National Security intelligence is just too important to be handled through collaborative processes, they would argue. During this period I came to the exact opposite view. Making sense of the world is so hard and so important that it demands collaboration with as broad a network as possible. It was around this time that this thought entered my mind: The CIA will end up being the last secret organization in the world. And being the last of anything is never a good thing.

And so back to the question. I actually think the answer to it is very complicated. But I do believe that more of what will be important to US prosperity in the future will lie in the second dynamic and our success will depend on how well we understand these large shift changes underway and are able to engage them. Here’s where the imbalance of the Intelligence Community really can hurt us. To deal with the first circumstance it’s important to be a closed network. But to understand and prosper in the second dynamic it’s best to be an open network.  What we have here is a real innovator’s dilemma.

Which brings me to the last question: Are we the world? In the immediate aftermath of WWII, the US was 50% of the world economy. We also make a big deal of how we led the world in innovation, but of course most of that was probably just a function of our size. So during the Cold War we dealt with the world as if we were the world. We called the shots. And that is the world our intelligence community learned to function in. Of course individuals were ready to share secrets with the US government because we were after all where the action was.

That world is ending very rapidly. The world to follow will be a good world too. A world in which the US will remain very influential and prosperous. But once the US represents, let’s say 10% of the world economy, which could happen in most of our lifetimes, the arithmetic of dealing with the world from a position of absolute strength sort of falls apart. Much of the American public, from what I can tell, doesn’t appear ready for this turn of events. We learn, as kids, that America owes its prosperity to its independence from the rest of the world. It is part of our founding myth. We also believe that the world and its problems scale to the capabilities of individuals or small groups of individuals, freely associating. So in a very real sense, Complexity is Un-American!

That’s why one of my passions now that I’ve retired from the Agency is to do what little I can to help Americans think about connecting, about working in open networks, about transparency. I believe as a successful multicultural society the US is poised to be innovative in this new world, and this time perhaps all out of proportion to our size. I love all social networks and in particular Twitter because of its power to spread ideas faster than the speed of light. Just think of it. One thought can reach a thousand people much faster than a single beam of light could physically touch those same individuals. I found myself a few weeks ago teaching a group of 20-somethings my Twitter secrets. This is nuts, I thought, but what a blast.

So there you have it. My last lesson: All organizations, no matter how reactionary or conservative, always have people in them thinking how we can be better.  All organizations need to find better ways to tap into what these individuals have to offer, because they often have an orientation to the outside environment that you may be lacking.

And for you frustrated innovators out there, form a Rebel Alliance. But remember, that optimism is the greatest act of rebellion.

Thank you.

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5 responses to “Lessons from a CIA Heretic

  1. A beautiful and inspiring speech. Can’t wait to hear the audio. I especially love the way you link worldviews (a few all powerful actors turn the world vs. emergent forces arising from millions of intricate moves turn the world) to closed vs open ways of understanding the world.

    The implicit reference to John Galt’s “motor that turns the world” (or runs it) also brought a smile to my face. A long time ago, when I was just 12 or so, my mother would tell me, “You’re going to invent the motor than turns the world.” I had no idea what she was talking about, much less that she was referring to Atlas Shrugged, but I loved the phrase and the idea.

    Now many years later, I understand the description in its metaphorical sense, and I am still working at least on understanding the motor of emergence that has turned the world for eons. It’s good to meet fellow travelers (joke intended) who are too.

  2. Pingback: Do We Have to Choose between Transparency and Real Authority? « RecoveringFed

  3. I have a similar feel after sitting on a small business BoD* for a few years. I found I could get more done being “The Board Whisperer” than direct challenges to long held opinions.

    * Less than 20K in assets.

  4. Pingback: Revisiting Lessons from a CIA Heretic | RecoveringFed

  5. Pingback: 24 | quietco

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