Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

CIA service and sacrifice will continue, no matter who is sitting in the White House

“She should be back by now,” I thought as I paced the cold tile floors of the walled compound in a dangerous foreign capital.

LANGLEY, VA - JANUARY 21: US President Donald Trump speaks at the CIA headquarters on January 21, 2017 in Langley, Virginia .  Trump spoke with about 300 people in his first official visit with a government agaency.  (Photo by Olivier Doulier - Pool/Getty Images)
LANGLEY, VA - JANUARY 21: US President Donald Trump speaks at the CIA headquarters on January 21, 2017 in Langley, Virginia . Trump spoke with about 300 people in his first official visit with a government agaency. (Photo by Olivier Doulier - Pool/Getty Images)


By David V. Gioe
Best Defense guest columnist

“She should be back by now,” I thought as I paced the cold tile floors of the walled compound in a dangerous foreign capital. “It’s getting late.”


By David V. Gioe
Best Defense guest columnist

“She should be back by now,” I thought as I paced the cold tile floors of the walled compound in a dangerous foreign capital. “It’s getting late.”

My wife was a CIA officer whose facility with the Arabic language landed us in that assignment. As the clock dragged from nine, 10, 11 PM, I tried to suppress the increasing feelings of dread and keep my imagination from running wild with all of the things that can go wrong while operating in foreign countries. Once she was three hours overdue, I was getting frantic. “Should I go out and look for her? Should I notify our chain of command?”

I had full confidence in her operational tradecraft, her judgment, and her ability with the weapons we carried. But still, CIA officers have an adage that “Murphy is never far from you” — as in Murphy’s Law: If something can go wrong, it will. CIA officers fight Murphy on a daily basis. We plan for him; we expect him. Trains run late, flights get cancelled, your source shows up at the wrong time, and your technology never works when it’s supposed to. But nothing is as bad as wondering if your wife is okay, fearing the worst, and feeling powerless to do anything about it. The clock ticked languidly.

Everything wasn’t okay. She’d been on her way back, driving a low-profile armored car, when she suddenly noticed several cars following her, in a distinctively threatening way. She sped up, took a few sharp turns and continued to see them. She knew the city well. It was our job to know the operating environment well, and cat and mouse was all part of the game. Continuing down ever-smaller side streets into some alleys, she was finally cornered in a dead end. The surveillance cars were right behind her. She didn’t stick around long enough to find out who they were. Executing a tight K-turn, she broke free, got to the main streets and hurried back to our compound.

The country itself was headed off a cliff. We knew it, and we tried to warn Washington. While Washington became increasingly concerned and lavished attention and resources on our small office, the local elites just wanted to make one last trip into the metaphorical vault to get the money out before the bank burned down. It was frustrating to witness, and on more than one occasion I rhetorically asked why my government should care more about their country than they did. The amounts of money we poured in would have done wonders for our public schools back home in the States. Our efforts to stabilize the country weren’t working, and were probably hopeless anyway.

Things were getting more precarious all the time. We had been already been attacked twice at the secure compound. Once a car bomb had decapitated its driver, whose head flew through the sunroof, over a wall, and came to rest next to the bumper of my parked car. A few weeks before that, our lunch outside was interrupted by mortar fire. We ran inside, leftovers still warm in their Tupperware on the table. Other officers were rattled by similar close calls. One was evacuated for psychological reasons after a particularly harrowing experience. Not everyone survives similar assignments.

Jeffrey Patneau is represented by a gold star on CIA’s Memorial Wall. Although he always reminded everyone that his brother was in the Marine Corps, it was he who gave the last full measure of devotion serving his country. His colleagues packed up his things and tried to keep a stiff upper lip. One friend had a Christmas ornament made that year. “For Jeff,” it said. And his birth and death years were all that was inscribed on the delicate glass snowflake. Jeff was 26 years old.

CIA officers understand that we live in a dangerous world. Most of them report to work every day because of that fact. But they — and I — want the risks we took to mean something. We weren’t undertaking risk for its own sake; we did it because there was no other way to get information we needed. We had to steal it. I never thought, “I hope this pleases a policy maker.” I served under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but I didn’t want them to be pleased; I wanted them to be informed.

The day after his inauguration, President Donald Trump visited CIA headquarters. Much ink has been spilled over his remarks there, but CIA’s commitment to providing intelligence to the Executive Branch won’t change, nor will CIA officers abandon the mission. I can’t speak for the majority of the federal workforce, but I can offer a few insights after a decade of service in the intelligence community to help inform this debate. I doubt we’ll see a wave of resignations from the CIA, at least at the middle ranks — that is, those without enough qualifying service time to simply retire. Although the career is meaningful and lifestyle is good, officers resign for a myriad of reasons, but I can’t recall a single instance in which personal differences with political leaders were the root cause.

CIA officers are not a monolithic bunch. Some are introverts, some are extroverts. Some are Republicans and some are Democrats, although many or even most are fiercely independent like the Agency itself. They don’t care if they deliver unwelcome news; they care about what’s true.

Most importantly, they have analytical integrity. The analytical cadre fights bias like the operations officers fight Murphy. The CIA has no problem when a consumer challenges the assessments, but when the President suggests that the assessments were arrived at for political ends, it’s possibly the worst thing you can accuse the CIA of doing. In the business it’s called “politicizing” intelligence, and it’s considered a mortal sin.

But here’s the thing: Most CIA officers don’t apply to work for the CIA during administrations they favor, and they don’t resign during administrations they disagree with. They report to the president — and they report to work. Plus, they have other important customers. The military relies heavily on the CIA information, as do members of the wider intelligence community, even extending, when appropriate, to allied and partner intelligence services.

The CIA has enjoyed spectacularly low levels of attrition throughout its history, and its officers usually stayed for a full career. But continued service with the CIA isn’t purely about patriotism. There is also a healthy dose of personal preference thrown in. The lifestyle can be stressful, but there’s a lot of fun too. During hard days on the job, senior officers remind their juniors, “Where else can you do this? Where else can you break the laws of other countries, recruit spies, steal secrets, run covert action programs, and get paid for it?” It’s true. I did things that when I tell my son one day, he’ll probably just roll his eyes in disbelief.

From a personal perspective, I can say with honesty that I was never asked to do anything that compromised my ethics or values. That’s a good thing, because the days of top cover and circling the CIA wagons are over. A friend in the general counsel’s office once warned me, “You’re forgetting why we’re here. We’re not here to protect you; we’re here to protect the CIA. Buy personal liability insurance.” I did. It wasn’t expensive, but symbolically it felt like an acknowledgement that officers were on their own.

I miss working at the CIA as many days as I don’t. I teach military, intelligence, and cyber history to cadets at West Point. Many of my former CIA colleagues probably would have liked to share their feelings on these topics, but alas, their speech is circumscribed as a condition of employment. I hope here to have spoken for some of them, and so to help bridge an increasingly cynical public and the intelligence community that exists to serve it. I write to help the public understand what CIA officers might be thinking right now — under a new and unusual First Customer — and how they might be viewing their own past sacrifices, and the sacrifices yet to be made in uncertain political times.

David V. Gioe is Assistant Professor of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he also serves as the History Fellow for the Army Cyber Institute. He is a former CIA analyst and operations officer, and he holds a commission as a Foreign Area Officer in the Navy Reserve. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect any U.S. government position.

Photo credit: OLIVIER DOULIER – Pool/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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