Disrupt the CIA! An Open Letter to Ms. Gina Haspel, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

 In CIA, Counterterrorism

Congratulations, Ms. Haspel, on your confirmation as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Just like past directors, you have an incredible mission—to lead one of the world’s pre-eminent intelligence agencies. I would really love for you to succeed in this endeavor. I have penned this letter in the hope you will look at the agency anew—and have the courage to address problems that have plagued the CIA for decades.

I was honored to have served my country for ten years in the CIA also focused on the counterterrorism mission. Unfortunately, I believe that when the CIA succeeds, it succeeds “in spite of itself.” Given the many challenges the CIA currently faces at home and abroad, here are a few things you may wish to consider as you determine your priorities as director:

  • Change management focus. CIA directors tend to “manage up.” They are focused on maintaining good working relationships with the White House, DNI, and oversight committees. Obviously, that is important. But what would really change the game is for the CIA is to have a director with an employee focus.
  • Don’t wall yourself off from the workforce. If you want to know what’s happening in the agency, don’t ask your leadership team. Bring in new employees, mid-level staff, and operators at different ranks returning from the field. Give them a safe space to discuss how administrative issues and operations are really going. Actively seek insights on morale. Management will tell you what you want to hear and you’ll think that’s the whole story; it rarely is.
  • Look creatively at the CIA’s hiring practices. Develop strategic initiatives to identify and hire people with significant cultural expertise, language skills, and overseas experience. In order to be the best, you’ve got to hire the best (and then you’ve got to retain them). The CIA remains disadvantaged by a lack of diversity and it will take a focused and sustained effort to move us where we need to be–a more diverse and better-prepared workforce.
  • Develop better platforms to get closer to our targets and satisfy our collection requirements. The current models are outdated and the bureaucracy is so bloated that it’s hard to change direction, be creative, and think outside the box. Your leadership is critical because moving the Titanic requires not only operational changes but significant hiring and administrative changes and careful coordination with other intelligence agencies. But if ever we need to be creative in government, it is in the intelligence sector.
  • Institute a meaningful leadership training program for Chiefs-of-Station. Make your expectations clear: if you are in charge, you are to be a real leader. Expect COS’s to lead by example and mentor others. Please ensure they don’t see these assignments as a chance to be “king of the hill,” finally in charge and accountable to no one.

I withered under the incredibly poor leadership of one manager after another. Not one COS sat me down to find out what my expertise was or what I brought to the table. Not one manager abroad—in my multiple overseas assignments–endeavored to figure out what I brought to the table in order to harness it more strategically. The COS’s I served rarely understood their field staff, assuming we were all the same.

The hostile work environments they created pushed out numerous employees who were willing to risk their lives for their country, but could not take repeated abuse at the hands of their superiors. (One was placed in charge of a war zone after 9/11. Stories about him are have rippled through the staff for decades—He berated officers. He cursed at staff. He threw things. His behavior indicated that he was emotionally unhinged and mentally unstable. What exactly did he bring to the table that made it worth having him there? None of the hundreds/thousands of people who worked for him could figure it out. Unfortunately, this management style was not an aberration.)

If a Chief-of-Station alienates his employees, it’s highly likely he or she has alienated other U.S. agencies and foreign partners. It’s like hiring an ambassador that doesn’t have any relational skills. Continually sending these guys out to manage people and relationships seems to have done more damage than good.

  • Implement better training programs to build knowledge and hone the skills of mid-level employees. There is a significant gap between tradecraft training in the beginning of our careers and leadership training at senior levels. I recognize that this is difficult to implement because of the press of business. There are only so many hours in the day, and I’m the first to say how over-worked the CIA’s workforce is—especially in the field. But a little bit of training goes a long way. It’s worth the investment.

I wish you the best, knowing the incredibly challenging road that you face. Contrary to the current media focus, your biggest challenge isn’t the political chaos in Washington, D.C. If you want to improve the CIA, you’ve got to focus on your best and most important resource–the people who work for you. And that’s a topic rarely discussed—in or out of the CIA. America deserves better and you have the rare opportunity bring the CIA out of the management practices of the 1950’s and into 2018.


*** This article has been reviewed and approved for publication by the CIA’s Publication Review Board.

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