Is mismanagement driving away some of the CIA’s best talent?

CIA headquartersBy IAN ALLEN | |
Poor management practices and a culture that tolerates blunders by senior officials are generating cynicism and disillusionment among employees at the United States Central Intelligence Agency, according to an internal study. Completed in 2010 by the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General, the study was released in heavily redacted form last week, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The Los Angeles Times, which filed the request in 2011, said the report identifies mismanagement and unaccountability among senior leadership as major factors contributing to the CIA’s “retention challenges”. It cites a 2009 Agency-wide anonymous survey, which found that around 12% of the CIA’s workforce was considering resigning. Over half of those said they wanted to leave because of “poor management and a lack of accountability for poor management” among senior-level staff. This feeling is stronger among younger recruits, “who have exhibited high resignation rates in current years”, according to the report. Operations officers at the National Clandestine Service —the CIA’s covert-action arm— are also more disturbed than other Agency employees by perceived mismanagement. The report also notes that the CIA has failed to introduce mechanisms for encouraging accountability, in response to growing concerns by lower-level staff. The Times said it spoke to “more than 20 former [CIA] officers”, who said the 2010 report echoed “longstanding concerns about the CIA’s culture”. Indeed, the report appears to criticize the Agency’s leadership for its unwillingness to address similar concerns about disillusionment and retention, which were raised in a similar report authored in 2005 by the Office of the Inspector General. That report, which remains classified, warned that “complaints about bad management” by CIA staff were on the increase, but they were not being addressed. One former Agency employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told the paper that disillusionment over poor management practices tends to affect some of the CIA’s brightest young minds, who joined the Agency after the tragic events of 9/11. “The more adventurous people, the risk takers, tend to throw up their hands and leave”, he said.

11 Responses to Is mismanagement driving away some of the CIA’s best talent?

  1. legion says:

    When there is no functional oversight or accountability, then incompetence stops being punished. When incompetence is not punished, competence is no longer rewarded. When you have built an entire senior leadership cadre whose primary talent is covering up their own screwups, rather than actually succeeding at anything, you have the modern US intelligence system.

  2. Nice to see this post Ian. One thing the supposed ‘minders’ won’t dare mention (like the elephant in the living room) is ideologues in management. People like Patraeus and Brennan. And almost certainly the undercover identity (woman) running the clandestine service who’d acted on destroying the torture tapes (waterboarding.) I suppose ‘lack of accountability’ could be euphemism for a culture of impunity based on a simplistic ‘us against them’, black & white’, ‘good & evil’ mindset attending a neo-conservative ideology overtaken the agency backed by top figures in government.

    I’d posted the following in my own blog a couple of years ago (and reposted at my new blog on 4 May) the following observations:

    “Since 2001, in addition to historic causes for attrition in the ranks such as moving to private sector, there has been an accelerated phenomena of the ‘best in the business’ have been either leaving or have been driven out of the CIA over ethics issues. It would stand to reason Mossad has suffered from ideological attrition for a longer overall period. It would be logical this will the case with MI6 and other agencies as well. This process of attrition leaves more and more ideologically driven senior leadership, leading to poor strategic planning, as well less competence and experience in middle management planning and numerous green operatives. The resultant overall quality loss has been responsible for risks taken that were unthinkable in previous times and circumstance. The consequence is often embarrassing, even deadly.

    “One only need look at the “incredibly clumsy” rendition of an Egyptian cleric in Italy resulting in arrest warrants for 23 CIA operatives, or the “botched” attempted assassination of Kalid Meschal resulting in captured MOSSAD agents by Jordan, or Mossad’s blown Dubai assassination of the HAMAS operative where the target was killed but the agents were also badly compromised, just a few better known examples of numerous breakdowns in operations.

    “Only recently, a large American CIA operation had been taken down in Lebanon by Hezbollah and Iran due to poor discipline on the parts of the CIA handlers who’d been regularly meeting assets at Pizza Hut and Starbucks in Beirut, pointing to the quality of field operations degenerated to nearly amateur level” end quote

    I’ll be on hiatus for awhile, meanwhile keep up the good work!

  3. Peter Wallerberger says:

    Interesting comment Ronald – I guess many of these ‘issues’ could well apply to any Government department anywhere in the world ! They are not all unique to the C.I.A.

    It certainly is true that quite apart from the ‘brain drain’ when top staff leave prematurely,
    many that are left quite often are promoted almost by default to positions they would normally never attain and as such herein one finds “deeply entrenched individuals who possess skills mismatch” along with a serious deficit when it comes to managing staff and risk assessment etc.

    I am somewhat surprised by Ian Allen’s informative article. I thought that Leon Panetta was originally given the C.I.A post in order to ‘sort out the Rot’ , and address these very issues before they got any further out of control ? (The current situation is; putting it mildly, very ,very disappointing and somewhat frustrating.)

    I do believe that one also has to take note of the ‘generational gap’ between long serving staff in management positions and ‘ talented young recruits ‘. Todays youth is ‘wired differently’ and their sensitivities and values can often be either ignored or misunderstood by older more experienced staff. The trick is getting the correct ‘balance’ in this rapidly evolveing employment relations sphere. Get it right and the C.I.A will have a happy, loyal and empowered workforce.

    I can’t help but re-visit comments made by James Lewis a former senior official & cyber security expert who pointed out that in relation to private contracting ” It’s a risk because of the differing attitudes of generations”.

    One would presume that such meaningful observation was not in it’self just aimed at private contractors, it also applies to the staff at the C.I.A & N.S.A and countless other entities,
    ‘ignore it at your peril.’

  4. Pete says:

    More lately Snowden’s revelations about the CIA in Switzerland and about the CIA’s partner, the NSA, wouldn’t be helping CIA morale either.

    I initially doubted NSA actions were illegal but look at the autonomy NSA analysts have

  5. Peter Wallerberger says:

    There are two distinct issues here Pete.

    1./ Snowden has probably done everyone (who values democracy) a big favour by drawing attention to the serious irregularaties that exist within what originally was a system designed to combat terrorists. In that respect the sheer weight of public debate and political pressure will go along way to overhauling a vital security intercept system that appears to have become corrupted.

    Unfortunately “the way Edward chose to expose such endemic shortcomings was Wrong – in fact it was tantamount to treason” and continues to cause Reputational damage to not only U.S Government Agencies but it continues to ferment intra country political havoc and in general; by the end of the day, this is a destabilizing factor that the democracys do not need right now.

    In my view – Snowden’s fixation with “the means justifies the end” ultimately Transcends what good law abiding citizens of the world catagorize as ‘whilstleblowing’.

    2./ All politics aside – Mr Snowden has committed a number of serioius offences both while employed by the N.S.A and also later when working for B.Hamilton. There is no excuse for such conduct. His actions continue to destabilise and damage the reputation of the United States to a degree that it take many years to contain let alone repair.(This was what I meant when I earlier commented when Snowden was in Hong Kong – ‘This case is without Historical precedent ‘…………..’Hang onto your hats there’s worse to come’ etc )
    How ever one feels about what Snowden has done – make no mistake about it , Edward Snowden is a wanted Felon.( I’m confident that by the end of the day – the N.S.A will get their man.)

  6. I’m with Pete on this one. “Color of law’ is the term properly applied to the USA’s pursuit of Snowden. Color of law, in the USA legal paradigm, is assuming a legal authority of the state to pursue what are in fact illegal acts. Snowden saw massive violations of the American constitutional order and acted on what he saw, which is in effect a patriotic duty. When faced with a conflict between laws concealing crimes against the United States constitution and one’s oath to uphold the constitution or a related personal conviction, Snowden chose the latter. In the historic American philosophy of law, Snowden, at great personal sacrifice, chose the higher, principled path as opposed to buying into the constitutional violations.

    I see Snowden as fundamentally different from Bradley Manning whose leaking did not attack the core and fundamental rot undermining the rule of law. Other than the helicopter attack on civilians (a war crime) Manning’s leaks had not been grounded in solid legal ethics.

    On the other hand, Snowden’s revealing structures (as opposed to incidentals) has solid constitutional footing in the USA’s history, both per the free press and particularly in regards to upholding principles of ‘the rule of law’ (a term Obama routine and hypocritically employs in directing attacks at Snowden)

  7. Pete says:


    Snowden’s and democracy’s problem was that because the State made the NSA’s mass surveillance programs Top Secret attention could only be drawn to these programs by Snowden revealing them – an act that automatically breaks laws.

    Left to itself secrecy prevents or at least hinders any bureaucratic, legal or public examination of privacy and broader democratic rights downsides of these NSA programs.

    I’m less worried about the damage done to the US’s status and name in the world. If the US does the crime of spying on the its own citizens and foreigners (99.9% of whom are innocent of anything) then the US Government can do the time.

    In any case NSA employees and contractors will be paid more (taxpayers’ money) than usual for the extra hours of damage control needed to clean up the mess their political and bureaucratic bosses ordered them to make.


  8. Pete says:


    Yes I’m much in agreement with the distinction you draw between Snowden’s justification and the lack of justification for most (ie. the mindless publication of 100,000s of documents) of Manning’s efforts.

    Interesting to examine who did Snowden hurt? The good name of the CIA (such as those who entrapped the Swiss Bank official?) or the NSA?

    Have NSA counter-terrorist surveillance programs been demonstrably damaged? Would the hard-core serious terrorists use the net or cell phones or minimize use of electronic communications? as bin Laden minimized around 2001 if not earlier.

    If the US Government could by some measures demonstrate or argue actual damage rather than blaming all but itself for domestic political and international embarrassment caused, it might be more convincing.


  9. Kidd says:

    i don’t see how proper intelligence can be conducted in D.C. too many distractions. day to day office life, the politics of the office,in or out, it becomes a distraction . then the district outside social life. it becomes a game, family, parties, who to smooze. the top spot job now, is just a stepping stone resume builder. unfortunately, the job has its limitations. you can’t ride herd like the good ol’ days. you need a hoover.donavon.dulles type. one who scares the poo out of every whiny congress person, and is left alone to concentrate on getting the job done right. it’s been a long while since a true spook has run the show

  10. Trevintin kimse says:

    US is not a nation based on a “culture secret service” like Cuba,North Korea Former soviet block ,comunist nations…history shows that the secret service plus the army are the main dangers to every nations ,and tend eventually to hold power if the oportunities arises…..the case of US is a triumph,when a strong burocracy( and also may sometimes inneficient) keeps such state organs in place.

  11. Pete says:


    I agree the US isn’t as bad as examples you provide of extreme totalitarian dictatorships. The US is a democracy and the maintenance of a healthy democracy requires questioning rather than expected subservience in the face of threats to democratic freedoms.

    This concern is currently centred on the NSA but the CIA is involved in the NSA network and separately the CIA has its moments – for example

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