by Rick Boettger…….
Yes, they are all blitheringly incompetent: bureaucracies whose structure and leadership take the most talented individuals we have, 80+% of their employees, and sideline their work into a bureaucratic morass.
I don’t write much on international issues any more, having more than my fill of local crimes to cover. But I have a great deal of personal and professional experience with such agencies that I have not seen discussed in other media, so, hooray, I still have the Blue Paper to share my thoughts.
My first insight into the incompetence of the CIA was after I left the Army Security Agency. I had my top secret clearance, MIT background, early promotion for proficiency in Russian, and was a natural to go into operations. Fortunately, I read three books by disgruntled former CIA agents, most prominently Philip Agee (Inside the Company), which convinced me the agency took people like me and Philip and discouraged us from doing good work in favor of filling out ass-covering forms.
Sure enough, if I had joined, I would have been killing Contras in Nicaragua. Thank God for Agee! Since then we have all seen their incompetence on the world stage. We “beat” Communism not because of the CIA, but despite them. They were outmaneuvered by the KGB at every level, worst being the betrayal of dozens of our Russian operatives by Aldrich Ames. Read Legacy of Ashes. Six hundred pages detailing their failures over the last fifty years.
They never saw the fall of communism coming. This despite my prime Berkeley mentor’s work on Gorbachev. My first published academic piece was co-authoring with Phillip Tetlock, probably the world’s pre-eminent social psychologist currently, on the “integrative complexity” of Gorbachev’s rhetoric. Among world leaders, only South Africa’s De Klerk was as smart and able to see and integrate both sides of an issue. De Klerk, of course, brought down apartheid in South Africa. Gorbachev did the same with communism.
The CIA undoubtedly read our paper. Phil was a long-time analytical consultant for them. But evidently they ignored it.
Second is the FBI and the security clearances they vet. It took 9 months and around $10,000 of our tax dollars for them to approve me. They did not interview the people I cited on my application. They asked those people for other friends of mine. The only person I know they interviewed at length was a kid I only played chess with, our trading 1 and 2 on our school’s chess ladder. He was easily my weirdest “friend.” He was a dead ringer for Beavis in the South Park spin-off, and had a full collection of Nazi memorabilia filling his room at home.
But I had no background of marijuana use or homosexuality, the only things they really care about. I know this for a fact because a fellow PhD classmate at Berkeley, doing her dissertation on trust, got to attend a conference for the folks who do the clearance checks. She told me she was surprised at their weird obsession with these two issues. There is no empirical justification for this prejudice. NONE of the last half dozen CIA people who betrayed us had those “problems.” I consider the clearance worthless, and who cares if Trump’s kids get them or not.
Also, I taught a case study in my last year teaching business at Berkeley about a top private-sector “change agent” taking over the bureau to correct the errors of 9/11. The case study pumped her up as though expecting great change to come out of her intervention.
She quit a month after the case study was published. The entrenched bureaucracy stifled her at every turn.
That is why the FBI has let us down as badly as the CIA has. There is no 600-page opus detailing their near-criminal incompetence like Legacy of Ashes, but the list famously goes on back to Hoover’s surveilling America’s heroes. Most recently, they were given a report of the molester’s crimes by a brave 14-year-old who detailed them to the president of the American skating association. He seriously reported to the FBI, who told him and the girl not to say anything while they were doing their investigation.
As reported recently in the New York Times, they waited 240 days before even interviewing the girl. A dozen more were molested while they were dithering.
Of course, now at Parkland, we see them doing nothing about the obvious monster as well, joined by every other level of law enforcement. But they see themselves as SPECIAL Agents, the top dogs, and they are anything but.
Finally, the FBI and CIA share a “neo-institutional” (explained at end) brotherhood with the Foreign Service. My insider knowledge is that my uncle was an Arab specialist, ending up as Consul General at our biggest consulate, in Alexandria. I spent months with him there in 1983 and, earlier, in Jerusalem when he was Deputy Chief of Mission in the Sinai Peace-Keeping Mission in the late 70’s.
I saw up-close and personal why our State Department has become a vestigial organ, like an appendix. Think: what has our State Department accomplished under Madeleine Albright, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton? I submit to you, nothing. The reason is, it’s basically a bunch of people who write unread reports and have swell dinner parties with the cream of society wherever they are. My uncle’s critical skill was nursing a cocktail for three hours while telling innocuous short jokes.
Out of the respect I had for him then, after Jerusalem, I applied. My top score on their written exam got me into the five-candidate interview. This started badly as they did not even inquire about language fluency. I had both the good Russian and German as well. They don’t care. A dirty secret is that most suck at languages, and it makes them feel bad if you are good at it. After 20 years as an Arabist, my uncle spoke negligible Arabic, just a few common words out of casual respect. I did not wear a jacket to the interview, knowing from my experience in my uncle’s offices that they all took their jackets off as soon as they got in. The other four candidates wore jackets. I did not advance.
What has happened to turn these three organizations, who have their pick of candidates for their still prestigious and interesting jobs, but mis-manage these fine people into producing terrible work product for our country, was explained to me in my first year of PhD work at Berkeley. It was the then-new “Neo-Insitutional Theory” of W. Richard Scott at neighboring Stanford. Google it to have a richer understanding of the inexorable forces that cause our public bureaucracies to serve us so badly.
In brief, an organization starts off by serving a rational purpose, such as fighting crime. This fine purpose earns them resources, such as money and fine applicants. Originally they use these resources to do their job. But over time, the organization uses those resources to keep themselves in control of their activities and measures of performance. Instead of measuring crimes solved or prevented, they measure hours worked, blame avoided, processes like papers and studies produced.
They use what has become the “myth” of their rational purpose to support their own, un-fireable jobs. They do not want to change no matter how bad the outcomes. Think how the FBI and CIA both fatally screwed up 9/11, as detailed in a current TV miniseries, mainly due to protecting turf and refusing to share information. This was long ago proven. They are still just as bad at it.
If I were king, I would disband both of the agencies and rehire the bottom 80% into newly constructed organizations without the neo-institutional legacy of what we have today. It was my fondest hope that Trump could do this, redemption among the rest of the carnage. Of course, even he cannot.