Thursday, January 7, 2010

Let the CIA Make Mistakes

Bravo to David Ignatius and his article, “Bogged In Bureaucracy”. The key point in my mind was his point that the recent break downs in intelligence is a result of, “ intelligent managers (who) are eager for results but worried about risks.” With the Obama Administration, there was also a change in management philosophy; that mistakes will not be tolerated. As Ignatius pointed out, this leads to the reticence of CIA officers “to take responsibility for problem solving, rather than kicking them down to the next guy in line”. As a leader, you can either foster an atmosphere of blame laying and punishment, or “initiative and accountability”; the two are mutually exclusive. The reason is simple, people make mistakes; even very dedicated and experienced people make mistakes. Management can decided to either determine the cause of the mistake and attempt to fix it, or track down the person who made the mistake and punish them. If a CIA officer works in an atmosphere of blame laying and punishment, then they will not take responsibility for anything. In a blame laying culture, mistakes are not dealt with, they are covered up. To foster a culture of initiative and accountability, the CIA leadership must be prepared to protect their officers and create an atmosphere of trust. Only then, will officers put themselves on the line and take the chances that are necessary for exceptionalism; without risk taking, the result will always be mediocrity. The Yeman bomber was identified as a terrorist threat and put on a list, but not the “No Fly” list. This is because some bureaucrat decided that if the No Fly list exceeds 4000 names, it would be a violation of someones civil rights. Since the list is a zero-sum, a name must be removed from the list, before a name can be added and the only way a name can be removed from the list, is for the agency that placed the name on the list to take it off. The names for the No Fly list are chosen from a larger database called TIDE, that has 500,000 names and counting; the system is simply collapsing under it's own weight. What is needed is simple; any CIA agent should have the ability to recommend a name be immediately added to the No-Fly list. It should also be assumed by the intelligence agencies, that most of these expedited names will be subsequently removed, but the intelligence agencies need to be able to trust it's agents and not be afraid of pointing out the wrong person or generating a complaint. How do I know this will work? Well, it's what has been working in Israel for decades. It requires strong leadership and a high degree of trust in police officers and intelligence agents. It's a fix now, train later mentality instead of the finger-pointing, “it wasn't me”, culture we live to today; much to our detriment.

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