A perspective for those considering a career in the intelligence community


What would a former intelligence community (IC) ‘customer’ tell prospective members of the IC? I had the opportunity to share some thoughts along those lines a few weeks ago when I was honored to be invited to serve on a panel moderated by former Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair.

The panel, entitled “Encounters with Intelligence: Practitioners’ Perspective,” was part of the “Intelligence in the National Security Context” conference celebrating the Triangle Institute for Security Studies’ 60th Anniversary.

Each panelist was asked to make some brief preliminary remarks to initiate the discussion. Here are my slightly edited initial comments as prepared for delivery: 

I’d like to thank TISS for allowing me to share a few thoughts about my experience with the intelligence community during the course of my career as an Air Force military lawyer or judge advocate (“JAG”).

Admiral Blair asked us to address why we chose a career in the national security field. In my case I joined Air Force ROTC in the late 1960s when the Vietnam War was in full force. At that time most young men expected to find themselves in Vietnam sooner rather than later, so that – as well as the specter of the draft – made the idea of becoming a military officer an attractive one.

However, I never went to Vietnam. When I finished my undergraduate degree I received a scholarship from Villanova University to attend law school there, and by the time I finished in 1975, the war was over. A number of alternatives to fulfilling my active duty service commitment from ROTC arose, but in a fit of good judgement, I decided to serve my four years – hopefully to “see the world” in that period.

Although I was certain at that time I was going to only do the four years, I found I enjoyed the moving around – and I liked the nature and variety of the work. Most of all, I enjoyed the people. Being part of something larger than yourself gives life more meaning, and serving others is a special kind of reward.  The military isn’t for everyone, but it very much suited me. One assignment led to another, and before I knew it, I had almost 35 years in uniform.

In terms of preparation, I would say that for the long haul, the value of a liberal education cannot be overstated. There are so many times when you have to make “gray area” decisions based on imperfect information that the benefit of having studied history, philosophy, theology, political science and so forth becomes clear. Those disciplines help give a framework in which to productively think about problems and devise imaginative solutions.

These days I do think some orientation to – and understanding of – technology is indispensable for everyone but especially for those involved in the intelligence arena. Most important, however, is a commitment to life-long learning. You will never know all you need to know, but the more you do know, the better understanding you have of what you don’t know. In my experience, having a good grasp of what you don’t know really is a key to success.

During my career, I was mainly a consumer of intelligence, and the intelligence entities with which I worked were generally outstanding, to include particularly during my assignment at U.S. Strategic Command  or STRATCOM.  STRATCOM is, as many of you know, the command responsible for nuclear deterrence and, at that time, the joint command most focused on cyber-related matters.

Saudi Arabia (Operation Desert Fox, 1998)

Of course, when the use of force is involved, the intelligence products you get are especially vital. You seldom will have all the information you ideally might want, but I think the intelligence community did a really great job with a lot of very hard problems. The reality is that many of the intelligence capabilities people see on television and in the movies don’t actually exist, or don’t exist with the fidelity screen writers imagine they do.

Accordingly, I think it’s incumbent upon intelligence professionals to understand that they will need to be constantly explaining not just the intelligence product itself, but the capabilities and their limitations of sources and methods.  The consumer, at least to some extent, needs to understand the way in which the intelligence product is developed in order to make the right kind of decisions.  Clearly, the intelligence officer needs to be a skilled educator.

In that respect the way tin which he intelligence product is presented is vitally important. Occasionally, one gets the sense that the intel briefer is bent upon showing everyone how smart he is, and how essential he is, so he tends to obfuscate the point he is trying to make. That doesn’t help anyone.

Moreover, much as is the case in the legal profession, clients of the intelligence community hunger for definitive statements, not a “maybe this, maybe that” approach. While it is important to qualify analysis when you need to do so, give as definitive an opinion as you can when you can.

You’ll be wrong sometimes (not too often hopefully!) but you’ll be valued greatly if you present options but take a position. That said, you have to remember – as lawyers must as well – that ultimately it is the “client” who will decide what to do (or not do !)– with the advice you render. Be aware that commanders and other leaders may have insights and experiences that shape their view, but which you do not have.

I also think you need to be studiously apolitical. In this respect, I believe that some of the former leaders from the IC have not done those still serving any favors by publically taking partisan positions in today’s hyper-polarized political world. Though I don’t have data on this, my impression is that there are more than a few people who no longer consider the IC to be apolitical, and that’s not a good thing in either the near or long term.

From my perspective, one of the most difficult challenges for the intelligence community today is the need to balance protecting sources and methods with the necessity in a democracy to keep the public informed.

For example, lately we’ve seen a lot of angst from commentators, academics, and others about the recent decision to rescind part of an Obama-era executive order that required the public disclosure of what was, in essence, a “body count” of combatants and civilians killed in operations outside of what are called “active areas of hostilities.”  

I’ve been in a lively debate with a number of self-described “transparency advocates” about this action in an effort to explain to people how misleading body counts can be when disclosed in isolation from the many other factors which are indispensable to determining the legality – and, really, effectiveness – of the strikes which caused the casualties. Raw figures simply cannot tell you whether, as the law requires, the civilian losses were “excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated.

The IC is understandably concerned that revealing what military advantages might have been anticipated – as well as the number of civilian losses that were expected – could very well tell an adversary much about our sources and methods. At the same time, however, a democracy needs to have information about what is being done in its name, particularly with reference to the use of force. We need to figure out the right way to get the pubic the data it truly needs without compromising security and mission focus.

In a way, the problem is exacerbated when it comes to developments in the cyber world. Cyber intelligence can be highly-perishable – a one-time use, perhaps – and that can cut two ways. From one perspective, the IC has the unique opportunity to exploit – now or in the future – a vulnerability revealed by cyber intelligence. Yet in another way, keeping the intelligence about a vulnerability classified may make the risk to America and its allies quite significant.

Furthermore, the U.S. is – for the moment – in a position to set international norms with respect operations in cyberspace, so we need to decide quite carefully if we want to forego opportunities to do so in the name of secrecy.

In addition, the IC needs to grapple with the implications of Big Data. We have the technological ability to gather and store an enormous – unprecedented really – amount of data. Putting aside for a moment the privacy and other legal concerns, consider the reality that to exploit – or “crunch” – the massive amount of data already requires algorithms and other autonomous systems. No human being can do it without the supporting technology. That requirement will only increase in the future, but we need to be constantly evaluating the implications of these technologies to ensure that they don’t lead us astray.

We can’t forget that the human dimension of intelligence, that is, of both the target and the analyst, cannot as yet be replicated – and to the extent anyone thinks it can be, that is, itself, a serious vulnerability in my view.

Nevertheless, I can think of few careers that could be more intellectually exciting or more important in the coming years than one related to national security intelligence. True, public adulation may not always come your way – even when you or your colleagues deserve it.

And, yes, criticism may come your way even when you don’t deserve it (and, for a variety of reasons, you can’t explain to the public why you don’t deserve it). That is the nature of public service, but when you get the end of your career, you’ll be able to look back with genuine satisfaction, knowing that you made a real contribution to the way of life of our great nation. Not everyone gets to do that – choose a life of meaning!



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