Sunday, Sep. 20th 2009

The Intelligence Officer’s Lament

While catching up on my fiction reading, I came across this observation by an experienced but cautious CIA headquarters man in Agents of Innocence by David Ignatius. Stone, a veteran of the CIA that was not burdened with senseless rules in the days immediately following World War II, counsels Tom Rogers, the novel’s protagonist, about the maddening bureaucratic nature of secret organizations like intelligence agencies:

“This is the life cycle of a bureaucracy. Supple in youth. Rigid in middle age. Weak and decaying in old age. Organizations are like any other sort of animal. Their strongest instinct is to survive and reproduce themslves. It may be that the problems are greater in a secret organization like ours, where the bureaucratic culture is sealed off from the outside. But they aren’t fundamentally different.”

“What do you suggest?” asked Rogers.

“Take risks. Lean against the wind,” said Stone. “Listen to correct advice and ignore incorrect advice.”

“How do you know the difference?”

“Let us order dessert, shall we?” said Stone.

Comment: And as Stone’s final comment suggests, theory and observations about a bureaucracy are easier to dispense than developing a workable plan to succeed in spite of the bureaucracy. Agents of Innocence is set in 1970s in Lebanon, but the observation that David Ignatius placed on the lips of his character Stone is still accurate.

The novel accurately describes the huge amount of detailed information demanded by a headquarters prior to recruitment of an agent and the narrow view of how agents are to be motivated and controlled that is held by some intelligence officers (especially those at a headquarters.)

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