The U.S. Advantage in Intelligence may not be the Superpower you think it is

Opinion

Dr. David Charney has practiced psychiatry for more than 47 years. He is an Air Force veteran and a former referral consultant to the Central Intelligence Community. He served on the defense team for accused spy Earl Pitts and also worked with convicted spy Robert Hanssen. He is a recognized authority on insider threat inside the intelligence community and is the Medical Director at Roundhouse Square Counseling Center.

View all articles by David Charney

OPINION — World conditions are increasingly difficult. China heads everyone’s list as the most formidable of our four main antagonists for many reasons—but especially intimidating is China’s sheer population size—over four times greater than our own. That means China’s pool of the best and brightest from which all intelligence agencies wish to draw their workforce is correspondingly four times larger. If size matters and it’s partly a numbers game, things can begin to look bleak.

This disparity struck me last month, while attending the Cipher Brief Threat Conference. As a professional psychiatrist with expertise working with former insider spies (to include Robert Hanssen), I have attended countless lectures, events, and conferences both as a member of the audience and as a speaker, to learn more about the workings of the IC, pass along my findings, and network within the community. I was accustomed to seeing my fellow attendees and presenters as being almost exclusively men, most graying at the temples. 

This Cipher Brief Threat Conference was dramatically different. 

Not only were there many female attendees, but nearly all of the female speakers were women representing the very highest ranks of IC. These outstanding leaders were remarkably knowledgeable, articulate, and well informed. They exhibited detailed and sophisticated mastery of their respective areas of expertise.  This in itself isn’t shocking or new of course, so, why was I struck so strongly this time by the presence of so many top-level women? Was there a selection bias favoring more women invitees? Or at this moment in time, are there actually more extraordinarily impressive women within the very highest IC leadership ranks? A key take away for me from this conference in particular, is that there should no longer be any question that administrative and thought leadership within the IC has changed at the very top levels with respect to the increased leadership roles filled by women.

I’ve witnessed now, for a couple of decades, the cultural shift with women rising to greater levels of leadership in so many fields. In my own medical sphere, there are more female medical students now than men, and within my own practice, we’ve always had a preponderance of extremely competent women. This trend has been happening in the legal and other fields, too. So, it makes sense that at some point, equality at top levels had to emerge within the IC leadership ranks as well. It’s evolved from a simple difference in numbers to a difference in kind; it’s become a visibly new world. 


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As a male, I am not a member of the “sisterhood” that’s fashioning the new reality, women helping women to push through what’s been called “the glass ceiling.” I celebrate it. I very much want our best and brightest, men and women both, to populate the IC because they are our best hope for prevailing against our toughest antagonists. Women will swell our leadership ranks with the best and brightest—by at least double. Women are a force multiplier.

What about our antagonists? 

Here’s where our superpower comes in. 

Every one of our four main antagonists, China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are culturally not receptive or even hostile to respecting the contributions women can make. This holds true for most fields, and especially given our concerns, for the intelligence field. Our antagonists are stuck with traditional, old-fashioned views of what they believe are proper roles for women. Almost exclusively, men rule their roosts. As a result, our antagonists are wasting close to fifty percent of their assets. Since this mindset is based on ingrained cultural bias, it cannot be rapidly fixed. Good. This gives us a decided advantage in the brainpower sweepstakes.


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I would argue that while China still has its fourfold population advantage to draw from, our advanced cultural position regarding the role of women reduces this worrisome gap by about half. China dug the hole deeper for itself with its one-child policy but that’s another story. Instead of a four-to-one advantage, that still leaves China with roughly a two-to-one advantage. But we’re the USA—we’ll take those odds.

So, what’s our IC’s superpower advantage?

Our female leaders.

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Opinion

Dr. David Charney has practiced psychiatry for more than 47 years. He is an Air Force veteran and a former referral consultant to the Central Intelligence Community. He served on the defense team for accused spy Earl Pitts and also worked with convicted spy Robert Hanssen. He is a recognized authority on insider threat inside the intelligence community and is the Medical Director at Roundhouse Square Counseling Center.

View all articles by David Charney

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