An Open Letter to the CIA Director Nominee

Agenda Setter

One of President-elect Donald Trump’s first choices for his national security team was Representative Mike Pompeo for Director of the CIA.  A graduate of West Point and a Harvard educated lawyer, Pompeo is a three-term Republican Congressman from Kansas, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, and a strong advocate of aggressive counterterrorism programs.

Retired CIA officer and former Deputy Director of the DIA Douglas Wise offers some friendly, professional advice in an open letter to Pompeo.


I am writing this open letter to hopefully help and assist as you prepare for the most important role you will play over the next several years.  First, let me say congratulations on your nomination, having met you overseas and down on the Hill, I think you are a great choice.  Your military, private sector, political, and oversight Committee service have provided you a background of experience and knowledge of the Intelligence Community and the Agency that few incoming directors possess.  No matter how dark the days nor impossible the challenges, don’t ever lose sight of the fact that you’ve been given the opportunity to lead the most phenomenal agency in the U.S. Government.

For many of us, your joining the ranks of CIA professionals is similar to you marrying one of our siblings; you will face significant scrutiny and our expectations will be high.  We will expect you to treat the Agency well and respectfully before you are fully accepted.  While somewhat trite, the aphorism that leadership is a gift given by those you lead, is appropriate in your case.  The key to knowing you are worthy of this gift is to never lose your self-awareness.  Having served at the Deputy Director of the DIA, an agency remarkable in its own right, I am very familiar with how easy it was for me lose this self-perspective.  You can validate this gift by showing the Agency’s workforce that you are humble, you value them, you trust in their ability to execute your vision, you exemplify the core values of CIA, you actively seek out input from leaders and followers far from the 7th floor, and you are not afraid to face ideas which are not those of your personal staff or your own.   Another way to validate this gift is to show up alone, not with an entourage of personal staff, and by selecting your leadership from within.  Remember what they taught you at West Point, it’s not about the leader but about the command and the remarkable officers the commander is privileged to lead.

The first issue you will face is how you will manage the recent and significant restructuring of the Agency (“Modernization” in the intriguing vernacular of the current Agency leadership).  Modernization bears some similarities to Communism; in theory both are great, but in execution they become less appealing and each requires the suppression of contrary thought and criticism.  Because of the extraordinary scale of Modernization’s restructuring, it will be hard to totally undo as some will suggest.  However, before you arrive, you must take a hard and intense look at the current organization to see what changes you must implement to reduce the layers of structure and redundant leadership, and make it about the Agency and not about what is more convenient for you.  You must focus not only on the benefits, but also the current and future unintended costs and impacts.  As part of this look, you must give voice to those current and former officers who have alternative thoughts and views on how to accomplish Modernization’s professed goals of better collaboration between the Agency’s directorates.  This is an extremely critical issue, and how you approach it will set the tone for your service as the CIA Director.

You will need to establish the role of your Deputy. The Deputy can be your Deputy, or the Deputy Director of CIA.  In practice, your Deputy must be both, and it will be critical that you keep these roles in balance. Since you are arriving from the outside, I strongly recommend you hire from within CIA.

You must refocus the Agency on what makes it unique and codified in Executive Order 12333:  the aggressive, clandestine collection of intelligence.  The CIA must not be the intelligence version of the Salvation Army bell ringer, where we stand and wait for information to be deposited into the kettle for subsequent analysis.  The operational role of CIA is unique in the U.S. Government, and as former colleague and Cipher Brief Network member, John Sipher said, some information may never be given nor shared, and we must use the tradecraft of espionage to acquire it in order to inform policy.  You will have to assess whether the homogenization and pasteurization of functions under Modernization has eroded this nationally-critical ethos.   I believe it is possible we have dulled the edge on our operational knife, and you must return clandestine operations to its position as a top priority for the entire Agency.  

The Agency must do a better job at collaboration and cooperation within the IC and with other agencies, departments, and institutions important to the Agency’s mission. I recommend you pay particular attention to the Agency’s relationships with the operational and intelligence organizations of the Department of Defense.  As the scale of major combat shrinks, the opportunities for DoD civilians and warriors to serve together with a shared mission will also shrink.  Shrinking with it will be the instinct to cooperate and collaborate, which will be necessary as CIA and DoD elements operate together across the globe.  You should also look at whether CIA has the right relationships with academia, think tanks, and the national laboratories. 

As I stated earlier, the magic of CIA comes from the magicians not the institution.  To grow this magic, CIA must have a diverse workforce in order to be relevant and effective.  The current Agency leadership has put a priority on diversity for its leadership, followership, and recruiting of talent from across the nation, which has set the example within the IC and the U.S. Government.  You must continue this momentum and invest in every opportunity to acquire the diverse skills, talent, imagination that the Agency will need to face the challenges of the future.

There is another sensitive issue within CIA and that is its dependence on contractors.  Since 9/11, CIA has seen a necessary growth in the number of contractors it has needed to perform functions as diverse as the functions within the Agency itself; we had no choice as we had a critical mission to do, and we needed the capability to do it. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have been extremely well served in all four of the stations I have had the honor to be the Chief.  Contractors have not only provided critical operational, technical and support services to my stations but many of my contractors were former senior members of the Directorate of Operations and their mentorship, coaching and wise counsel served me exceptionally well.  That said, it will be enlightening and useful for you to ask for an inventory of the contractor workforce within the Agency.  In the aggregate, you will find they are the “hidden directorate” and comprise a significant portion of the overall workforce.  What this should tell you is a story not of fraud/waste/abuse, but a clear message that the Agency remains dangerously too small for the mission it has been given.  CIA will need your Congressional experience and relationships on the Hill to help grow the number of employees to better match the mission obligations.

The story of the Agency’s role in protecting our Nation from the terrorist threat can never be fully told.  However, it has been an extraordinary role and one that has saved thousands of American and allied lives often at the extraordinary cost of the lives of CIA officers, contractors, and detailees.  Like many issues, these counterterrorism successes didn’t come without compromise; either financial redirection or redirection of attention from other intelligence priorities.  It is a zero-sum game the CIA leadership has to play.  You will serve at a time when many of the terrorist threats will have dramatically mutated, many will remain the same, and we are seeing the rise of near-peer threats from traditional and non-traditional adversaries.  It will be critical for you to define what is an existential threat to the United States, and whether the threat to the nation from terrorism is on par with destructive potential posed by China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction weapons.  As you already know, none of them are equal and none of them are static, but the answer to the question of which threat can destroy our way of life will drive how you align CIA against these challenges. 

Having said all the above, let me repeat what I said first.  You are about to set upon a remarkable journey with a most remarkable workforce.  I will bet a number of your predecessors believed they really understood the institution but found upon arrival they had only scratched the surface in terms of how extraordinary is the CIA.  I predict that even with your recent service on the HPSCI, you will undergo a fascinating period of discovery as well.  My final bit of advice is to trust your leaders and your followers, believe in the Agency’s core values, lead with strength and compassion, and lead wisely.  Those still in government, and those of us out, stand ready to help you and invest in your success. 

Mike, welcome to the family. 

V/r, Doug

Agenda Setter
Tagged with:

Leave a Reply