Mini-Book Review — Jones – The Human Factor

Jones, Ishmael, The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture, Encounter Books, 2008, 383 pp.

This book is the career memoir of a former Marine and stock broker who entered the “non-State Department” clandestine service of the CIA and was a deep cover case officer from the ’90s through the late ’00s. It covers the story of his training, deployment, and activities overseas focusing on radiological and biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the course of tours in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Russia, and finally a “combat tour” in Iraq. Serving overseas with his wife and children under the cover of a “software solutions expert,” he contacted disaffected or bribe-able scientists and business-people from rogue nations. By casting his inquiries as commercial and academic opportunities, he was able to gather a steady stream of intelligence on WMD programs in the Third World.

The central theme of the book, however, is how staff at the home office (from top to bottom) either intentionally or inadvertently got in the way of his doing an effective job. Most authors are the hero of their memoirs but Jones does an admirable job of giving his pride in his accomplishments a reasonable airing without masking the real value of his book. The CIA is a large modern business with a primary mandate to stay out of the newspapers and off TV. How it does so is a tale both depressing and all too familiar.

Other reviews of this book have proclaimed Human Factor a rather boring recollection of examples of institutional ineptitude and better as a guidebook for potential employees than a useful description of the CIA but I feel this is in fact the most useful book on the CIA’s clandestine service since:

Orrin Deforest and David Chanoff, Slow Burn: The Rise and Bitter Fall of American Intelligence in Vietnam, Simon & Schuster, 1990, 294 pp.

David Atlee Phillips, The Night Watch: 25 Years of Peculiar Service, Atheneum, 1977, 309 pp.

which covered clandestine case officer activities, first person, in Vietnam and Latin America.

Like these two aforementioned titles, Human Factor focuses on the day-to-day challenges of being a covert case officer … the “teeth” in any intelligence organization. It is noteworthy that the Director of Central Intelligence has rarely, if ever, been one of those covert (non-State Department) officers. It’s as if your dentist was being overseen by experts in small-engine mechanics.

Ishmael recounts the minutiae of what reports he needed to write, the porous e-mail systems he had to manipulate, and the permissions he needed to gain. The timing and delays of decisions from Langley … the phrasing and terminology that was necessary to get anyone back in the US to allow any activity whatsoever. As a former stock broker, Jones was entirely comfortable with the challenges of “cold-calling” and dealing with “No” over and over again. But this wasn’t the case for his fellow trainees or for any of his superiors. At every turn, he was able to contrast his experience in the Marines (and military culture), and with Wall Street’s “make the call” ethos, with what he was experiencing as one of the most at-risk members of the Agency.

Across hundreds of pages comes the tale of a large, risk-averse organization that’s inherited all the ills and current nostrums of big business/big government with even less accountability than commercial or non-profit institutions. Less nefarious than profoundly dysfunctional (as the title suggests), the CIA is portrayed as an intelligence agency with a huge “tail” … an administrative/support organization that consumes vast funds without any noticeable contribution to foreign intelligence that the Executive (the President) can use. Obsessed with “off-sites,” diversity programs, human resources initiatives, continuing education, political correctness, and correct grammar in the paperwork … the CIA appears entirely familiar to anyone who’s worked for government or a Fortune 500 company. I have, and therefore I found this book a profound education on how not to run an intelligence agency. I also recognized many of the same “zoo animals” and tricks of the organizational trade that make for nasty office politics.

Those “derring-do”-obsessed reviewers of this book, who missed the cloak-and-dagger excitement of CIA “tell-all” books, have also missed the point. The Human Factor isn’t a guidebook for those who sincerely want to protect their country. Only a very “slow” individual could read this book and come away optimistic about their chances of doing that in the CIA … either as a CIA officer in the State Department program (the CIA embassy staff), or the much more vulnerable non-State Department program where Ishmael Jones struggled to stay safe and effective for many years.

No, Human Factor, by reverse engineering, is the perfect guide for those expensively-suited “climbers” found in every large organization. In this book, such useless mouths can discover the thousand ways that Langley (aka “HQs” in Jones’ book) can increase budget, perks, and underlings relentlessly while reducing the risk of getting in trouble, or doing anything of value. Oh, I suppose the feeble utility of the polygraph (“The Box”) is also highlighted to great effect — inadvertently giving us such lethal CIA traitors as Aldrich Ames and his FBI counterpart Robert Hanssen. Regrettably, Human Factor provides an entirely benign checklist for how to co-opt the organization in aid of whichever of the Seven Deadly Sins a “new hire” might aspire to. Lust, Greed, and Sloth make regular appearances.

Jones describes an organizational culture with outdated training routines drawn from the good old days of the European Cold War. And a headquarters that’s chock-a-block with “blown” agents or those simply too stressed, corrupt, or inept to be allowed out of the country. The organization was so backward in its accounting and provisioning that the author was often obligated to wait years for personal reimbursement, quietly advancing the government $200,000-300,000 of his own money to support his family and fund his intelligence contacts. To avoid being returned to career limbo in the US, Jones could never describe or discuss any personal health concerns, or those of his family, to Langley. He would never report any problems with his children’s education or squabbles with troublesome landlords. To admit any problems at all overseas was to be returned immediately and, often permanently, to a “bench” of other case officers in the US who never seemed to return to more active duty. Many would drift from the aimlessness of Virginia to complete disillusionment and leave the CIA. Of Jones’ initial entry class of trainee case officers, less than a handful made it into the field and none lasted as long as the author.

To accommodate the birth of one of his children, yet not risk the delicate timetable of paperwork associated with making an approach to a prospective agent, he queued up requests to undertake three other slightly risky operations. Knowing that Langley would be paralyzed by his ambition and take weeks to come to a “No” decision, he was able to stay home with his wife, welcome his new child, and promptly pick up with his actual intelligence work uninterrupted. The theme of his career was to act before asking permission, downplay the risk of all his activities, pass along a steady stream of intelligence promptly, never report any problems in his personal life or the financial strains caused by his lack of prompt reimbursement for operational costs. The final key to his career success was to never complain when other CIA agents from the US or the local embassy staff poached his intelligence sources after he’d proven such sources safe, low-risk, and productive. Make no waves, claim no credit, and keep supplying information.

When the US office wasn’t making life miserable, the local CIA embassy stations would go off the deep end. Jones recounts an amazing tale of the Italian CIA station proclaiming that hotels were difficult to book in the country from early Spring to late Fall … so intelligence operations would be halted during those seasons. HQ agreed. With the camel’s nose under the tent, other stations suddenly found new reasons to avoid doing anything. Not to be outdone, the Swiss station soon discovered that they also were unable to find adequate accommodation for their operations during summer. Soon the German stations decided that the impending World Cup activities in Germany should mean that they should suspend intelligence activities for months. And the French, through strategic embarrassment of the Paris embassy CIA staff had simply intimidated the CIA into conducting no intelligence activities in the country, at all, ever. After all, they’re “allies.” Surely one hopes such tales are exaggerations or apocryphal … but they certainly match perfectly with the mundane procedural habits of the organization described in other passages by Jones. Companies (of whatever sort) have a culture, nurtured by management and sustained by the rank-and-file. Once absorbed, such cultures are slow to change.

Jones was constantly having to protect his own identity … both from state-side disclosure and from vindictive exposure by CIA embassy staff where he was working and wherever his family might be living. At every point, a false accusation could be made against him that his cover was blown, without attribution or supporting facts. His successes could give rise to jealousies that would lead people to sabotage his career. They would simply make up reports that he was being followed. This would mean Jones would have to hop on a plane to the US to plant countervailing gossip in the head office pipeline and make the rounds of managers to ensure that he could continue working “deep cover.”

All par for the course in a big corporation, of course. Sabotage, self-dealing, physical and mental illness, outright fraud and theft. It’s all there. But theoretically, officers such as Jones were to be discovering WMD and preparing their country for dealing with them. As we read of Jones’ activities through the late ’90s and through 9/11, it’s clear that both Presidents Clinton and Bush were ill-served by the CIA, when they weren’t being actively sabotaged. In some cases, permission for Jones to act was delayed … and by his own account this lead to President Bush and Condoleezza Rice working with less information than absolutely necessary at crucial points during the War on Terror.

Most appallingly, after 9/11, the Clandestine Service received a huge boost in funds but in secret was purging its non-State Department deep cover case officers and returning them to Langley. By Jones’ account, there were actually fewer case officers at work overseas after 9/11, while the number of CIA domestic offices in the US (where trainees and officers wouldn’t create trouble for senior managers) expanded dramatically. By counting the support staff for the Clandestine Service as “officers,” Congress was given the impression that the CIA was busier and more active around the world.

At many a point, the reader is left wondering why Jones continued with his career. It certainly seemed an endlessly frustrating job, even apart from the difficulties of the central task itself. Jones talks about his ups and downs over the years … and the many methods he used to camouflage his activities and make himself palatable (or at least, non-threatening) to his superiors. Particularly sad is the passage where he had a personal meeting with DCI Porter Goss after Jones applied to leave the CIA. Goss actually had operational experience as a case officer and seemed to recognize the institutional obstacles to effective intelligence collection. Jones was encouraged to stay and did so. Goss, however, was soon a victim of the management carousel that keeps the CIA entirely the province of the career managers who are only under Congressional or Administrative control in the most nebulous way.

In concluding chapters, Jones talks about a dangerous but uniquely productive tour in Iraq, working mostly with young contract case officers who’d come up through the military training programs that ironically had been organized by the CIA. The author was left very impressed with the assertiveness, expertise, and risk-taking of the military intelligence officers. At the conclusion of his Iraq tour, sometime in the mid-2000s, Jones retired from the CIA after four covert operational tours.

In Conclusion

As with any review, the details and subtleties of a book are left untapped. The Human Factor will be of value in proportion to one’s personal experience, one’s bad experiences, in big organizations. Jones provides dozens of anecdotes and examples of how the game is played in the CIA. Most were familiar to me, albeit in situations fraught with much, much less danger and significance.

Extrapolating such office politics into the intelligence sphere gives the civilian some deeper understanding of why the CIA has so often been unable to assist Presidents, from Truman onwards. Each era of American history brings forward different personalities with different appetites for service. Each era has its own social bugbears which have absolutely nothing to do with effective secret intelligence. The CIA is necessarily a government agency and the events of the last few years have given everyone pause in considering the effectiveness of organizations when there’s little or no accountability for employees and managers. Government bureaucracies form their own momentum which is focused on institutional survival, not on providing benefits. Because intelligence products are necessarily transitory and often difficult to assess by outsiders, the essential element of accountability and responsibility can no longer be applied to the CIA. As least as far as I can see, as a reader of The Human Factor.

A book such as this one is yet another argument for why America and the free world may ultimately be better served by the more dynamic tools of open source intelligence endorsed by people such as Robert Steele. Google Maps and Google Earth weren’t created by the military or the government satellite-mapping agencies. They are examples of re-purposing the tools of commerce, academia and, simple recreation into something that creative government employees can use.

Jones gives us little reason to hope for an effective CIA but with his own story and that of his colleagues actually in the field, under duress, we can still see the commitment, cleverness, and creativity that might allow the US to respond to adversity, even if it may not have the right resources to correctly anticipate threats.

Recommended For:

Anyone interested in how the intelligence community reflects government culture. Tea Party folk who are looking for another reason to be hopping mad. Anyone contemplating a career in the secret or semi-secret worlds. A cautionary tale.

4 thoughts on “Mini-Book Review — Jones – The Human Factor”

  1. The default setting for most people is stupid and lazy. Working for an organisation which doesn’t have a bottom line,gives this free reign. Having worked for gov’t I can vouch for this.
    It is remarkable how much more diligent and sensible people become when working for themselves.
    Thank-you for this review.

  2. Downloaded the book last night after reading the review. The bureaucratic follies are so funny that my wife asked me to go read in the living room. The point of the book is clear from the very start. Thanks

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