A Question and Answer Series: with Matt Farwell & Sean Sullivan


A Question and Answer Series

with Matt Farwell & Sean Sullivan

Matt Farwell is an independent journalist with experience writing for the top tier publications such as the New York Times and Rolling Stone Magazine.  Matt was a soldier in the United States Army from 2005 to 2010. After infantry and airborne training at Fort Benning, Ga., he was assigned to the Tenth Mountain Division’s Second Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment and deployed to Afghanistan for 16 months. Before enlisting, he studied government and history at the University of Virginia as an Echols Scholar and graduated from the United World College of the American West as a Davis Scholar. Follow him on Twitter at @mattbfarwell.

Sean P. Sullivan has over 15 years of Federal and Military experience in the US Navy and within the CIA’s Special Activities Division of the National Clandestine Service.  Mr. Sullivan is now an intelligence, security, and surveillance systems consultant.  You can follow him on Twitter or via the nascent Inglorious Amateurs website.

Matt Farwell: Can you talk some about the changes in the relationships between military & intelligence since 9/11 and what they've each adopted from the other as far as organizational structure, culture, mission ( where / how / does the military spooky squirrel's  "preparation of the battlefield" interact with the National Clandestine Service)?

Sean Sullivan:  There seems to be a steady increase in the relationship between the DoD and the IC since 9/11/01.  It may have been as a result of the 9/11 commission, or it simply could be a common occurrence when the proverbial shit hits the fan.  Journalistic accounts of the interactions between the military and the CIA during Vietnam are everywhere and yet you don’t read much about military interaction with the IC from 1975 until post 9/11; aside from the failed attempt at rescuing the Americans held during the Iran Hostage Crisis.  While there is some additional interaction between the CIA and DoD, given the advancement in and sharing of Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs), I would say that it is consistent with the limited history of the Agency.  One thing to note is that (whether those currently in the spec ops communities and DIA want to admit it or not) the CIA gave birth to the modern SOCOM/JSOF communities and the DIA, whether it was the OSS (the original spearhead logo) or Operation Eagle Claw (an Agency Operation) that clarified the necessity for military special operations forces to be developed, it was the CIA and its predecessor, the OSS, that paved their way.  My purpose for that info isn’t to throw it in their faces (although that is kinda fun) it’s to highlight the reality of their long history together.  The OSS was part of the War Department and since its inception, the CIA has had a very close relationship with the military since the National Security Act of 1947 which developed the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency.  That same act led to the development of the Department of the Air Force.

Farwell: How does the intelligence community deal with the psychic cost of the ten+-year war on its officers and agents? (PTSD et cetera)

Sullivan: Psychological impact of ten+ years post 9/11…. I have limited insight into the entire IC as I have only had experience in the Military and the CIA.  The military has an extensive health care system which, given how slow the government responds to changes, has evolved fairly quickly in response to the physical and psychological impact of the post 9/11 era (adding a little clarity here: as an example of how slow the Military normally evolves, the Military still considers it adultery, punishable under the UCMJ, for legally separated individuals to date), most likely a result of the public outcry.  The Agency has a very extensive cadre of Doctors, Psychologists, Psychiatrists, etc who’s solely responsibility are its Officers and Assets.  That said (and attempting to avoid a conspiratorial tone), there seemed to be a stigma associated with seeking psychological assistance as an Agency employee.  It was more of an assumed stigma given that the vast majority of Agency Officers are what many would consider “A” type personalities.  Even the introverts, after spending a few minutes with them, one could tell that they were “Alphas” of their groups.  It was a “I work for the CIA, I can handle this” mentality… essentially the same thing seen with many military members dealing with the same issues.  Additionally the Agency has a support center has personnel whose sole job is to provide assistance for personnel deployed to war zones as well as upon their return.  The major difference that I see is that the Agency has a micro fraction of the US Military’s personnel but still cover the world, which speaks to their recruiting efforts and how difficult it is to get hired.

Farwell: Has recruitment and retention been affected since the post 9/11 spike of applications? If so, why?

Sullivan:  I can’t imagine a time in which the agency had any issue with recruitment because there are so few positions.  I heard a rumor once that, on average, there are over 2000 applicants for every position available.

Retention is a very different matter.  Regardless of what Directorate, Division, etc you work in, it is a grind… An average day can easily be a 16-18 hour day if you let it.  I can’t count how many days I (or my boss) had to stop myself and say “it can wait until tomorrow”.  There are hardworking people everywhere but, in my opinion, what sets Agency Officers apart is the drive to succeed.  Not to propel their careers (although there are enough of those there as well) but to succeed in preventing bad shit from happening.  I realize how cliché it sounds (and I am sure that there are many out there that think Agency Officers drink blood and eat babies) but it is an amazing experience to go to work and deal with professionals that are not only very intelligent but possess such a passion that the only option is mission success.  I realize that some may say, well, look at this or that… well yes, sometimes smart people do dumb shit (no one is exempt from that).  The difference is this:  there are thousands of operations going on at any given time around the world that (thank G*d) no one knows about (OPSEC is actually important to the lives of assets and Officers as well as all those providing support) and if once every few years the media gets ahold of a “gem”, it’s unfortunate but that is life…

Sorry about that digression.  Retention – Every office expects 150% from everyone (if they don’t there will soon be new leadership – I have seen it) and almost everyone expects 150% from themselves.  This is great for the mission but bad for the individual.  Everyone hits that wall and needs a break… it’s how that experience is dealt with that can mean the difference between retention and attrition.  Also, everyone needs a little pat on the back, not necessarily for “lime light effect” but to make sure they are on the right track, to make sure they are heading in the right direction in order to be able to make a bigger impact to the mission as a supervisor, a manager, etc.  How do you effectively acknowledge someone about something that is classified and compartmented and again, there are numerous operations going on at one time.  Time gets away, and success is quickly replaced by the need to complete the next operation and deal with looming crises, and oh yeah, everyone actually has a home life or what might be a glimpse of a home life compared to the norm.  Sick self, sick kids, kids school, the DMV, traffic, sleep… all too often there is a desire by managers and supervisors to show their pride in their subordinates but it gets pushed by the wayside.  For the most part it is a thankless job.  I hear someone say “but you guys get paid the big bucks”  hahahahaha nope, not here… GS pay scale… GS-11 to GS-13 (at least in the NCS) is the average and that is around 70-90K a year… good money but realize that unless you want a 3-4 hour commute every day (while living in the DC area, anyway), you need to live close to Headquarters so your cost of living is very high.  Agency personnel are struggling on the whole but the money is DEFINITELY not a reason to work there!!!

Farwell: Is the current security clearance process a good thing? Does it adequately screen out bad apples, or is it a flawed process that needs improvement? If so, how & why?

Sullivan:  No clearance process is ever going to be fool-proof but I have to say that the process is pretty impressive.  It combines time (took me about 2 years from the time I applied until the time I received my onboarding information) with multiple interviews; medical and psychological evaluations; credit and criminal checks; family, friends, former colleagues and superiors are interviewed, the infamous polygraph.  Like I said, it is impressive but not fool-proof, there is always the possibility that later on in some ones career they turn into an Aimes or that a crazy like @wlynnae may slip by the screening process.  Bottom line is that there is always room for improvement.

Farwell: Did the GWOT adversely affect the focus on other crucial areas of responsibility for the IC (non-proliferation, early warning, strategic intel wise--or any others? If so, was it worth it? What areas were most effective ?

Sullivan:  This is a pretty tricky question to answer so I will do my best not to touch on anything that the Publication Review Board might not like (but luckily they will be checking this to ensure I don’t).  I simultaneously think it hurt AND helped the IC.  I think that it hurt the IC by taking away money that could have gone to other areas like Counter Proliferation and has almost negated the primary focus of the long term Strategic Intelligence Collection for the short term tactical intelligence collection.  The caveat here is that the structure of the Agency ensures that there is someone watching everywhere…  The issue/question is do they have the resources (money and manpower) to EFFECTIVELY watch it.  Many offices look for the Counter Terrorism (CT) angle in their mission (such as counter proliferation, counter narcotics, etc) in order to secure funding.  That part is the biggest problem, while there is an office for everything/every place, many lack the funding to be relevant which causes the “the IC didn’t know this would happen” effect… Which brings up another point… Congress controls the purse.  I don’t care what the “people in the know” have to say about this or that… nothing gets done without money and Congress controls the money.  The President can say “go do this, now” but if congress doesn’t provide the funding… it doesn’t get done.  Another issue I see with the GWOT and the IC is technology.  The GWOT up until a few years ago has forced the IC to be reactionary with its inventory of equipment.  Limiting the ability to acquire the “new and improved” after all going to congress for money takes time and if the focus is Counter Terrorism then that gets the money and not some “superfluous toy that you don’t even know if it works yet”…

The one thing I see as a result of the GWOT that is a positive is the ability to work with other agencies on operations, intel, etc… prior to 9/11 there was essentially a prohibition (with some exceptions) preventing the CIA from working with the FBI and other “Homeland” agencies and vice versa.  The fear of a Church Commission part 2 ensured limited cooperation.  While I personally think that the ODNI is an absolute waste of government resources and adds a ridiculous level of bureaucracy which only slows down and convolutes the intelligence cycle, the mandate from the 911 commission to remove that prohibition and enable a fruitful relationship between the entire IC (which includes offices within DHS and the FBI) has enabled the sharing of intelligence as well as new TTPs.  This has propelled the IC as a whole to more effectively handle the crises of today and tomorrow.  The only downside I personally see with this is now it seems that every state and many local law enforcement agencies now have their own “intel shops”.  I see this as attempt to secure funding more than anything else.  Law Enforcement collects evidence which has strict guidelines for collection, chain of custody, etc but intel does not.  So, what I take from that is they have offices set up to provide “precursors” to evidence?  At what point does a judge or even a defense attorney say… ok you have this evidence but how did you get to this etc??  I think that is part of the major issue with the “GWOT detainees”… they were captured because of intel, not evidence.. most of which is classified and can’t be shown in a courtroom.