Monthly Archives: December 2012

Theodore W. Weaver: Remembering Khost, Three Years Later

Theodore W. Weaver is a former Intelligence Officer within the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and the Directorate of Science and Technology. He has close to a decade working as a Special Agent with several Federal agencies and has worked against counter proliferation, human trafficking/smuggling, child exploitation, Intellectual Property Rights violations and narcotics. You can follow him on Twitter or via the nascent Inglorious Amateurs website.

tww Theodore W. Weaver: Remembering  Khost,  Three Years Later
Just to start, no I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even in DC on 30 December 2009 when Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi blew himself up taking the reported 7 Americans and 1 Jordanian and 1 Afghan with him.

I was in San Diego for the holidays, visiting family. I remember getting up and coming downstairs to make coffee for myself. Then I must have checked my phone and saw the news.

My mind raced, as I’m sure anyone whose life has been directly tied to the last 10 plus years of war does anytime news like this comes out. Who do I know OCONUS? Who can I call or text? Where can I get the most recent info? Can I get back to Langley to help in any way?

I have known of fellow agents getting injured or killed on duty. The hard part for me was this was a different kind of experience at that time. I never served in the military, so I missed that terrible experience of being just that close to something you can’t directly help or affect change upon.

I felt, and quite literally was, useless at that time. I can’t begin to imagine what those on the ground, in country and back at Langley actually felt. A few hours after I first read the news I was able to get a cryptic SMS back from a colleague who let me know that no one close had been injured or killed in the attack.

A lot has been written, mostly by fellow former Intelligence Officers who likely have years of experience on me, and as equally should know better, about what led to Balawi’s successful suicide attack that day in Khost. You can search online to see the various run downs of who was or was not following tradecraft, or who should or should not have been Chief of Station. My goal is not to try and armchair quarterback anything. Swept up in the craziness that must have been a surging tide of “what if” the Officers on the ground and back at Headquarters pushed to make that meeting happen. Sometimes you push too hard, and chances are those are the times some crazy person will try to blow you up. The term “perfect storm” comes to mind.

This being the 3rd anniversary of this terrible event, I just wanted to share what I took away from everything.

I only knew one Officer killed at Khost, very peripherally. Elizabeth Hanson was a Targeting Officer (officially titled Specialized Skills Officer – Targeting). Very simply, her job was to look for leads to piece together detailed information related to HUMINT targets of interest. I always thought of it as looking for that one piece of thread to pull, that when pulled it unraveled the whole sweater. Balawi was that piece of thread; at least that was the idea.

I went through recruitment at the Agency at a time of flux for Headquarters based officers (HBOs). In fact, I was hired as a Targeting Officer (SSO-­T), but by the time I entered on duty and drove to the back reaches of the Purple lot, I was a Headquarters Based Trainee (HBT).

Like most things in a huge bureaucracy, titles matter. Networking is hugely important in an Agency career and although it seems counter intuitive, its even more important as a headquarters based officer. I found that conversations with new acquaintances usually began with a short bio. What did you do before coming to the Agency? Where are you from? Then always ended up with: What are you? Meaning, what sort of Officer are you. Imagine the fun that could be had by knuckle-­dragging Paramilitary Officers when they ask that last question and were given the response of, “I’m an HBT”…which was followed by a quick deafened response of “HVT!” (high value target). Laughter ensued.

By now quite a few former Agency Officers have detailed recruitment and training, and have even spoken of the rotations that new officers do within headquarters. For the HBT’s, soon to be HBO’s, we did similar rotations, with a certification course related to our final job selection coming right before being home-based in an office.

As part of networking and building a so called “Hall File”, or reputation, the National Clandestine Service’s HR department (HRS) advised us to attend sponsored “brown bag” lunches. These were usually informal (if your idea of informal is crowding into a conference room, in a bad suit eating your Subway sandwich purchased at the Agency Subway counter all the while sitting next to a Group Chief who is talking about how great their office is) events that were used to introduce prospective home-­basing officers to an office, as well as share general information about an office or operation that was being talked about at length.

HRS also pushed the idea of more seasoned HBO’s creating individual mentoring groups for the Staff Operations Officers, Targeting Officers and Collection Management Officers. These were a rotating peer mentoring group that had the goal of helping new HBO’s find their way through the bureaucracy. Sometimes they helped calm nerves, or make introductions to offices of interest, or just shared stories about their jobs. From my memory, I met Elizabeth Hanson at one of these peer meetings for Targeting Officers. I only put it together after meeting one of her former certification instructors during my SOO certification. For whatever reason the Targeting Officers had the more active peer-­?mentoring group at Langley.

Elizabeth Hanson kept a small plaque with a meaningful quote on it at her desk. I know this because I had the same head instructor as her during my certification phase as a SOO. At graduation this instructor related Elizabeth’s story to us, and then tearfully gave us all the same small desk plaque with quote. She asked us to think on the quote and what it meant to us, and to live our lives and careers the way Elizabeth did hers. Its funny, the quote itself is less meaningful than the gesture through someone’s grief at losing a friend.

When onboarding with the Agency, going through initial orientation, class instructors like to try and demystify the Agency for new employees. It would seem obvious that most of us, even when approaching the job with open eyes, have bought into at least some of the romanticism and mystique that surrounds life at the CIA, especially life working under some sort of cover. Maybe it’s for that reason, romanticism, that I’ve held onto my memory of that day at graduation. I find meaning in remembering our fallen colleagues, who right or wrong, gave of their lives in pursuit of something bigger than themselves.

I’ve taken to trying to honor those fallen in some meaningful way. At this point in my Federal career, there isn’t much I can do directly. Instead I choose to think about other fallen colleagues, even those I never worked with directly. I also try and get out and do something meaningful to me. Today I’ll be out honoring the fallen nine by pushing myself through the Crossfit Hero WOD “The Seven”. I do it every year, and the plaque still sits on my desk at work. Always there to remind me what I would attempt if I had no fear of failure. Egging me on to push through the fear.

  • Jennifer Lynne Matthews CIA officer, chief of base (Age 45)
  • Harold Brown Jr CIA officer (Age 37)
  • Elizabeth Hanson CIA officer (Age 30)
  • Darren LaBonte CIA officer (Age 35)
  • Scott Michael Roberson CIA officer (Age 39)
  • Dane Clark Paresi Blackwater Worldwide (Xe) (Age 46)
  • Jeremy Wise Blackwater Worldwide (Xe) (Age 35)
  • Al Shareef Ali bin Zeid Jordanian intelligence official (Age Undisclosed)
  • Arghawan Security director at the base (Age Undisclosed)

Interview: Ethics and Security in the Age of Ubiquitous Media with Dr. Rebecca Johnson

interviewrj Interview: Ethics and Security in the Age of Ubiquitous Media with Dr. Rebecca Johnson

Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at Marine Corps University’s Command and Staff College. Prior to joining the faculty in 2009, she taught at The Georgetown Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University and the School of International Service at American University. Dr. Johnson has spoken on topics related to military ethics across the services in the United States and at service schools abroad. She has published numerous articles and book chapters and is currently writing a book on emerging trends in military ethics. Her most recent work, “The Wizard of Oz Goes to War: Unmanned Systems in Counterinsurgency” is forthcoming in Strawser (ed.) Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military. You can follow her on Twitter.

John Little: Let me start by saying that Blogs of War will never knowingly be the launching point for a leak of classified information – no matter how big the scoop. I consider protection of classified information to be a patriotic duty even if one is not directly tasked with that responsibility. At the same time it is impossible to ignore the fact that anyone who discusses or studies intelligence is able to do so, in large part, because of a long history of unauthorized disclosures. Once a story drops in a major publication the damage can’t be undone or minimized. The information is distributed too quickly and too widely. Given that, what responsibility do ordinary Americans, commentators, and journalists have after the initial disclosure?

Rebecca Johnson: I agree whole-heatedly that protection of classified information is everyone’s responsibility – even those who aren’t in direct government service. American lives and missions really are at stake, and it will be a cold day in hell before I do something I know could sacrifice either. I’m not persuaded by the argument that once information is leaked it’s too late to minimize damage. That may be true, but to me, it’s irrelevant. Journalists and government sources both have their own missions and motivations for what they do. I can’t do anything about what brings classified information into the public realm. I can – and must – accept responsibility for my own actions. That means my sharing of classified information (because even if it’s leaked, it’s still classified), puts me not only on the wrong side of the law, but on the wrong side of my duty to work to make the country more secure. People know I work in national security are more likely to take what I share as actual US policy. I think I have to be more careful than analysts who aren’t related to the government or regular private citizens. They might not read a specific story in the paper, but if I share what I consider to be the ‘important bits’, then I’m highlighting the potentially most damaging elements of the leak for anyone to see. I won’t do free work for enemies of the United States. I know they’re perfectly competent to identify the damaging parts of leaks themselves, but again, I’m not responsible for them. I’m only responsible for me.

Ordinary Americans have a responsibility as well. Everyone knows (but often forget) not to telegraph troop movements. Posting on Facebook that you can’t wait to see Tommy when he gets back from Afghanistan next week may not violate federal law, but it’s not the smartest thing to do. Americans also have a responsibility to be involved and communicate their opinions to the government. Here, I would simply caution that leaked classified information by definition gives only a very small part of the picture. Taking one leak and using it to indict some facet of US policy is shortsighted and sure to be inaccurate. Here, I would encourage folks to give a story time to develop, turn to a multitude of sources from different perspectives, and keep their eyes focused on what’s really important – the strength of the country, not scoring partisan or personal points.

John Little: But patience and careful consideration are in short supply. Is there a way to introduce a common ethical framework back into this arena (as opposed to a purely legal one) when it looks like the dysfunctional relationship between media and social media exhibited in the Sandy Hook School shooting is the new norm? The notion of personal responsibility doesn’t exactly appear to be on the rise either.

Rebecca Johnson: If they’re in short supply, then it’s probably a good idea to practice more! I just don’t buy this line of argument. The people working the issues are the ones generating the classified material to begin with; they don’t magically see it for the first time once it’s leaked (very often, at least!). It’s the public — and primarily those of us who work in this area, but maybe not a specific issue directly — who want to know what’s happening on the ‘high side’ and create a lot of the churn following a leak. I am a true believer in our particular system of democratic governance but I couldn’t care less about feeding personal egos or people’s desire to be ‘in the know’. There are times when people claim disclosure is in the name of democratic transparency, but what they really mean is that it’s in the name of advancing their particular agenda or sense of personal entitlement. Anyone who’s in this business to be the center of the ‘look what I know’ universe would be better served just staring in a mirror all day. It would be far more helpful for everyone.

I see Sandy Hook differently, primarily because we’re not talking about national security and classified information. It does, however, highlight both sides of social media – important information is shared quickly and efficiently, but the impulse people (not just journalists) have to be the one who shares the information first resulted in the wrong man being accused of a horrific crime in a very public, terribly painful way. Did he find out that he was accused of mass murder on twitter before or after he learned that his brother had killed his mom and 26 other people on Facebook? That is the very real cost of social media and citizen journalism. In terms of a common ethical framework, I would suggest the following (and I’m speaking here to your basic user of social media – I’ll leave journalism ethics to the professionals):

  • Sourcing in everything. If you don’t know the credibility of a source, ask before you share. If that takes you extra time, oh well. If you’re not in a position to be breaking news, it probably doesn’t matter if you’re 15 minutes behind the curve. No one will remember you weren’t first out of the box tomorrow, and it could spare you from looking like a complete jackass if you share something that turns out to be wrong.
  • Ask yourself what good would come from sharing a particular piece of information. If you’re just piling on, or potentially exposing someone’s (or the country’s) vulnerability, maybe don’t RT. When big stories break there is a group dynamic that takes over that motivates people to share more than they should. If you lack the judgment and impulse control to moderate what you share on social media, then really – REALLY – take the time to practice developing that skill. It will serve you well in life.
  • Remember that no one really cares what you think anyway. You honestly don’t have to vocalize every single thing you know or suspect to be true. I’m active on social media, so I won’t pretend to be immune to this temptation, but there seems to be a sense in which people use social media to feed self-importance. Folks who follow me on twitter know I tweet all sorts of irrelevant nonsense. It’s actually intentional. I ain’t all that, and chances are, you ain’t either. Get over yourself. You don’t have to share what you know. You certainly don’t have to let yourself get caught up in a story as it’s developing if you lack the skills to moderate yourself effectively. Just stop.
  • Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective? There are all sorts of baiters lurking on social media trying to draw people into saying something they shouldn’t. You don’t have to correct every knucklehead who gets a story wrong. Really. Work your issues and let stupid take care of stupid. It can be stomach churning to watch stories build in a direction I know to be wrong, but that’s life. People would do well to remember why they’re on social media to begin with and not let one-off distractions compromise their larger goals.

John Little: Lastly, do you think we are doing enough to prepare incoming public servants and soldiers with the burden that comes with having access to sensitive information in an environment that also encourages persistent personal broadcasting?

Rebecca Johnson: This is a great question. No. This is true of both PERSEC and OPSEC. Every day for a month I had Facebook recommend that I friend an individual whom I’ve never met but who serves in a Cabinet level position in the current administration. Finally I friended the individual (who — *sniff* — has yet to accept my friend request) and posted a courtesy message on my wall that whichever of my friends who knows the principal may want to have a gentle conversation about privacy settings. If this is the level of security for senior leaders, imagine the lack of preparation and accountability at more junior levels. I have found myself correcting my own students numerous times for PERSEC issues on social media, and my students are seasoned professionals.

In terms of OPSEC, most service members are pretty good at keeping quiet on things they shouldn’t discuss; here I would say the breakdown comes not in preparing people not to leak classified information, but in reminding people that there is a lot of open source material that still should not be shared – at least by them. Since DOD changed its policy on the use of social media, each of the services has adopted guidelines and operating procedures, but these tend to be communicated by Public Affairs Officers, rather than by commanders or small unit leaders. I’ve had the good fortune of working with leaders who embrace social media rather than run from it, and that definitely helps in building a culture of responsible social media engagement. Still, I know this isn’t the norm.

In the military, familiarity on the part of unit leaders with what social media is and the general common sense prudential rules for how to leverage it goes a long way to training subordinates in responsible practices. I’m not saying leaders should be monitoring their people’s twitter feeds; I’m saying that familiarity puts leaders in a better position to actually lead in this area. In civilian organizations (including DOD) where there is a mix of career public servants and political appointees, it can be harder to get everyone on the same page in terms of what’s appropriate to share. I’m less familiar with what individual agencies do to regulate social media use on the part of their employees, but I would suggest that the obligatory “these views do not represent” disclaimer people cram into their profile is not enough.

Banning or over-regulating the use of social media is obviously not the answer either; it’s a fact of life and has the ability to make us all better at what we do. For me, it comes down to responsible engagement. My boss likes to say that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason – so we will listen twice as much as we speak. When it comes to social media I’d push it even further. We have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth. We’d all do better to stay on receive mode and be judicious in when and why we shift into transmit.

Zero Dark Reality

Theodore W. Weaver is a former Intelligence Officer within the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and the Directorate of Science and Technology. He has close to a decade working as a Special Agent with several Federal agencies and has worked against counter proliferation, human trafficking/smuggling, child exploitation, Intellectual Property Rights violations and narcotics. You can follow him on Twitter or via the nascent Inglorious Amateurs website.

tww Zero Dark Reality
For the country’s premier intelligence agency, the Central Intelligence Agency sure seems to be airing copious amounts of laundry (fresh and dirty alike) as of late. According to press reports it’s drones, Bin Laden movies, and DCIA affairs, Oh My!

As a former Officer of both the National Clandestine Service and Directorate of Science and Technology, I cringe every time I read an article about the Agency. Usually it’s for a variety of reasons, however, lately it is over minor easily corrected journalistic errors.

Employees of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (formerly the Directorate of Operations or Human Intelligence side of the Agency) are Officers of one sort or another. They are not agents, or operatives. They can be Operations Officers (Core Collectors is another name), the main recruiters and handlers of the actual agents. In that category are a small number of Paramilitary Operations Officers (PMOO’s), Air Operations Officers (AOO’s) and likely a few others I’ve forgot now. Alongside the deployed OO’s there are Collection Management Officers (CMO’s), also called Reports Officers.

Within the NCS there are also another group, and I admit it becomes even more confusing as the Agency itself seems to change these names on an intermittent basis. This group is the Headquarters Based Officers (HBO’s), which break down into Staff Operations Officers (SOO’s), to the variety of Specialized Skills Officers, Specialized Skills Officers – Targeting (or Targeters) and headquarters based CMO’s.

While the above may seem confusing it would seem that journalists, who’s careers are based on detailed research and analysis should be able to avoid inaccuracies by looking at a few places online. First, the CIA.gov website provides career opportunities to include a description of each and how to apply. A second option is any of the major beltway contractors that supply security clearance wielding talent to the Agency. In fact, I’ve seen more detailed descriptions of my previous positions on contractor websites than on the Agency itself (ah um).

Keep in mind that just covers a small section of the Agency. I haven’t touched on the DS&T who have Technical Operations Officers (now called Technical Intelligence Officers), Technical Targeting Officers, Engineers and a whole host of others and I won’t even begin with the Directorate of Intelligence. I guess I could wing it like so many reporters but I am not an idiot so I won’t.

To learn more about the host of job titles, responsibilities and levels of management at the agency one simply needs to check out the infamous Ishmael Jones’ memoir “The Human Factor” for that fun bit of government service. Although I take a lot of it with a grain of salt, and am not overly fond of the manner in which it was published, Jones gives a depressingly accurate portrayal of the Rubix Cube that is Agency management. This would have been an excellent primer for reference in light of the recent coverage that I’ve been reading regarding a mysterious Agency heroine that seems to have had a major role in the final tracking and removing of Osama Bin Laden.

Washington Post contributor Greg Miller writes about this Agency officer (see, its so easy! I called her what she is, an Officer. You can too yah hacks, I mean journalists!) in a December 10, 2012 article on the upcoming Zero Dark Thirty film. The main thrust of Miller’s article is about a seemingly combative Officer who followed through on a hunch about Bin Laden’s courier network, leading to his ultimate face shooting by US forces on May 2nd, 2011. Along the way it appears other Agency Officers disagreed with her insistence on couriers being the in to Bin Laden.

First, after having worked in the same Agency I find it completely plausible that this Officer was blocked and sidelined by more senior (in pay grade and likely age) Officers. Secondly, but as important as the first, I find it extremely unlikely that she was the only person that thought tracking the communication networks was a good idea. I can recall, quite clearly, this theory being referenced during recruitment and training: Tracking communication networks just makes sense.

I can’t help but smile at the Targeting Officer’s response to seeing the others named on the mass internal email about their Agency awards. Like any other office environment, the “reply all” is a common equivalent to storming out of a meeting with middle fingers raised high. Nothing says, “shove it!” like blasting everyone and their Security Officer (another group of Officers I forgot! Directorate of Support/Office of Security and hey, the CIA does actually have Agents, of the protective variety. The CIA Office of Inspector General also has agents, except their agents are “special”) with a reply all on some of the most secure (and archived) intranet servers in the nation (nothing made me laugh more than calling out with a confused “What does Conficker mean?” every time I logged onto my computer) . I would have to intuit that this was also a response to her not receiving her GS-­?14 promotion.

Yes, promotions. This is a truly secretive and mysterious bit of Agency business. It is not too often that you’ll read about CIA salaries and pay grades. Why is that? This Targeting Officer was apparently passed over for her promotion panel, which would have bumped her from a GS-­?13 to a GS-­?14. Though it seems like a minor detail, my time in the NCS showed me how an Officer’s promotion potential was directly attributed to the title next to their name. Most specifically, those Officers with anything other than OO (or CO) in their job description had one hell of a time busting through the GS-­?13 ceiling. According to another “Inglorious Amateur”, this ceiling is doubly vexing if the Officer is female. Suzanne Kelly of CNN did an interesting article related to the challenges female Officers face, serving in the Intelligence Community. This issue seems to be heating up even more in the news, thanks to a new found interest, positive or negative, in Agency based fiction.

As an example, shortly before leaving the NCS I took part in a specialty certification course which entailed a lot of writing, reporting, guiding, spooky agency stuff and practicing lock picking while listening to lectures in a conference room (it was either the lock picking or play with the toys they had on the tables to keep from dozing off) for hours. It just so happens that a 2 to 4 hour block (seemed like an eternity) of instruction on the promotion potential of a Headquarters Based Officer career track took place shortly before graduation. According to the instructor, the Director of NCS (D/NCS) detailed him to conduct a study of how many SOO’s the Agency had, and how they were being promoted through the NCS. Needless to say, the results were hysterically abysmal so much so that I distinctly remember wondering why the D/NCS would actually let this Officer give a lecture based on his findings. From the looks on my groups’ faces, it was definitely not good for morale.

Basically, he results of the study seemed to indicate that NCS SOO’s (one could extrapolate that it could incorporate all HBO’s) seemed to top out at the GS-­?13 level. Most reached this level after 5 to 7 years on the job, which the vast majority hanging out in the GS-­?12, which was reached at 2 to 3 years after onboarding. Of course the female officers seemed to have a bit of a harder time promoting to that same ceiling. The Officer told us that the best it seemed we could hope for would be to aspire to become a Deputy Branch Chief. It is hard to express exactly what this means without going into detail on the structure of the Divisions and Centers in the NCS, but let’s just say it’s a bit like telling Dwight Schrute (of The Office TV show) that he will never move past his position of Assistant to the Branch Chief (hell its almost the same thing, actually!).

We also learned that no HBO’s had made Group Chief, Chief of Station, and there were no HBO’s represented in the Senior Intelligence Service (SIS, executive level employees, or, the Mandarins that Ishmael Jones refers to in his book).

The NCS is an organization run primarily by Operations Officers. It’s apparent, from day one that OO’s are held in higher regard. If for no other reason than the vast majority of those running the NCS are OO’s, or some other Officer that has been through “The Farm” or otherwise “Ops Certified”. They hold themselves in higher regard because of their title; it seems, regardless of their production or work product under said title. The NCS has also created the HBO type positions based on an antiquated need to find jobs for Operations Officers who would not or could not return to the field. These HBO positions appear to have also come into being because of a need to find jobs for Agency spouses. There were at least two spouses turned Targeting Officers in my orientation class when I started. I also got a nice lecture from an Agency spouse turned HRS (or Human Resources) Officer about finding my wife a suitable job doing administrative work when I went looking for advice on how to make our recent move to DC work. Pay no mind to the fact that my wife had a very successful job in the tech industry, making more money than I did as an Agency HBO!

All that said, I give a big thumbs up to this Targeting Officer. A big thumbs down to lazy journalists and film directors (yes, I’m talking to you Katheryn Bigelow! I saw the preview for the movie referring to the heroine as an Analyst). I find it sad that so much is made over this movie when, as Agency Officers we drudge on knowing we face a disingenuous society and a media that shows nothing but contempt for those that attempt to ensure their right to free speech. At least care enough to get our job titles right when you are trying to expose our identities and drag our patriotism through the mud.