Welcome to part 3 of my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.

Missed part 1? Read it here.

You also missed part 2? Read it here.

Want more laughs? Check out my novels, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror, and Victor in the Jungle, about a populist dictator. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!




(Part 3)

The Godfather of Africa’s dictators was easily Muammar Qaddafi, the yardstick by which everyone measured every other dictator. Other dictators became “the longest serving dictator after Qaddafi” because the guy ruled Libya for 42 years.

Much like U.S. politicians who like to remind voters they come from hard-working families with modest backgrounds and were raised castrating pigs, Qaddafi informed his people that his father was a Bedouin goat herder and thus he was a pull-yourself-up-by-the-goat-skin-boots kind of guy, a self-made autocrat who had successfully ousted a monarchy in a coup. After kicking out the king, he then insisted on being called King of Kings, which his people must have found hilariously ironic.

Like many sons of goat herders who become absolute rulers, Qaddafi was lavish. He started with crisp military uniforms laden down with more medals than Michael Phelps and later moved on to the colorful flowing robes of a Bedouin as he nurtured his pan-Africanist movement. He reinforced his Bedouin image by pitching a tent in capital cities across the globe during his international travel. He often parked a camel just outside for full desert effect. Never one to take his security lightly, the tent was bulletproof. The camel was not.


Qaddafi had to earn his medals. Being King of Kings helped.

Also not bulletproof were the women in Qaddafi’s Amazonian Guard, badass female bodyguards in lipstick and heels who swore an oath of chastity and were officially known as the Revolutionary Nuns. He also had nurses, plenty of them and mostly from Ukraine, one of whom was described in a WikiLeaks cable as “a voluptuous blonde.”

But all the chaste love and Ukrainian caregiving couldn’t save Qaddafi, who also, unfortunately, was not bulletproof. He and his loyal companions discovered this in a drainpipe in Sirte, Libya, where rebels shot the King of Kings.

Fittingly, some reports state he died wearing a wig. While in retrospect it is easy to say that maybe he should have worried more about quashing a rebellion than taking time to place faux tresses on that big squishy head of his, cultivating an image of a spritely leader had always been part of his winning strategy (up to that point, at least).

Usually, he was very good about prioritizing his looks with other necessities. Once, in the middle of a procedure to pump his stomach fat into the wrinkles on his face, he got up to eat a hamburger, briefly setting aside his vanity to concentrate on his hunger.


At the United Nations, Qaddafi makes an impassioned plea for hamburgers for everybody.

But on October 20, 2011, both he and his wig succumbed, finally giving someone else the chance to be Africa’s longest ruling dictator.

Next week: Africa’s Newest Longest Ruling Dictator


Welcome to part 2 of my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.

Missed part 1? Read it here.

Want more laughs? Check out my novels, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror, and Victor in the Jungle, about a populist dictator. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!




(Part 2)

As I mentioned last week, Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko never named himself President for Life, which worked out okay for him, because he died in exile.

In an embarrassing twist for Mobutu’s neighbor to the north, Central Africa Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa did name himself President for Life but came nowhere close to fulfilling that promise. Bokassa took control of the country in a coup d’état in 1966, overthrowing President David Dacko (who also happened to be his cousin), and declared himself President for Life in 1972.

Four years later, Bokassa toyed with the idea of being a great Islamic leader, converting to Islam in the hope of securing foreign aid from Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi (more on him later). In another demonstration of his humility, he took the name Saleh Eddine Ahmed Bokassa, after basically one of the most revered Muslim warriors in history.

But a few months later, he saw the light, the “light” being the fact that Qaddafi was not going to come through with the cash. He converted back to Catholicism and, like so many failures before him, turned to his backup plan: Crowning himself emperor.

In a chintzy move, Emperor Bokassa I spent only about one-third of Central Africa’s annual budget on the ceremony to crown himself emperor, leaving the other two-thirds for his regular travel to Paris, because who the hell wants to spend any time in a country that’s completely crumbling? The $20 million party nearly bankrupted the country, excuse me, empire, but Bokassa received financial help from France, which needed the uranium that was so abundant in Bokassa’s new fiefdom.

The ceremony lasted two days, with troops in fancy dress uniforms and a mini-Bokassa, the new emperor’s four-year-old son (from his sixth out of, like, 19 wives; people eventually stopped counting) and heir apparent, in a tiny white military uniform with gold trimmings, riding in a horse-drawn carriage. You can see it on YouTube. It’s actually quite adorable, this toddler tyrant who can’t get into the carriage on his own and who yawns while attendants fawn over him. The future of the empire was in strong but tiny white-gloved hands.

Bokassa spent much of the ceremony sitting on a two-ton solid gold eagle-shaped throne, a symbol that he was full of solid gold shit. And he wore an ornate, diamond-encrusted crown, made in Paris, of course.


Even this bird wanted to get away from Bokassa.

But as any college exchange student knows, French lovers can be so fickle. They inevitably go back to their wife, even if you are atomically well endowed. The French government backed deposed President Dacko in a coup to oust Bokassa in 1979. To prove there were no hard feelings, they eventually allowed Bokassa to live in a chateau outside Paris before he chose to return to his homeland in 1986. He served some prison time in Central Africa but was ultimately released and died at home in the capital, Bangui, in 1996.

Oh, and rumors that Bokassa was a cannibal were never proven. The fact that I even have to mention this should worry you.

Next week: The Godfather of African Dictators


Welcome to my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.

Want more laughs? Check out my novels, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror, and Victor in the Jungle, about a populist dictator. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!




(Part 1)

I love dictators.

Before you jump all over me and remind me in righteous tones about how horrible dictators are, I know: Dictators are just the worst. But I’ll remind you that, despite this, many of our freedom-loving governments have had no problem kissing up to dictators when it serves their national interest. I believe Henry Kissinger called that Realpolitik.

I will also point out that some countries thrived better under their dictators than they do now under all the freedom and democracy we have so generously spread. But I will leave that for the historians to debate and the politicians to distort. Because when it comes to dictators, I am a sucker for the cult of personality.

My favorite dictator, hands down, is Mobutu Sese Seko. For 32 years that went by like a blink for most of his adoring people, he ruled Congo, a country he renamed Zaire and that is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (side note: the word “Democratic” is often used rather loosely in naming countries; this is a good example).

A brief history of the Congo: At the end of the 19th century, Belgium’s King Leopold II was jealous that he didn’t have his own colony like his European neighbors, so he declared the Congo—which he had never actually seen in person and which he never did see in person (in fact, he never once went anywhere in Africa)—was his property. He then got all the other white people to agree to this arrangement.

He named it Congo Free State (again, “Free” was used rather loosely) and proceeded to use the country’s vast resources to stuff his own wallet while he did horrendous things to the Congolese people.


Having beaten other European leaders in a beard-growing competition, Belgium’s King Leopold II won a colony in Africa.

Mobutu must have studied history, because after he took power in 1965 in a coup d’état, he pretty much did the same thing. Mobutu was extremely motivated to be the most solid personification of a kleptocracy ever. Using state funds, he built an elaborate Chinese pagoda in the most logical place imaginable: the middle of the African rainforest—an overgrown garden oasis in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, which must have really lowered construction costs. He then imported fish from China to fill the pond in the yard.

He also razed enough trees to be able to build an extra long runway to accommodate a Concorde, which he chartered from Air France and used for shopping trips to Paris, because really, how much time can one spend in one’s pagoda? It’s in the middle of an inhospitable rainforest, for fuck’s sake.

In case using state coffers as his own wasn’t enough to endear him to his people, Mobutu knew a strong name would certainly convince them to love him. So shortly after taking power, the former Josephe-Desire Mobutu changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko, which means, “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”

It’s a great name.

If you come across someone named Leopold, you’re probably in a sandbox and you want to throw mud at him. But the all-powerful warrior who leaves fire in his wake? I will follow this guy to hell and back. Which is kind of what Mobutu’s people did, except they made it to hell and the country pretty much stayed there for Mobutu’s entire rule.

In another wonderful parallel to Europeans who deeply understood their people’s needs, Mobutu’s first wife was named Marie Antoinette, making a fantastic companion for sipping pink Champagne in that jungle pagoda while asking her people why don’t they just eat if they’re so hungry?

After she died, Mobutu took his mistress as his second wife. That meant he needed a new mistress, and for that, he chose his new wife’s identical twin sister. That’s either really weird or incredibly genius. It’s kind of like wanting to spruce up your wardrobe but buying the same leopard-skin hat you already have so you never have to apologize to the first hat because you thought it was her all along.

One thing Mobutu didn’t manage to do, besides lift his country out of devastating poverty, was get himself named President for Life, which is too bad because he almost was. In May 1997, Laurent Kabila, with a little help from the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, overthrew Mobutu in a new coup. Mobutu fled the country and died later that year in exile in Morocco.


Mobutu tries to figure out if the person he is looking at is his wife or his mistress.

Next week: Which chintzy dictator skimped on his coronation?

The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers (Part 6)

Welcome to the final essay of my 6-part series, The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers. Last week, we learned about the State Department being the responsible kids who clean up after CIA and NSA and how your drug experimentation in college is likely responsible for the rise of Boko Haram.

Want more laughs? Check out my novels, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror, and Victor in the Jungle, about a populist dictator. In the meantime, enjoy learning about the intelligence community!

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

Missed Part 2? Read it here.

Missed Part 3? Read it here.

Missed Part 4? Read it here.

Missed Part 5? Read it here.

The Intelligence Community:

Smart People Looking at Computers

(Part 6)

Central Intelligence Agency

The CIA are the cool kids. Everyone wants to sit at their table, which means it’s really hard to find a spot to park yourself nearby, just like the parking lot at the Agency in real life. Most people don’t understand exactly what CIA does or how it does it. As a result, their perspective is shaped by popular culture, so people figure CIA guys do cool spy shit and must be getting laid all the time.

But once you do hang out with them, you realize they eat their lunch just like everyone else in the cafeteria. Some of them probably even brought lunch from home, a sad little sandwich in a plastic bag that got squished on the way to work. They will be so normal that you will be disappointed they didn’t arrive in a remote-controlled invisible car like James Bond or assassinate someone right in front of you like Jason Bourne. But that won’t stop you from announcing to everyone else you know that it was the coolest hang out ever.

This is the agency I know most about, because I was lucky enough to be a non-essential employee there for a few years.

CIA is made up of four Directorates. Scratch that. The Director just announced a reorganization of the place and the creation of a fifth Directorate, which sounds like a movie starring Tom Cruise: “In the battle between good and evil, the truth will be revealed when the chosen one has achieved control over five groups of sheeple intent on wreaking havoc across the universe. Tom Cruise is up for the fight of his life. He has entered…the Fifth Directorate.”

This reorganization is coming at a tough time: right when I am trying to write about the Agency. This chapter is accurate at the time of this writing, but by the time you read it, it might be OBE, as we say in the business: Overtaken By Events. That leaves you, Dear Reader, to take my fragmented information and draw your own best conclusions. Just like intelligence in the real world.

The Directorate of Support provides soothing words and a safe place to share your worries and self-critique. Sorry, that’s my support group. The Directorate of Support is the Agency’s administrative branch. It provides whatever support analysts and operators need to do their jobs. In theory.

In reality, support officers have 4,768 different forms that all ask the same questions in a different order. You must fill out at least six of these forms to do anything and you must get them signed by 37 different people, 13 of whom are on flex time today and at least two of whom are at an off-site but will be back next week, except for Tuesday, when they will be hosting a quilt competition down in the atrium in honor of Amish History Day.

Many support officers also let computers think for them. If the computer tells them something can’t be done, then it can’t be done, because no human being could possibly override this all powerful machine. You’d like to fly Delta instead of United? Sorry, the computer won’t allow it. I understand you’re telling me you have three children, but the computer says you only have one, so we’ll only pay to move one to your new location.

Good support officers are heaven sent. Bad support officers leave you crying into a beer glass that you had to borrow because your stuff never arrived because your support officer was completely serious when he said he wouldn’t ship it until you had worked out that one cent accounting discrepancy.

The Directorate of Science and Technology provides all the cool technology and gadgets CIA needs to collect information and run operations. They make disguises and prosthetics so Tom Cruise can pull his face off. They built the Insectothopter, a tiny UAV that looks like a dragonfly. The project was dropped because the mini-drone was susceptible to crosswinds and large amounts of lobbying by defense contractors who wanted to make big drones. One of S&T’s greatest inventions was the hot dog vending machine, several of which are scattered around Headquarters.

The Directorate of Digital Innovation was created while I was typing this sentence. As such, no one knows yet how it will work in real life. In theory, it will conduct cyber-espionage and keep any digital or cyber communications by agents and officers safe. And if it is at all like NSA, it is recording my every keystroke.

The Directorate of Intelligence was renamed the Directorate of Analysis while I was in the middle of writing this chapter. As its new name would suggest, they analyze things. They use any and all sources available to them to study the shit out of a topic and draw conclusions from contradictory and incomplete information for policy makers to use to make decisions that will decide if the country implodes or explodes or not. It’s a lot of pressure, which is why analysts often look harried as they walk through the corridors with their heads down.

The Directorate of Operations was changed to the National Clandestine Service in the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act and was changed back to the Directorate of Operations two paragraphs ago. That’s good news for folks who never bothered to change their coffee mug and have that old DO mug still sitting in some desk drawer somewhere. These are the operators, the people who go out and do what you think spying is. There are a number of different job functions, but the Core Collector—that is, the person who goes out and collects intelligence—is usually a case officer, sometimes called an operations officer, depending on what generation the officer is from and if they refused to ever call it NCS because it was the DO damn it and should stay that way and it’s about time the director realized that and changed it back!

In the end, the main function of CIA is to collect and analyze intelligence. This requires a lot of people in different roles, but at its core, it comes down to two people: the analyst and the case officer.

Case officers are the people in the field. Without these people collecting information, no one else in the chain has a job. As a result, everyone tends to hate them.

Analysts analyze the information. They use phrases like “paradigm shift” in everyday conversation and hedge every declaration they make: “Homeland is the best show on television, except for any other show that might come along or maybe already exists, and I say that with 64 percent confidence.” A common joke in Agency hallways goes like this: How do you tell if an analyst is an introvert or an extrovert? The introvert looks at his shoes. The extrovert looks at someone else’s shoes. Get it? Because apparently all analysts look at shoes.

Analysts find this joke very funny and occasionally even laugh at it. They are also some of the most intelligent people I have ever met, although paradoxically some of the least smart. I’d worry about offending them by saying that, but they are too busy looking at my shoes to read what I just wrote.

These people could tell you, off the top of their head and with great enthusiasm, the tensile strength of a single component of a plutonium bomb built in June 1949 at the Chelyabinsk-40 weapons plant in Russia (not to be confused with Chelyabinsk-70 plant, you moron), and that analyst will be bursting like a child in a candy store while recounting this information to you and offering to draw you a figure to help you understand. But put that same analyst in, oh, pick any foreign city, and they’ll say, “Hey, these shoes look different. That’s odd.” And then they’ll go back to their screens and books.

Case officers, on the other hand, have no patience for footnotes and full sentences and have probably already stopped reading this sentence. When they write, subject-verb correlation is optional. But a case officer can find a copy of Playboy’s November issue and a bottle of Johnnie Walker in the middle of a Middle Eastern country on a Friday.

The Agency, particularly the DO/NCS/DO, has a wonderful Headquarters-field dynamic that usually looks something like this: People at Headquarters have big titles and like to feel like they have control over operations because they manage the budgets and the lawyers. People in the field tend to dislike people at Headquarters for getting all up in their business when it’s the field officers who are out there with their balls hanging out and risk getting arrested or killed or having their source arrested or killed while you’re sitting in your cushy office drinking coffee from the Starbucks downstairs, or in someone else’s cushy office networking to get that hardship tour in Europe.

Here are a few interesting things about the Agency you might not know (although the Russians surely do) that give some insight into the culture of the place but hopefully won’t get me redacted by the censors:

The building is buzzing with motorized carts. It’s a big place and when you sit in a cubicle all day after a requisite stop at Starbucks, some people also become big and moving around becomes difficult. These carts sometimes come with cup holders for those people’s three-gallon-sized cup of Diet Coke.

Most of the cafeteria workers are Chinese. No one seems to see the irony of this.

If you’re undercover, you have to buy your food in cash. If you forget to bring cash, you will starve because no one at the Agency has any mercy, according to a Senate report. In reality, someone will be nice enough to lend you a few bucks because they know you are trustworthy and will pay them back.

The geese in the courtyard are Canadian, which is why there is always a sign posted in the corridor warning employees of “Foreign Visitors in the Area.”

Parking at the Agency is notoriously difficult. I once managed to find a close-in parking spot and felt triumphant all day. But at the end of the day, out of habit I walked way the hell out to the outer spaces where I usually parked, only to realize I had walked past my car about 20 minutes before. I also lost my car in the parking lot several times and once a friend had to drive me around to find it.

The place is remarkably shut off from the world. When I meet friends who still work there for evening drinks, they often ask, “So, what happened in the world today?” This would frighten me if it didn’t make me laugh so hard.

The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers (Part 5)

Welcome to Part 5 of my 6-part series, The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers. Last week, we learned who controls the satellites that are controlling our minds and who knows what we really think about our relatives’ significant others.

Want more laughs? Check out my novels, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror, and Victor in the Jungle, about a populist dictator. In the meantime, enjoy learning about the intelligence community!

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

Missed Part 2? Read it here.

Missed Part 3? Read it here.

Missed Part 4? Read it here.

The Intelligence Community:

Smart People Looking at Computers

(Part 5)

Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research

State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research has the acronym INR, which makes you wonder if it’s actually the Bureau of Intelligence ‘n Research. According to its web site, it “harnesses intelligence.” I think that’s a fancy way of saying it analyzes intelligence, but I may be wrong and State’s intelligence is planning to climb a mountain.

INR produces intelligence reports to help diplomats be diplomatic. They provide evidence in a tactful way.

State Department officers are the responsible kids. Whenever NSA or CIA have a massive party and break everything, State cleans up the mess and calms down Mom and Dad when they threaten to throw the little jerks out. They also smooth things out with the neighbor whose house got lit on fire.

Army Intelligence, Navy Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, Marine Corps Intelligence, Coast Guard Intelligence

These agencies collect and analyze tactical and strategic military intelligence for their respective branches, and as intelligence agencies, they are all under command of the Pentagon, with one exception. The Coast Guard did something to piss off someone in high places because it got sent to live with the evil stepparent better known as DHS. I could dig into reams of amended federal code that explains why and how, but I won’t, because I know DNI has it under control. We are in good hands.

Drug Enforcement Administration

These are the buzz kill guys. They are the reason you are hooked on Oxycodone and not cocaine. You might be really pissed about that if you weren’t so legally high.

They will remind you that the Taliban grow and sell opium to fund their war against us, and that South American drug cartels fly their product to West Africa, where it moves north to Europe, but not before moving through al-Qaeda and Boko Haram territory and everyone deals their deals. As a result, if you do drugs, you are fueling arms shipments and crazy ass terrorists.

I’d be really worried about this if I weren’t taking Xanax.

Department of the Treasury

Do you remember that scene in All the President’s Men when Deep Throat tells Robert Redford to “Follow the money”? That was good advice, and the Department of the Treasury was paying attention. It turns out, if you want to covertly build a nuclear weapon or amass a load of illegal weapons to use in a terrorist attack, you need to buy things. Those nukes don’t just grow on trees. They require cash. They also require willing intermediaries, who sell secrets for cash. Basically, trafficking in any product is a cash industry, and Treasury watches the money and slaps sanctions on people breaking the rules.

Department of Energy

I always imagined the Department of Energy must be full of really energetic and bubbly people. Its Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence is entrusted with keeping safe the “brain trust” of DOE’s myriad plants and national laboratories, where, I imagine, lazy rats are just getting fat and happy off the system. DOE also ensures the security of our nation’s energy supply, to make sure our computers stay on and all these IC folks have something to look at.

Up Next: CIA

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The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers (Part 4)

Welcome to Part 4 of my 6-part series, The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers. Last week, we talked about the happy employees at the Department of Homeland Security and how they can’t wait to welcome you home by asking why the fuck you left the country in the first place.

Want more laughs? Check out my novels, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror, and Victor in the Jungle, about a populist dictator. In the meantime, enjoy learning about the intelligence community!

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

Missed Part 2? Read it here.

Missed Part 3? Read it here.

The Intelligence Community:

Smart People Looking at Computers

(Part 4)

Federal Bureau of Investigation

At an Intelligence Community (IC) meeting, the FBI representative is the one in the corner without a chair and who is happy just to be invited, not realizing he wasn’t invited but his boss caught wind of the meeting by chance at the last second and sent whoever wasn’t out getting coffee.

That’s because the FBI didn’t used to do intelligence. Up until the 2004 IC reorganization, the FBI was a law enforcement agency. In just a few years, it had to adjust from catching bad guys and building a case to put them in jail to watching bad guys just to see what they were up to. It’s a very hard habit to break.

One of the tools FBI put in place to help it gather intelligence is the Joint Terrorism Task Force, or JTTF. These centers bring together local, state, and federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies so they can share information. If anyone can explain to me how these differ from Fusion Centers, I’m all ears. I’d ask the DNI but I don’t want to hear about those goddamn Imagineers again. Fuck you, Mickey Mouse.

Defense Intelligence Agency

DIA is the CIA for the military. It conducts operations to collect human intelligence related to combat, including the military intentions and capabilities of foreign governments and non-state actors, like Gerard Depardieu, who lost the support of his government years ago.

DIA’s Wikipedia page lists a bunch of people who spied on behalf of DIA but were then found out and executed. I’m not sure if DIA realizes it can go on Wikipedia and edit all that out. It might make it easier to recruit assets, because this is not a track record to instill confidence.

National Security Agency, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and National Reconnaissance Office

NSA, NGA, and NRO are the geeks but we totally respect them because they can do some really cool shit.

Thanks to Edward Snowden, you already know what NSA does. And so does everyone else in the world, including all the targets we really need intelligence on. When Snowden revealed the NSA spies on people, everyone was shocked that a spy agency would spy on people. But wonders never cease.

Depending on your perspective, NSA either listens in on every phone call you make and reads every email you ever sent and knows what you really think about your sister’s new boyfriend, or it has legitimately built certain capabilities that allow it to access sensitive personal information only when deemed appropriate and after a rigorous legal scrub that is not prone to human error or abuse. My guess is the reality is somewhere in between, but that doesn’t spin well in the media, so let’s keep arguing about it. But can we at least agree that, objectively speaking and politics aside, Citizenfour was kind of boring?

NGA are the map and imagery people. They can tell you the make and measurements of an airplane you can’t spot in a photograph even after they point it out to you. The group has moved around on the IC organizational chart and changed names a few times, but NGA are the guys who spotted a nuclear missile in a Rorschach picture, giving us an idea about Soviet psychology and motivation in Cuba back in 1962.

NRO manages a complex system of satellites and overhead sensors that are constantly circling above us and may be shooting our brains with waves for all we know. We don’t mind about that so much, but if a satellite goes nutty and fucks up our cell phone reception, we completely lose it.

NRO was created in 1961, but it was super secret. Pissed off about the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the U.S. realized it should get its shit together in this space race or some Russian dude would write The Right Stuff and then what would happen to Ed Harris’s career? NRO’s web site helpfully informs us that, “The existence of the organization is no longer classified today.” Which I guess is the reason I can read about it on a public NGA web site.

Up Next: State’s INR, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard Intelligence, DEA, Treasury, and Energy

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The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers (Part 3)

Welcome to Part 3 of my 6-part series, The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers. Last week, we learned about the Director of National Intelligence and its role as principal on the playground of intelligence agencies. This week, we look at the Department of Homeland Security and its many chipper employees at the airport.

Want more laughs? Check out my novels, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror, and Victor in the Jungle, about a populist dictator. In the meantime, enjoy learning about the intelligence community!

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

Missed Part 2? Read it here.

The Intelligence Community:

Smart People Looking at Computers

(Part 3)

Department of Homeland Security

DHS is the kid your mom invited to your birthday party even though you and your friends all think he’s a weenie, but your mom is trying to teach you a lesson after you pushed him down the slide last week. You and your friends still call him Mushroom Man behind his back. And sometimes to his face.

This is because DHS took a bunch of agencies that already existed and pulled them, or in some cases part of them, into its fiefdom. This caused a lot of animosity and confusion. Good thing there was a DNI to unconfuse things.

Created by a small-government Republican president, DHS has 240,000 employees and is now the third largest federal agency (after the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs). According to its web site, its duties are “wide-ranging,” which is a nice catch-all phrase that sounds better than, “Um, we couldn’t really define what falls under Homeland Security, so fuck it. Wide-ranging.”

DHS created Fusion Centers, which I imagine must have the sound of monks chanting in the background and eucalyptus aromatherapy candles burning to create a soothing ambience. But in reality, these are places for local, state, and federal officials to exchange information. And because everyone at every level wants to be helpful and prove they have a role to play in protecting the homeland, they create watch lists of anyone who might be a threat, including anti-war activists, pro-life protesters, pro-choice protesters, and Rand Paul supporters. The enemy is everywhere.

Perhaps DHS’s biggest success has been creating fear in order to let people profit from it. Find a way to say you’re protecting someone from terrorists, and the department’s leaders or former leaders will have DHS give you money to buy whatever you want to buy from a company who happens to be their client or on whose board they happen to sit. It has created a wonderful circus act to make it look like a lot is happening to keep us safe but actually ensures a cushy retirement for a select few. Need a teleprompter so your tiny town in Louisiana can meet “the national priority to expand regional collaboration”? Here’s $2,700. Want an armored personnel carrier to patrol your local Easter egg hunt? Take $200,000. Those wily terrorists could strike anywhere, at anytime.

A good example of leveraging fear is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the smiling and helpful people in blue uniforms at airports who make you strip and then take pictures of you to laugh at later (or, as revealed in a Politico piece, to look at while fooling around in the back office). DHS oversees TSA, and in the wake of the Underwear Bomber scare, former DHS head Michael Chertoff publicly pushed for TSA to purchase 300 Rapiscan machines, even though he and many DHS staff knew the machines were not very effective. Did I mention that Rapiscan was a client of Chertoff’s consulting company? I didn’t? Oh, well neither did Chertoff, who proved his ability to coordinate and cooperate on behalf of his and his clients’ bank accounts. I believe that is the efficiency and connecting the dots we were looking for.

DHS also oversees Customs and Border Patrol, the smiling and helpful people who welcome you back into the country by asking why the fuck you left in the first place.

And why are all of DHS’s employees always smiling and helpful and never rude? Because DHS consistently ranks low or dead last on employee morale surveys in the federal government. DHS employees leave their department at twice the rate of other federal agencies. Even DHS employees want to call it Mushroom Man and shove it down the slide.

Up Next: FBI, DIA, NSA, NGA, and NRO

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The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers (Part 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of my 6-part series, The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers. Last week, we learned about “essential” and “non-essential” employees and how secure we must be because we have so many intelligence agencies. This week, we’re discussing the Director of National Intelligence, who is super important (on paper).

Want more laughs? Check out my novels, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror, and Victor in the Jungle, about a populist dictator. In the meantime, enjoy learning about the intelligence community!

Missed Part 1 of the series? Read it here.

The Intelligence Community:

Smart People Looking at Computers

(Part 2)

Director of National Intelligence

A few years ago, people in the Intelligence Community failed to connect the dots. I’m not sure why they were playing connect the dots when they should have been paying attention to intelligence reports about terrorists wanting to kill us, but as the narrative goes, they really struggled to find number 99 and see the picture of the plane.

It’s an unfair narrative, in my opinion, but I will leave that for the historians to decide. In any case, that was the narrative that stuck because it was really expedient. The “intelligence failures” that led to the September 11 attacks and allowed us to invade the wrong country as a response were considered “systemic failures,” which allowed us to place blame everywhere and nowhere at once. When you can blame the system, no one has to feel bad about their individual role. It’s really convenient.

It also means you can fix it. If there’s a weakness in the system, rather than individuals making some awful decisions, people can change the system to ensure it won’t happen again. If something is the fault of individuals and bad decisions, that’s scary because there’s no effective way to counter it. Any system will always have some idiots.

So in 2004, lots of people in Washington set out to fix the intelligence system. They determined that there were too many agencies in the Intelligence Community (IC) that weren’t communicating well with each other. There were just so many agencies, and no one knew the others existed and so there was no communication between them, because when you have too many agencies it’s a lot of work to talk to them all. So people in Washington found the only logical solution: Create another agency. And thus was born the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

The role of the DNI is to coordinate cross-agency cooperation and to cooperate with cross-agency coordination and to de-conflict through cooperation and coordination across all government agencies associated with coordinating all cooperation regarding the national security of the United States. Or something like that. Ask anyone at the DNI and they’ll tell you their mission is “still evolving.” But basically, the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act placed all sixteen agencies that had even the most tangential intelligence role under a new layer of bureaucracy in the name of efficiency and never forgetting and never letting such a systemic failure happen again. Twelve years and at least five new terrorist groups later, I think it’s fair to say: Success!

If the IC were a school, the DNI would be the uncool principal. He has to make sure all the kids play nicely together and to break up turf wars, like when the FBI wants to play basketball and the CIA is like, we were here first, and the FBI is like, this basketball court is in the United States, we own it! And the CIA is like, “Haven’t you seen Homeland? We do all kinds of shit in this country!” And the FBI is like, “In real life Carrie Mathison would never be able to run around chasing terrorists in this country. That’s our job!” And the CIA is like, “Hey, the show has its flaws but it’s a compelling story!” And then the DNI would make them both write an essay about how they could better coordinate in the future.

The DNI, however, has no authority over any of those agencies. He only has authority over his own staff. So if the math teacher (NSA) and history teacher (State Department) start fighting, he can’t fire either of them. The DNI does have authority over some IC centers, though, like the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which in turn has no authority over anyone who actually does counterterrorism. But they can recommend someone do something, and they all have multiple computer monitors, so they must be important.

The building that houses NCTC was created by Disney Imagineers. I’m not making that up. When I toured the place, this fact really excited the people who worked there and they mentioned it over and over again, especially when anyone asked, “What exactly do you do here that isn’t already done elsewhere?” It was a good way to change the subject, like jiggling a shiny object in front of a baby. “How is this not totally redundant?” “Look at our fancy urinals, designed by Disney Imagineers! Piss in it and it turns magically into a happy fountain that plays It’s a Small World!”

As I said, the DNI oversees but has no real authority over sixteen different agencies. They each have their own personality and foibles. Let’s take a look…

Up next: The Department of Homeland Security

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The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers (Part 1)

Welcome to Part 1 of my 6-part series, The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers. In this tour of the Intelligence Community (IC), you’ll learn which federal agency everyone laughs at, the difference between a CIA analyst and a CIA case officer, and a few personal anecdotes about my time at the Agency.

Want more laughs? Check out my novels, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror, and Victor in the Jungle, about a populist dictator. In the meantime, enjoy learning about the intelligence community!

The Intelligence Community:

Smart People Looking at Computers

(Part 1)

The front line in any country’s national security arsenal is its intelligence service. Lucky for us, we’ve got sixteen different intelligence agencies and one Big Daddy agency to make sure all the intelligence kids play nicely with each other. If you measure our security by how big our security apparatus is, we are incredibly secure. Effectiveness is secondary, because it is really hard to fit in a metric.

Employees of these agencies play a vital role in our national security, collecting and analyzing information that protects us from any and all enemies who would want to destroy freedom and all we stand for.

Unless the government shuts down, in which case only some of them are vital and the rest can fuck off, we’ll be just fine without you, you useless bastards. Government shutdowns are an amusing way to watch the hierarchy at work. If the government shuts down, only “essential personnel” are allowed to go to work. That’s because it is illegal to make a person work when you can’t pay them (but please don’t tell my intern that), and if the government shuts down, it’s because there’s no more money, likely because Congress was having too much fun masturbating for C-Span to actually pass a budget. I’m sorry, did I say masturbating? I meant debating. Who the fuck am I kidding? I meant masturbating.

However, even Republicans and Libertarians might agree that some government functions are indeed vital and we need to keep doing them, even if there’s no money. How shitty would the government feel if a terrorist nuked us and all our counterterrorism and counter-proliferation guys were home sleeping?

Finding out that you are “essential” or “non-essential” is a journey in self-discovery. If you are deemed “essential,” you feel super important but resent having to go to work while everyone else is home relaxing, knowing they are going to get back pay even though they did no work, and here you are slaving away, protecting the nation from evildoers. And if you are deemed “non-essential,” you start to question that Recognition for Great Contributions to National Security Award you got last week that included a $25 gift card for the Cheesecake Factory.

But in true American fashion, everyone can and does contribute, just by participating at all. So let’s take a tour of our intelligence community, the essential, the non-essential, and the was-once-essential-but-we-seem-to-be-doing-just-fine-without-it-now.

Up next: The Director of National Intelligence

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Re-Up: Are Management Consultants Ruining CIA?

In light of this recent story in the Washington Post, which says the CIA has paid $10 million to the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. for helping the Agency draw up its reorganization plans, I figured I would re-up this article I wrote about management consultants ruining CIA.

From March 13, 2015:

When John Brennan announced his reorganization plans for the CIA last week, his unclassified press release revealed a big secret: CIA is going corporate.

From the get go, Brennan’s announcement oozed the corporate speak of management consultants. The press release was to outline the Agency’s “Blueprint for the Future,” creating a “Talent Development Center of Excellence” and developing “systemic methods” for “integrating activities” and “developing leaders” and “accelerating” the integration of those activities and leaders.

It seems management consultants have invaded the very gray area of intelligence collection and analysis, and I fear it does not bode well for the future of CIA.


First, a short history lesson.

This is not the first time management consultants have taken over the Intelligence Community (IC). The IC had a feeding frenzy in the early post-9/11 years, facing unprecedented expansion in a very short period of time. As the Directorate of Operations, where I worked, became the National Clandestine Service, President Bush ordered a 50 percent increase in the number of CIA officers in certain intelligence jobs.

Besides absorbing huge numbers of new employees, the Agency also faced an expanded mission. With two wars to fight and other threats lurking elsewhere around the globe, the Agency came to focus on paramilitary operations while heeding the call to stop being stuck in a Cold War mindset.

As the IC expanded, managers and policymakers alike began to see it could quickly become unwieldy. Where were the checks and balances? How could we be sure we were all communicating so we would not once again miss connecting the dots?

Along came management consultants to insert themselves into this chaos, promising to streamline operations, implement value added changes, and highlight key fundamentals for achieving mission success. Those of us on the inside noticed gradual changes. Emails started having words like “human capital” in them. When we had too few slots for all the new people, it was considered an “overstrength” issue. Managers, fresh out of Leadership Training, started checking in to make sure we felt motivated, asking about our kids at the most random times, and giving us fist bumps in an effort to really connect with us.

But the biggest corporate culture that was placed on us was the implementation of metrics. For years the IC has struggled with how to measure success. Number of plots foiled? Amount of money spent? Amount of information collected? Number of reports written? Just as Bush thought hiring more people was the solution after 9/11, quantity became the driver behind how we would define and achieve mission success. More information was the goal. The value of the information was secondary.

The metrics put in place created short-term incentives that work against long-term goals. Employees, out of self-interest, will meet the metrics imposed on them. They want to get promoted, and they can only do that by demonstrating their performance against these metrics that measure quantity. But this often precludes achieving the goals of the community as a whole, since these require longer investments with fewer payoffs along the way. It was a risk the IC took, bringing consultants who had never been operators and lacked knowledge about the subtleties of intelligence work, which is, at its core, a very human and creative process.

Imagine an intelligence officer up for review. She can go after an easy target who will likely provide decent, but not excellent, information and check that metrics box. Or, she can go after a hard target, who might not produce anything for years but may one day land in a position that provides access to our top collection priorities. Metrics have assured that risk will not be taken, limiting our chances of getting the hardest but most important intelligence.

The result has been a lot of paper pushing. Intelligence officers are increasingly stuck at their desks filing paperwork. We engage in process to make it look like a lot is happening, since that is what the metrics measure.

One of the main metrics over the past decade has been the number of people in the war zones. Filling slots in Iraq and Afghanistan became a priority, even if the officer never left her desk. It was important to show we had a lot of people there.

Then we built huge new offices to house all these employees. Now, we need to send people to fill the offices we built. How else can we justify the money we spent to build them? That’s metrics.

The longer-term consequences are becoming apparent as the nature of the threat changes. While we were measuring success based on how many people we sent to Iraq and operators checked the war tour box, we churned out young officers who can wear a flak jacket in Baghdad but can’t run a Surveillance Detection Route anywhere else. But who ever thought Cold War countries would be relevant intelligence targets again?

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It, Is to Create More Systematic Methods to Better Develop Leaders and to Integrate Activities Across the Agency, Creating Multi-Disciplined Intelligence Officers

Now, in an attempt to address the deficiencies we ourselves created, Brennan is doubling down on the corporate approach.

The main thrust of the reorganization is to create centers where intelligence officers with all kinds of backgrounds—analysts, operators, techies—can come together to achieve mission success. It sounds great. And it can work, if applied well and with flexibility. But the corporate speak does not instill confidence. It sounds like more boxes to check.

In his press release, Brennan discusses integrating different intelligence disciplines, “starting with a plan to make multi-disciplinary exposure and experience the ‘new normal’ at CIA.”

Based on how I have seen corporate speak implemented in the past, this sounds like, in order to get promoted, an officer will now have to take courses outside of his or her normal discipline and have to serve a tour in another discipline.

It is important to understand, analysts and operators have very different jobs that require very different skill sets. As such, they have very different personalities. Analysts love footnotes and using the word “paradigm.” Operators most often cannot be bothered to worry about subject-verb correlation. Analysts can tell you the minutest details about the tensile strength of a particular component of a bomb built in a certain country in 1986, and will talk enthusiastically about it for hours. An operator can find you a copy of the November issue of Playboy in a Middle Eastern country on a Friday during prayers.

Does that analyst now have to take operational training courses to get promoted? And does that operator have to learn how to write a finished intelligence report to move up? The risk is creating generalists and further diluting our collection capabilities, which are already suffering from the last round of box checking forced upon them.

Yes, there are advantages to having analysts and operators work together. But creating “multi-disciplined officers” risks developing officers who can do everything mediocre but nothing well.

The biggest concern for operators, I believe, is how this will be applied in a station. Can an analyst have a management position in the field? Presumably, yes, given the corporate speak about “integration,” “well-rounded intelligence officers,” and “building a culture in which we are all intelligence officers first, regardless of our Directorate, position, or area of expertise.”

There are many reasons analysts should not have decision making authority over operations. First and foremost because they have never done operations (nor should they; again, analysis and operations require very different personalities to be successful. A few intro courses on how to run operations does not a case officer make). Operations are inherently creative and take place in a gray area. Developing and running operations requires bouncing ideas off people. The newly re-renamed DO (the NCS is now once again known as the Directorate of Operations) also has a great tradition of senior officers mentoring junior officers. This usually happens in a very informal manner, shooting the shit over a glass of whiskey and hashing out the challenges of an operation and suggesting even the most ludicrous solutions because who the hell knows what other idea it might lead to. How does this happen if management in a station is made up of analysts who have never run an operation?

On the other side of the coin, I would not want a case officer leading the drive to write a long-form finished intelligence product on strategic analysis of a topic. A case officer stopped reading that last sentence about halfway through.

The key is: operations must be flexible. If more “streamlining” is going to create other boxes to check—namely, operators forced into other training and answering to analysts in management positions—this reorganization will be a failure. It is folly to try to make analysts and operators “multi-disciplined.” It is already hard enough, with so many restraints, for case officers to collect intelligence. And in the end, if they don’t collect intelligence, no one else has a job because there is nothing to analyze.