09 February 2011

Zero Defects... Zero Risks?

If you never take any chances, you never make any mistakes, and likely never have any success, either. In criticizing the CIA over snatching the wrong guy in a counter-terror sting, are you turning a blind eye to any success they'd had with similar efforts?

In December 2003, security forces boarded a bus in Macedonia and snatched a German citizen named Khaled el-Masri. For the next five months, el-Masri was a ghost. Only a select group of CIA officers knew he had been whisked to a secret prison for interrogation in Afghanistan.
But he was the wrong guy.
A hard-charging CIA analyst had pushed the agency into one of the biggest diplomatic embarrassments of the U.S. war on terrorism. Yet despite recommendations by an internal review, the analyst was never punished. In fact, she has risen to one of the premier jobs in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, helping lead President Barack Obama's efforts to disrupt al-Qaida.
In the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, officers who committed serious mistakes that left people wrongly imprisoned or even dead have received only minor admonishments or no punishment at all, an Associated Press investigation has revealed. The botched el-Masri case is but one example of a CIA accountability process that even some within the agency say is unpredictable and inconsistent.
Though Obama has sought to put the CIA's interrogation program behind him, the result of a decade of haphazard accountability is that many officers who made significant missteps are now the senior managers fighting the president's spy wars.
The AP investigation of the CIA's actions revealed a disciplinary system that takes years to make decisions, hands down reprimands inconsistently and is viewed inside the agency as prone to favoritism and manipulation. When people are disciplined, the punishment seems to roll downhill, sparing senior managers even when they were directly involved in operations that go awry.

If you hammer the analyst for the one mistake in ID'ing the wrong guy in this particular snatch-and-grab, does that irreparably damage her career, in spite of any other successful calls she made elsewhere? Does the one media-spotlighted incident in your career become the defining moment? How do we know what other successes she might have had? What if she pulled off multiple ops that saved hundreds of lives by disrupting terror cells that were planning dirty bomb attacks over major holidays, or the '06 World Cup in Germany? Do we hang her from the yardarm because of one mistake?

Now, in cases where someone died, especially the *wrong* someone, then there absolutely needs to be some greater punishment. But again, this is the business we're in, and it can be a dirty business. And if you don't want to make a mistake, you can't ever sit at the table. If you're don't want to make a mistake, find another career. But if you're willing to accept the risk that sometimes you make a wrong call, and sometimes that wrong call can really suck for someone else, but for every wrong call you make, you'll have 5-6 correct ones that can make a substantial difference in the future of your country... you just might grab your barstool, ante up, and get dealt into the game.

By: Brant

1 comment:

EastwoodDC said...

Your first sentence pretty much says it all. I face similar questions all the time, albeit in much lower stakes analysis.

"Right" and "wrong" should not enter into the question, what really matters is if the analyst did their job properly, and would another competent analyst reach the same conclusion? It also matters that the analyst gets the right data - Garbage In, Garbage Out, and the analyst may have little control over that.