SPY CHIEFS: “From Navy Analyst to State Dept. Intelligence Chief” – Ellen McCarthy’s Journey (Part 2 of 2)
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This is the second of a two-part conversation with Ellen McCarthy. Ellen is the former head of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR, at the U.S. Department of State. She also spent time with the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. The conversation, I hope you think, was rich and varied largely because Ellen's career was rich and varied. I hope you enjoy the listening to the episode as much as I enjoyed speaking to her.
Andrew Hammond: This is maybe a good time to speak about this. What have you learned working for all of these different components of the intelligence community and also nonprofits, for-profits? There's probably people listening to this that are trying to change an organization, and they're, like, scratching their heads, like this is more difficult than I thought. What's the - have you got a few pearls of wisdom that you could share with them? Like, what did you learn over your career, Ellen?
Ellen McCarthy: I'll tell you - I think the reason I told - the INR and Coast Guard were my favorite. And the reason was - is they're smaller. They're highly integrated with their customer. They are - because they're small and well respected, they can leverage support from the other intel agencies much more easily. They know that they're not the expert at everything, so they leverage what they need to leverage. And they were super smart. Then when you're small, you need to bring on the best performers. So that's what I liked.
Ellen McCarthy: And so taking that and saying, what have I learned about how do you change large bureaucracies? And it is truly difficult. It's like, for me, it's about setting forth a clear vision. It's a vision that everyone understands. This is the point on the hill where we need to be. And it's gaining support for that vision. It's identifying - gaining support of those who are in your organization and finding those people - and, by the way, surrounding yourself with people who are not even like you, who are better than you in terms of helping you get that vision. And then really identifying, what are the steps it takes to get there? Putting people behind those steps, assigning leads on this and then letting them go and then really just going back and making sure that you're checking on them and that you are regularly getting to where it is you need to be. You know, it's gaining support from others. It's from other people in your organization, getting them assigned to take on that step and then making sure they have what they need and that they're actually doing what they need to do to get there.
Ellen McCarthy: Now, a hard part of all of that is that it takes time to change large bureaucracies. And I think this is my biggest frustration right now is that if you're going to bring in a leader of an entity and they're only going to be there two to three years because they're political appointees, it's going to take - it often takes longer than two to three years. In the private sector, it takes three years to really secure a contract. So if you're having constant rotation at the leadership level, you're never going to get there, you know, because every time someone comes in, they're going to bring in their own idea, their own way of doing things.
Ellen McCarthy: And so as I look back, I am not for the politicization of agency heads. I think we should adopt the FBI model and bring in experts, intelligence experts, and enable them to sit in that seat for five or seven years and not have them be political appointees. I was a political appointee during the Trump administration, and I'm very grateful to have had that opportunity. But I'm an intel officer. I've worked for multiple presidents. And, you know, we really do still believe in truth to power, and we are a community that still abides by truth to power. So bring in leaders who can be given the time and be given the resources to help move agencies forward to be able to better implement whatever the president or the secretary wants to be done.
Andrew Hammond: I think that when you were talking there, that's what I had in mind - the FBI director. That's a different kind of model, right? I was wondering as well, you know, nonprofit, profit, government - I guess one of the interesting things when you're dealing with a federal bureaucracy is the personnel. If you're a CEO that takes over a company and the employees are not going the way you want them to go or people are not performing the way you want them to go, it's relatively easier to just get rid of the employee and bring in someone that's going to help you get towards your vision. But if you've got people that are dug into the bureaucracy and they're resistant to change and they're just thinking, if I just wait a few years, this person's going to go away and we can just go back to the status quo, how do you deal with that? How do you deal with trying to actually change the people so that you can change the institution?
Ellen McCarthy: I sort of implied that during my last answer, but this whole pay-for-performance concept really is laid in following private sector practices in that you can hire, potentially move people on and promote people based on their performance. And the challenge, of course, is that we just don't have a leadership structure that - again, it takes time to move to that sort of model where you can build trust up and develop leaders who you trust will actually hire and fire and promote people based on how they're contributing to a mission. Yes, that's the biggest challenge.
Ellen McCarthy: But here's the good news. I mean, the intelligence community, for the most part, is filled with really smart people. So it's about being able to align people to the things that they're best at. It really gets to - you know, not everybody needs to be a senior executive. Some people can excel in their career as the Afghani (ph) analyst, and let them do that. And provide them opportunities that make them happy doing what they're doing. Don't set up a system whereby you only feel like you're succeeding when you move into positions that you're not qualified for. So if you're an all-source analyst who doesn't want to manage people, but the only way you're going to get promoted is by managing people, of course we're going to - they're going to do that, and it's going to happen. And it's just the self - it's the self-licking ice cream cone.
Ellen McCarthy: So it's about managing your people and aligning them to the things that they are best at and then rewarding them for that. You know, making - the INR analysts stay, on average, for 17 years. Why is it not like that at other agencies? And it's because they're doing what they love to do. They don't want to leave. So how do we do that in larger bureaucracies? And I think it can be done, but it means that you actually have to put people on this problem for more than two or three years. You need to have some stability. You need to set a plan and then start doing everything - you need to realign resources. Start managing and developing people to meet the goals that you want them to do. And, yeah, maybe some people need to be moved on. That's the reality of the game So...
Andrew Hammond: And one of the things that I was thinking there, as well, was the military already has this. And I was wondering, do you think that, for leaders in the intelligence community - and, of course, some of them are from the military - but do you think that if you reach a certain level within the intelligence community, there should be some kind of staff college or executive corps - a place where they go away in residence and they learn and they network and these bigger problems - or discuss them? It seems that the military has got a more structured approach to this, which has its advantages and disadvantages. In the intelligence community, certainly the more civilian ones, it's a bit more ad hoc.
Ellen McCarthy: I think you're absolutely right. I'll tell you that it's so funny having come back and forth. I really - the one thing that surprises me so much in the private sector was that I always thought that there would be better leaders there, and that wasn't the case at all. I actually think that the military model is much better in terms of - I think the best leaders I worked for are those who've grown up in the military model. And it really gets to your point about, as you move along in your career, there's an opportunity to go to staff colleges and command colleges, and there's a huge investment in leadership development. And that absolutely - that model needs to apply to the civilian side.
Ellen McCarthy: And again, I know there's leaders that have done that before. I'm going to go back to Tish Long. When she was at NGA, she made a huge investment - actually, when she was at DIA, she did the same thing. In leadership development, in terms of investing in 360s, there's a tool to help managers see where they're good and see where they're bad. And using staff colleges is an opportunity to move your best people, not the people that were not performing at the time, and you just wanted to get rid of them for a while.
Ellen McCarthy: And my last point here is - I won't mention who he is, but I'll never forget the time he said, when I was at INSA, you know, what makes all these people so smart? Why didn't they do what they're saying they want to do when they were in government? And, you know, why is it they have to leave government and then they're going to tell me what I should be doing? And I - to your point, there is something to taking a step out, taking a step away, surrounding yourself with other people who understand the mission but now have some perspective. Getting a chance to think and read and learn and then going back refreshed with a much more strategic view - there is such huge value in that, and that absolutely needs to be incorporated into how we manage people. Again, I've come and gone twice. And it's not a case of people leave the government or they go to a staff college, and then they're able to say and do the things that they couldn't say and do in government. It's because now they have the space, the freedom. They're not so encumbered with the day-to-day operations and mission of the job that they just have time to think.
Andrew Hammond: And moving on to the INR, tell us about that. So you're back in the private sector, is that right? And then you get recruited to come to INR?
Ellen McCarthy: Yeah. I have to tell you, when I got the call from the White House Executive Office, I honestly thought it was a crank phone call. I could not - I really couldn't believe it. I took the call. I went into the office. I thought that maybe they were going to offer me DHS I&A, you know, the intelligence side of DHS. And when they said INR, I was flabbergasted, because I'm very familiar with the history of INR and what it does and who it is. And I couldn't believe that they were - wanted to consider me to run INR. I mean, I think its analysts and its operators are the best in government, best in class. Supporting the policymaking community - I've never done that. So why me? I knew its history, going back to the OSS, and - Office of Strategic Services. And so, you know, I'll tell you, I did think it was a joke. I went through the process. When I went to get confirmed, I realized very quickly this is not a joke. This is - this really could happen. And then it did.
Ellen McCarthy: And, I mean, I still look back - I still would give anything to be back at INR. And it really gets to, because it is such a small organization - highly leveraged, highly integrated with the policymakers. Support to policy is so much different than the support to defense operations or law enforcement operations because, as I mentioned earlier, intelligence is not the only source of information policymakers have to do their job. I worked for the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. Of course, he was an avid consumer of intelligence, having formerly run CIA. So that was a good deal because he actually understood intelligence.
Ellen McCarthy: But the reason I loved INR was not just because of who they are and what they do, but was because I now understood the history and I was interested in knowing, why is it they're so small? Why was it that when the Research and Analysis branch from the Office of Strategic Services - 1,500 analysts moved to the State Department in 1945, and why is it that there's only less than 300 today? How does that happen? How is it that their budget has declined by less than 1% every year for the last 30 years? Like, in a community that has just grown and grown and grown, why is that?
Ellen McCarthy: And so as I delved more into this, I saw exactly why it was. It was how their budget is executed and built. It's how their personnel system works. It's - they don't operate like all the other intelligence elements. They operate more like a bureau within state, but they're not exactly a bureau within state because they don't do policy. They do intelligence. So the reason they declined is it wasn't just by design, it was the fact that there never had really been an investment, a plan to invest in INR that didn't come at the expense of the policymakers in state. But they weren't actually leveraging the IC resources as well as they could have. And so that - that's why I found it so funny, was - here was a problem that I saw a solution to.
Andrew Hammond: We'll be right back after this.
Andrew Hammond: And just for our listeners that aren't familiar with it, the INR is the State Department's intelligence arm, right?
Ellen McCarthy: It is the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. History goes back to the OSS. It was the Research and Analysis branch. It's the intelligence analysts - we are the State Department's intelligence office. We work for the secretary of state. What sets us apart is that we really are experts on foreign policy. We really - that is what we do. We don't do anything else. And so our job is to ensure that the secretary is getting - he and his staff and those located at embassies around the world are getting what they need and - or what they don't need. They're making sure - or making sure that if there's another operation that's going on that's impacting the state's ability to do policy, that that is taking priority. And so we really are focused on ensuring that foreign policy is being developed and executed with ease.
Andrew Hammond: So the main focus is on classic foreign policy. It's the kinds of stuff that you would read on Foreign Policy magazine or Foreign Affairs. It's not, what's wheat production like in southern Ukraine? - or something like that.
Ellen McCarthy: So that's - I went in thinking, here's my chance. I'm going to go back to my all-source intelligence roots because everybody - that's what everybody thinks of INR as, the best all-source intelligence assets in the government. And they wouldn't be wrong. But what I was so surprised by was that most of my day was not spent on intelligence analysis. Most - part of my day was on INR's other job, which really gets to the - are - for example, are questions that INR has being answered by the rest of the community? Are resources in the community aligning to foreign policy? As we are working special activities across government, are foreign policy objectives being met? It was the operation side that I was - are - you know, working with other agencies. You know, making sure that they knew that we need this. And it's that foreign policy objectives aren't as important as defensive objectives. And so, you know, when it comes to aligning resources, the ambassador rules.
Ellen McCarthy: So it was - I spent most of my time actually working on the op side. And that's - a lot of folks don't know that half of what INR does is in that world - declassifying intelligence so that it can be shared with other countries, adjudicating boundaries. The Geographer of the United States sits in INR. I don't think a lot of people know that. So when there's a boundary dispute or you've got countries trying to build islands, it's INR that's actually working what the legal boundaries are. And so that's - the other thing that INR does that a lot of folks don't know about is polling. Polling in the intelligence community is conducted at INR. And believe me, polling is not the way most of us think of it. It's a science unto itself in terms of asking the right questions, being able to assess what you're getting, using all sources of information, whether it's unclassified or classified, and then making an assessment. And I will tell you that the polling capability at INR is the best I've ever seen. They're almost never wrong. We need to invest in that. So INR does an awful lot for - with the 300 people it has. It once was referred to as the mouse that roars.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. A lot of bang for your buck (laughter). And it struck me there that, with moving to the INR - previously, with the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, the NGA, you were more on the military side. But with this, you're moving into the purely civilian side. So I just wondered if you had any thoughts or reflections on that.
Ellen McCarthy: So things that I've learned - one, if I had to do it all over again, I would have spent more time on the policy side. I find the policy side fascinating. And I think it's because policy is more of an art than a science, you know? So when we develop a policy, it's - you know, there's broader national security objectives, but it's - you know, it's much more amorphous. You know, when you're in defense, is there a person behind the door? Or if when you're in law enforcement, is there a drug on that boat? But, you know, with policy, it's how can we compel a country to buy more of this or to use more of that? It's a little more - it is an art.
Ellen McCarthy: And so how do you get information to someone who may not want to see it? You know, that's - I think that's the biggest challenge. You know, policymakers are really people who look at the world the way it could be. Intelligence people look at the world as it is. So how do you serve up information to someone who may not want to see it? And as I referenced earlier on, if they don't like what you give them, they can go someplace else. And they often do go someplace else. And so that really requires being much more creative about how you deliver intelligence and maybe a little braver when somebody says, you know, you're wrong. I don't like what you're saying. Those are some of the challenges on the policy side.
Ellen McCarthy: I mean, as I look back actually, now, across my career, I've learned that intelligence is as valuable as its understanding of the customer. If you don't understand the customer, you can write stuff, and it'll just go anywhere. But you have to be very brave when you're supporting the policy side because intelligence is not the only thing they're working off of. On the law enforcement side, I would say that it's tricky sharing intelligence with law enforcement, but it's not impossible. And that's because at the end of the day, law enforcement is really - its focus is on getting people into jail or getting a case to court. And intelligence information can mess that up.
Ellen McCarthy: So, you know, how do you inform a law enforcement officer in a way that means that he's going to - he or she is going to meet their objective, to get someone or something into court without getting in the way of them getting that person to court, based on how you share information with law enforcement? And then on the DOD side, we need to be even more integrated. We've been working integration, intelligence and ops for a long, long time. But the reality is is that so much of what DOD does now really is an intelligence operation. Much of - most of what it does is intelligence operation. So how do we align those leadership models even more closely together?
Andrew Hammond: And just a couple of final questions. One, to bring it all together, did you build a management philosophy or approach over the course of your career? And it doesn't have to be programmatic or here's the 10 points or whatever. But just - even if it's just in your own head, did you have a - OK, if I was to write this down now, here's what it would look like, here's kind of my approach?
Ellen McCarthy: As I look back, I think my philosophy is that it's the job - so first of all, it - ever - you don't have to be a senior executive or flag officer to be a leader, that - I look back on - when I started in government, I was in GS-9, and I never really thought that I'm only in GS-9. I really thought that when I went in and was given a problem that I was the flag officer or the head of that. So, you know, everybody is a leader. It doesn't matter where you are in an organization, what your grade is. You know, you're given an objective, and it's your job to make sure that objective is - you are the leader of whatever it is you're working - right there. And so your job as a leader - my leadership philosophy was that it's my job to make sure that those I am working with have everything they need to do their job.
Ellen McCarthy: You know, it's all about - it's my job to make sure that the people who surround me, who share this objective, have everything they need to do their job. And so whether that's resources or information or space - and again, it doesn't matter whether you're a GS-5 or you're - or you're an SES. I think if that's your philosophy - it's my job to get everything I can to the people who are helping me get to this objective - you almost always reach that objective. That - it has worked for me from the time I started to being here today. Your job is to give those - everything they need and get out of the way when they're doing it. Let them do it.
Andrew Hammond: And people sometimes email me and say, you have all these really accomplished people on, and they make it sound so easy. You know, you just do this, and you do that, and then you reach the top. But obviously, it's not quite that simple. So I just wondered if you had any words of wisdom or advice for two different types of people. One are people that are starting out in their career in IC, and they're already in, and they want to change the organization, and they want to be leaders. And then the second group would be - if there's people listening to this that are thinking, wow, I would love to join the intelligence community. Like, this person's seen and done it all. Like, what advice would you give them? So people that are outside that want to join and people that are inside that want to advance in their careers.
Ellen McCarthy: So to those who are inside the community already or inside any - it doesn't even have to be the government, in the private sector. It doesn't matter. Anybody who's supporting this larger community, this national security resource, I will tell you that I never - I swear, I never followed this path. I never went in saying, someday I'm going to run INR. I - when I got the call...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Ellen McCarthy: ...I thought it was a prank phone call. I really went in not worrying about what my next job was going to be. I took jobs because I thought they would be fun or challenging. When I say fun, I mean, like, challenging and intellectually stimulating, and I liked who I was going to work for. I liked who I was going to work with. And so I will tell you, every job I took, it was not - even that human capital job that Jim Clapper tried to give me, it was all with the perspective of, well, this might be fun; I'll do it for a couple of years. And I mentioned earlier on, Andrew, that I started as a waitress and a bartender, and I'll tell you that - I know people may not believe this. It sounds cliche. But I really will tell you that every job I've taken, I've always thought, if this doesn't work out, I can always go back to doing that. And I liked it. I liked serving people. I like food. I like alcohol. And so, you know, that would not be a bad Plan B, if this...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Ellen McCarthy: ...Job didn't work out. And because of that, I was willing to try new things and take on more risk and maybe challenge the system a little bit more. And so I would say to those who are inside right now, I really feel like we are at this place in the community where everybody's worried about getting promoted. I can't tell you how many times people have said to me, you know, I have tried to make senior executive, and it's just not happening. And my response to them is, well, do you like what you do? And it's very interesting. Like, nine times out of 10, someone will say, you know, I am not liking what I'm doing right now. So I'll say, well, then go do something else.
Ellen McCarthy: You know, maybe it's - don't focus so much on where you want to go; focus on where you are. What - if this job isn't bringing you any satisfaction, maybe it's time to try something else 'cause I'll tell you, that other stuff takes care of itself. I mean, you have to put some effort to it, but if you are not feeling like you're getting where you're going, then move on to someplace else. So that's to people inside. We worry too much about where we're going to go instead of enjoying what we're doing right now.
Ellen McCarthy: So the other question you had was, OK, what about people who are trying to get in? As I alluded to earlier, unfortunately, it is not much different now to what it was in 1988 in terms of how you get into the intelligence community. You know, timing is such an incredible component, and because timing is such an incredible component, it means you have to have patience.
Ellen McCarthy: And so I will tell you that you have to be really good at what you do and what you know, but you also have to be really good at building a network because people are so much of a component of how you get into a job. As I mentioned, it really was a fellow at Naval Intelligence who I had been working with on this paper for IDA, and he's the one who greased the pads for me to get in, and we hear that so many times. But the thing is, you have to be good at both. You can't just be good at building a network, and you can't just be good at whatever it is that you're really good at. You have to do both. And that's harder than you think, especially given that, for the most part, intelligence people are introverts. So telling an introvert that they have to build their network is like cutting off a limb. But it - you have to do it. You have to - if you're in school, take advantage of those guest speakers. Get to know them. Follow "SpyCast" events. Follow up with speakers. Follow up with Dr. Hammond. If you're out at a nonprofit event, follow up with those who are - I mean, you will get help. It's amazing. Ninety-nine percent of people will help you. And so develop those relationships. Nurture those relationships. Take the time to have coffees or Zoom calls, and brand yourself. But you also got to get - be really smart at what you do. You know, the intelligence community does not recruit people who are not good at what they do. So you've also got to perfect your tradecraft.
Andrew Hammond: And final question - what does the future hold for you, Ellen? Do you see yourself now having - I know you said you'd never truly leave, but - I don't know - if another phone call came saying, can you head up this agency or so forth, do you think you would go back in or...
Ellen McCarthy: I'd go back in a second. Yes. If ever given the opportunity to come back, I would go back. You know, that may not happen. I've had this incredible career, and I can't - I've finally come to terms, a year out of government, that just may not happen. And that's OK. But there's still so much that can be done, you know, that will benefit this community, whether it's, you know, working in the private sector for a contractor or consulting firm or working for a small startup that's developing new capabilities. There's just so much going on. And it applies to those of us who've been around a while and those of us who are still just starting their careers. There's so much interesting things going on right now where you can still feel like you're - you have a role.
Ellen McCarthy: In my case, you know, my focus really is about delivering content to people who need it. And that was my focus when I was in government, and I think that's my focus now. And so while my focus is not necessarily on support to the IC, it's how is the private sector, how are media organizations delivering information that is truthful, fact based, based on the standards that we apply in the intelligence community to people who need it? And so we're just in the process of launching a nonprofit called the Truth in Media Cooperatives, whose focus is bringing together all those organizations, and there's so much going on. Of course, we're hearing about Elon Musk purchasing Twitter right now with the goal of enhancing free speech. And, of course, we're all watching to see what happens there, but I like the idea.
Ellen McCarthy: So this nonprofit is about bringing together all of those organizations, be it RAND or Aspen or certain media outlets together to say, let's work together to develop standards that we will all abide by in terms of producing information that is accurate. Let's look at how we can make people want to get that information. So much of what we're seeing right now is that people don't want to see the other side of the issue. So how can you make people want to get the other side of the issue? How can you propel young people to really have fun with critical thinking? And then maybe, is this an association that can maybe compel the government in some way to take this on more holistically, you know, to develop standards and authorities and potentially even to look at the IC playing an even bigger role in providing valued insights to the American people? But that's the focus of the Truth in Media Cooperative. Thank you for asking.
Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much for your time. This has been a real pleasure, and it's been so interesting to speak to you.
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