Intelligence is a Team Sport

The Washington Post ran a remarkable article on December 10 about “Maya,” as we now know the CIA targeter who played the central role in finding Bin Laden.  Her big insight was to analyze Bin Laden’s courier networks, rather than, say, the background scenery and ambient noise in his videos. The Post described her as a ‘difficult personality’ whom the Agency had recently passed over for promotion from GS-13 to GS-14 (basically promotion from mid-grade to senior mid-grade).  The article was pretty unambiguous in describing her as a jerk.

Jessica Chastain stars as “Maya” in the new film Zero Dark Thirty about the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Credit: WAPO

Her big transgression, the Post reports this way:

This spring, she was among a handful of employees given the agency’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal, its highest honor except for those recognizing people who have come under direct fire. But when dozens of others were given lesser awards, the female officer lashed out. “She hit ‘reply all’” to an e-mail announcement of the awards, a second former CIA official said. The thrust of her message, the former official said, was: “You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award.”


Now, let’s just stipulate that we’d all be happier if there were fewer jerks in our lives. That said, being a jerk is not incompatible with being a good intelligence officer.  One wag even observed in the Post article that if the CIA got rid of all its jerks, there would be no National Clandestine Service.

The key thing is not so much whether your colleagues like you but whether they are willing to work with you and whether you are willing to work with them.  One brilliant analyst with whom I worked for several years exemplifies what I’m saying.  Let’s call him Bill. I recall a meeting one day when Bill called together a number of analysts to get feedback on a draft paper he had written.  When I made a suggestion that I thought I was pretty important, Bill merely looked at me with a sneer and made a noise which I recall as “pah!”  I was pretty angry.  But…he had asked for input from his colleagues and when his next draft came out, he’d taken my suggestion.  Bill regularly gave me conniption fits, but I’d work with him again in a heartbeat because he was smart and he knew that intelligence is a team sport.

Back to Maya.  It is only fair to note that we haven’t heard her side of the story, and, if she’s smart, we never will.  But, if the facts are as they are reported, then maybe having to wait another year for a promotion may be good for her.  It might help her learn that intelligence is not all about meeeeeeeeeeeee.

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