Actionable intelligence is often the difference between closing a partnership deal or not. Actionable intelligence provides the context you can only obtain from someone on the inside - who the CEO turns to for advice, that the VP of sales is about to be fired, or how the CFO felt burned by the last big deal with your company. Turning external relationships into actionable intelligence is essential for building strong partnerships.
But how do you build enough trust with someone outside your company that they will share sensitive information with you? This is what I wanted to understand so I turned to an expert from the organization that leads the world in turning relationships into actionable intelligence - the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In the interview below with a former CIA case officer we explore what partnerships look like through the lens of the CIA and how they approach building partnerships.
Note: the conversation below uses a few terms specific to the intelligence community: (1) a “target” is a foreign national who is recruited to become an “asset”, someone who shares secrets with the United States, (2) a “liaison partner” is a foreign government agency that collaborates with the CIA to complete missions and gather intelligence that both the US and the liaison partner country can both use.
Working abroad for the CIA
How would you describe the job of a CIA case officer?
The case officer’s primary goal is to collect foreign intelligence from sources, internally referred to as “assets”, who can provide incompatible (read: damaging) information to that country’s national security. The case officer or “C/O" primarily does through a combination of running existing assets and/or recruiting new assets to fill existing information gaps for US policymakers. However, a case officer may also be charged with developing or conducting activities that obtain intelligence through technical means or with foreign partners as well.
What shapes whether a given assignment is good or bad?
Acquisition of intelligence on China, Russia, Iran, North Korea always gets noticed. Sometimes that comes from individuals from those countries, sometimes it comes from partners or even assets from other countries with close relationships with those countries (or rather, closer than the US has). A recruitment of a good one of those can be a career maker. Another “crown jewel” would be recruiting a counterintelligence penetration - someone from a foreign security service who can provide information to the US on foreign efforts to monitor or spy on Americans. Other results that can make an officer’s tour: participation in a joint counterterrorism or counterproliferation operation that effectively limit the targeted groups’ capabilities.
What is one memory you have of an exciting or rewarding day on the job?
I met a North Korean diplomat one evening at an event. That was surreal. You hear about these guys and you never expect to run into them as they are so reclusive. We had a drink and shared a cigarette. I can’t really remember what we chatted about but he gave me his business card, which I took as him willing to meet again. It was a big moment for my team, as I recall it was the first North Korean we had met in a while. That was thrilling but maybe not as rewarding as some other memories: I recall receiving some intelligence about a foreign country’s nuclear weapons program that our analyst were thrilled to receive as they had not heard the specifics before that was really rewarding.
Partnership skills, lessons & measuring success
Given your extensive intelligence experience, what skills do you think have been most valuable to building partnerships in the private sector?
I think what you mention off the top - “actionable intelligence” - trying to identify what is and isn’t that and being able to discern what’s important to the context of the opportunity. Does your client have budget? What are their perceptions of your company’s work? Are they just using you to understand pricing? How many competitors of yours are they also talking to? There are ways to get this type of information that are both direct and indirect and also just the result of proper analysis. There’s interrogation (direct questioning), elicitation (asking indirect questioning) and secondary research/analysis. All of these will help you in better understanding your partner/client and in tailoring your approach for maximum effectiveness.
What are a few lessons you learned building partnerships with foreign intelligence agencies?
Not unique to intelligence work by any means, but I think the biggest one is that you have to really listen. If you listen and look to identify areas of common purpose, you can always find something from which to build a partnership. Even when you are generally not liking the individuals across from us at the moment, we were able to hear that the partner genuinely wanted to effect this adversary’s weapons capabilities and bring the conversation back to that to rebuild trust. If you do not listen and instead are focused on imposition or presentation, you risk missing the reveal of a building block or even something as crucial as non-starter.
What do you think the private sector could learn from the world of gathering intelligence?
I think of what I have seen a lot in the private sector is the sale is king, and I get it. Commercial enterprises are driven by revenue. But in intelligence, the mission to collect information is king. So I think its about genuinely finding that purpose that resonates across the relationship. My most rewarding moments in the private sector have been when I have developed an appreciation for my partner’s goals and been fulfilled when I found a way to help them achieve them. A $10,000 sale can be as fulfilling as a $300,000 sale. I am not naive enough to think that you can replace the sale as king, or that circumstances outside of your control will sometimes scuttle a genuine effort at partnership, but I firmly believe if you are able to build from a mutual “mission” you increase the chances of success drastically.
How do you measure success in intelligence? It seems to me the output - information - is so intangible and, at times, unreliable.
This is a particularly tough one to answer. Very much depends on who you ask. Again, coming back to the lack of a “bottom line” in mission can confuse purpose. Many value it on the raw number of recruitments of new sources one accumulates. So if someone recruited a Nigerian diplomat, a Burmese IT engineer, and someone in Paraguay to rent safehouses, it might be considered success. I think you can probably tell by my sarcasm, I don’t necessarily believe that is success - one good penetration of Egypt’s Ministry of Interior would give us a world of great information on Egypt’s plans and intentions that could go a long way in shaping how we deal with the country. Ultimately, intelligence is to provide policymakers information and options for creating policy. If it can fill in some blind spots on Chinese leadership thinking regarding agricultural exports or North Korean proliferation activities, its a success in my mind.
Building trust with targets
When you’re pursuing a target, how do you build a relationship when you cannot be authentic and honest about who you are and what your intentions are?
Yeah, that’s tough. I think the best officers are able to focus in on something that connects the two of them and build around that. Maybe you both have dogs. Maybe your kids play tennis at the same facility. But you try to find that and start a genuine relationship. I don’t have any data to support, but I would wager that the best, most impactful relationships are the ones that are built from something real. You often hear stories of C/Os and assets reconnecting many years later as friends.
Do you view that understanding the motivations of a target to be essential .... or “the why” does not matter much so long as you perceive that their information is accurate?
It really is having the right combination of both. You can find plenty of willing individuals. People who love America or want to help bring their country closer to America. But they have no access to information of real interest. Likewise, there are plenty of individuals who we know have access to information we would love to get our hands on, but will never in a million years agree to share any of it with us. So, you have to find someone who is willing and has access to info we do not already know. Not that easy.
Building trust with liaison partners / foreign governments
How is building trust with liaison partners the same vs. different than building trust with targets?
Liaison partners are generally smaller and less capable than the CIA. However, the theory of comparative advantage still holds - that organization may be able to operate more freely than we can in a particular country or visit a building of interest to us that we cannot. Likewise, we may have technology or information that can work in tandem with them to enable a new operation that would otherwise be impossible. The trick is treating them as equals and respecting their role and goals as much as yours. Many in the organization treat liaison partners as extensions of our organization, to be used as we see fit. This often limits cooperation with the partner.
What specific relationship-building tactics did you find effective with liaison partners?
I think you just have to find that common space to work from and always come back to that, even after setbacks. And you have to be forgiving...to a degree. Our liaison partners aren’t monoliths so one of their officers saying something offensive or inappropriate does not represent the lot of them. If you operate from a space that is not zero sum, that your partner can achieve its goals, you can achieve yours, and the overlap can be leveraged for mutual gains working together. I think this is really important in both intelligence work as well as any partnership. A partnership cannot function fully if you do not accept that both sides can benefit. It may work tactically in the short term if you are using a partnership cynically - whether to gain access to intelligence or win a deal - but in the long term, there won’t be anything substantive to it to carry the relationship forward.
What sort of conflicts arise in working with liaison partners? I would imagine they may have different intelligence priorities or potentially legal constraints when it comes to surveillance. What were the most common you faced or most challenging to overcome?
We often worked with partners who had their hands less tied. Whether it be with regards to treatment or imprisonment of detainees or with regards to how we might attempt to interfere with a tech system or facility, we often had to dial back what our partners were thinking. But again, I think that’s where the mutual benefits come from in a partnership - they were working with us because we could get them information or technology that would aid their goals, and likewise. So it was about finding capabilities that match to a mutual need. I have certainly heard and used that same line in my commercial experience. “How can what we do well help you do what you do well, but better?”
Could you give an example of a time when you overcame an obstacle in partnering with a liaison partner?
There was a particular example with a Middle Eastern partner who wanted to prevent some parts that could be used to build weapons from reaching its destination. The problem was they wanted to use a new technique to secretly damage the parts so they would be received but believed to still be functioning. Our process was to thoroughly vet any new technology and send it through an approval process that weighed the pros and cons for decision-makers, but in this instance, we did not have time as the shipment was in transit. So we used a method we were familiar with and was approved, but was not as subtle and we assumed the recipient would realize the damage as soon as they attempted to test the items.
This infuriated our partners and I remember being called into a midnight meeting with them where the proceeded to berate us for damaging the partnership and the trust built up. We had to explain to them that we were actually looking out for our mutual goals - that the option we proceeded with was our only option so it was either that or nothing (our partner had no capabilities to affect the shipment which is why they were working with us). In hindsight, we probably could have been more transparent and involved them in making the decision on whether to deploy anything or not, but sometimes in the speed of a fast breaking opportunity, you do not always make the best choices. However, I think that being able to clearly lay out how we were working towards our mutual goals was important to putting that particular program back on track with the partner.
Lastly, what is in your view the most accurate representation of CIA life in a film/TV?
That’s tough. Most of the CIA represented by tv/film gives each officer way too much agency to do what they want to do. Honestly, the most accurate depiction of intelligence gathering I’ve seen is from The Americans, ironically done by Russian illegals. Minus the sex and killing, although maybe that’s more true for the Russian way, but definitely not a part of the American way. But they engage in spotting a target, developing them, and then gathering information on secret government work by tasking them on specific topics. It was pretty accurate! That or Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War.