Thoughts on Professionalism in the National Security Community

James McIlmail

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The current political environment and the associated failures of the DoD and IC leadership sparked an unprecedented clarion call from the highest ranks of the National Security Community. Many distinguished leaders publicly highlighted the dangers presented by a sycophantic ODNI, National Security Advisor, CIA, SECDEF, Secretary of State and even JCS. I am proud to stand with the likes of Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, Susan Rice, Michele Flournoy, William McRaven, Stanley McChrystal and many other true patriots who have raised the alarm. Groups like National Security Leaders for Biden, The Steady State, National Security Action, Foreign Policy for America illustrate what truly principled National Security leaders do when faced with the existential threat to our democracy. They are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, conservative, moderates and liberals — patriots all.

I served in the DoD and Intelligence Community for a bit over 40 years. First in uniform and then as a civilian. I support those great patriots as they work to elect Joe Biden. In my small way I thought I would address an issue that folks outside our business might not be aware of — the consternation, disbelief and pain felt within the lower tiers of our National Security cadre. Those feelings arise for many National Security professionals when confronted with the failures and lack of professionalism of the Trump National Security team. It is deeply concerning to the cadre when they realize how far that lack of professionalism has permeated down into the institutions — that evident lack devotion to National Security manifested in a misguided, even twisted view of the core principles of their craft, their missions and most importantly their duty. True National Security professionals are insulted by that denigration of our core principles.

National Security Professionals

The National Security community is overwhelmingly composed of true, dedicated and non-partisan professionals. Our colleagues work in many harsh and austere environments, away from loved ones for months or years in some cases. Under constant scrutiny by our enemies, often in dangerous situations they persevere and conduct themselves as patriots.

Despite regular changes in political leadership, our National Security cadre continue their work, not shifting their focus, their processes or tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) to suit any political leader’s whims. The “craft” is what guides them — how they’ve been trained — to fight, to analyze, to collect, to build, to negotiate, to support and more. Those skills in the most fundamental way aid the individual military member, intelligence professional, foreign service member, civilian and uniformed alike to stay true to their mission. Being rigorous in thought, practice, TTP and planning allows them the clarity to execute their difficult missions in often ambiguous situations.

Mission first, last and always. Members enter the National Security community for one overriding purpose — to defend the nation. That is the ultimate goal — THE mission. They are not going to make a lot of money. They do not gain fame — frankly they avoid it! They are the quiet professionals, rigorous in craft, dedicated to accomplishing their specific mission to ensure the the entire enterprise accomplishes its mission, that ultimate goal of keeping America safe and free. The National Security professionals know their duty. They know their craft, they know their missions. They are guided by the rules, regulations, strictures and laws their sensitive and impactful work requires in a free society. Duty is in their character at a cellular level. They all feel it in each and every act they undertake, each decision they must make, every goodbye they must utter. The live it. It is sacred to them all. Now it is being corrupted.

The “the fish rots from the head down”
That old proverb “the fish rots from the head down” has been used recently and certainly is an apt description of this administration’s National Security leadership. The ill-suited, profoundly unprofessional leadership team amplifies the President’s ignorance, disdain and contempt of any national security topics, norm, laws, ethos — and yes that ultimate goal of defending the nation. We are less safe due to their failures. We all see that and my betters have addressed that in multiple forums. My more “deck plate level” concern is the impact on the National Security workforce.

Unfortunately that decay seeped down from the leadership and into the professional ranks. There has always been a strong conservatism extant in the National Security community, perhaps natural for such a disciplined calling. Politics however were never allowed to cross the transom. The craft, mission and duty always took precedence. Now that has changed. Conservatives have been eclipsed by emboldened “trumpists”, who purposefully introduce politics into the equation. Thus National security professionals are increasingly hamstrung by their partisan leadership at all levels — unable to utilize their craft, properly execute their missions, and effectively defend the nation. Unable, in fact prohibited, from presenting fact-based advice to planning and decisions makers. Unable to undertake their missions without knowing what the next Tweet will bring — what their overseers will slavishly support — even though it hurts the country. Remember the Kurds, anyone? Bounties, Russia?

A disturbing trend accompanies this creeping decay — promotion and elevation of what we might call “trumpism zealots”. If adherence to the “great leader” is now the coin of a National Security career, won’t those who display this skill be promoted, given the better assignments and become the middle/senior management leaders of the future? If the denigration of the tenets of our craft itself is the means to get promoted doesn’t that enable our enemies? It certainly opens up vulnerabilities. We recently saw the changes to civil service rules — possibly an attempt to “bed down” unqualified Trump appointees in National Security jobs. Imagine if you will how the true professional feels: don’t speak out; don’t rely on your training or craft; don’t go against the clearly partisan instructions; never, ever voice dissent — and watch as an ill-trained, obtuse senior leader is placed over you because they supported the very leader actively destroying the National Security enterprise.

Another impact on the true National Security professional — watching colleagues who they’ve looked up to, trusted, modeled their professional behavior on — now abandoning their craft, their non-partisan “mission first, last and always” ethos. In many cases those partisan members actively askew the tenets of their training in favor of devotion to Trump whatever the cost. What does that do to the young professional who thought about a long career serving their country? Well, anecdotally we know — they leave the government. A brain drain is underway across the enterprise. Some of us have seen this first hand — colleagues who are excellent officers, true experts in their craft — walking away because of that partisan rot inhibiting their day-to-day mission. At a time of rising threats to the nation, with the damage to our alliances, we cannot afford that loss. We need our best and brightest to stay on mission.

What is a National Security Professional to do?
I do not have any miracle prescriptions — other than to vote! Vote like our National Security depends on it — because it does. For my former colleagues, for the rank and file deep in the trenches — to the operators, analysts, collectors, embassy teams, the staff members and all the tremendous support personnel — hang in there, we know you, we see you, we support you. We truly value your service. We do not care what your politics are, your background, who you supported in the past. We need your expertise, your dedication to mission and your unswerving dedication to duty. We know what you’ve done for your country over the many, many years. We care about you and what you can do for your country on Nov 3rd and beyond. Stick to your craft, stay on mission, do your duty and protect the nation. Keep the faith as better days are coming.

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Author James McIlmail, a member of The Steady State, retired from the Defense Intelligence Agency and the United States Navy with more than thirty-seven years of experience.

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