New Year, New Challenges for CIA
CIA ops veteran Glenn Corn on the agency's millenials, Israel, Ukraine, Russia and more in the latest SpyTalk podcast
“Young people today!” You won’t hear that around the CIA (at least not out loud), and not just because it’s such a shopworn cliché comedians junked it decades ago. It’s because yesterday’s young person, including the much derided millenial, is today’s rising employee, a 25-to-30 year old entrusted with critical national security secrets, fraught operational duties, hazardous missions or somber managerial responsibilities.
Two years ago, America’s premier spying-and-analysis agency realized that it had to go with what it got, so to speak, and began to wade more agressively into the pool of people born between the mid-1990s and early aughts, from all sorts of racial, cultural and sexual backgrounds, to restock its workforce and compete on the espionage playfields of the world.
Some barstool pundits mocked that as “woke.” The agency took exception.
“We had to go where the talent is," Sheronda Dorsey, the CIA’s deputy associate director for talent, explained to the Wall Street Journal two years ago this month. CIA veterans began telling me a decade ago that the latest generation to sign up was just as smart and capable as their predecessors—even more so, some said, especially in the digital realm—but they were…different. They wanted things like a better work-life balance, continued (if limited) social media participation, and (annoyingly) faster tracks to the agency’s more glamorous posts.
The state of the current workforce wasn’t the point of my SpyTalk podcast interview last week with Glenn Corn, a decorated former Army, State Department and CIA operations officer, but with the new year looming and many urgent crises afoot, I couldn’t resist it.
“When I came in, you know, we had certain ways of doing things,” allowed Corn, who retired in June after 34 years in multiple posts and leadership roles across Eurasia, the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and of course, Washington, D.C., where he once served as the president’s senior representative on intelligence and security issues.
“My generation, we were taught very quickly that you have to amend certain things about your lifestyle to be a intelligence officer, especially an operations officer working in the clandestine service. You have to accept certain limitations, you have to accept certain hardships or sacrifices.”
You can imagine some of the hardships and sacrifices Corn faced just by learning that he speaks Russian and Turkish and also studied Arabic, Uzbek, Azeri and German. There’s probably a movie in that line. Today he’s an adjunct professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington D.C., a founding member of Varyag, a consulting and advocacy firm, and a member of the board of advisors of Intelligence for Good, a nonprofit fighting cybercrime.
“I don't want to go too further into it,” Corn said of the generational questions I pressed on him (probably unfairly). “I would just say that I'm a little concerned that we don't hold the younger officers to the same level of expectations that earlier generations were held up to and that there is a belief that you don't need to have those expectations.”
“When I grew up in the service, there was no talk about work life balance, it was mission,” he added. When Corn asked for some time off one day, he said, his boss snorted: “Do you think Al Qaeda takes days off?”
It’s not that way now. A number of the millenials and other younger men and women making their way up the ladder today are not as ready to sacrifice their marriages to the mission as their Cold War and post-9/11 predecesssors were. LinkedIn is sprinkled with the résumés of people who opted out after 10 years or even less service with the demanding agency. And the folks who stay are far more apt to ask “why” when given an order (not a such a bad thing, ops veterans tell me), or even express a partisan political opinion (a bad thing).
The CIA workforce wasn’t all Corn and I talked about. We spent much more time on the Gaza war, Hamas, Lebanon, Ukraine, Russia, China and even Azerbaijan (which Corn said deserves much more attention). You can listen to the lively conversation on Apple, here, or wherever you get tyour podcasts. I hope you will. (And do leave a comment!)
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