The Unbearable Cluelessness of Russian Embassy Reporting


by: Renketsu Link



The ultimate problem is this: It’s all written by civilians.

The intel community has a word for people who aren’t on the inside: Little people.

Little people don’t matter because they don’t have skin in the game. The reasoning goes, intel agents are in the field, while you’re at home living your life. On some level, there is the understanding that the intel community is fighting to protect the lives and happiness of the Little People, but in practice there tends to be condescension and resentment because you don’t really get to lead a normal life if you’re playing the Great Game. The two are fundamentally incompatible. This also means that little people don’t know anything about how the intel community operates on any level, which includes how it treats things that it considers important (intel product) from inception to retirement. In point of fact, most “common knowledge” about the intelligence community comes from movies and novels, and intersects in no meaningful way with reality. Much of this misinformation is due to the fact that that people on the inside don’t want to talk because they assume that a) they’re being watched by Somebody (which is the case maybe a quarter of the time, and usually by their own agency’s counter-intelligence section) and b) no matter what they say they’ll get picked up for saying anything (a risk which varies by administration). There is a more subtle reason for this, which I’ll get to in a moment.

The chain of command is not only something you get beat with until you let someone else be in charge, it’s also a game of Telephone where nobody’s willing to call anybody else on their weird-ass ideas.

The intel community is a world unto itself, ostensibly executing policy set by the Executive Branch. That policy gets modified in subtle ways all the way down through the various chains of command. This Director thinks the policy means one thing, and interprets it one way. The Vice Director thinks the policy interpretation they found on their desk one morning means something else and writes orders that mean something slightly different. And so on. Policy (what a government wants to accomplish and how it wants to be perceived) is just as much created as it is carried out. At the level of the individual operative there is no policy, there are only orders carried out that, to a large extent seem to reflect the original intent of what the Executive Branch wanted to do but just as often doesn’t. The chain of command is not only something you get beat with until you let someone else be in charge, it’s also a game of Telephone where nobody’s willing to call anybody else on their weird-ass ideas. Functionally speaking, this is a feature and not a bug because plausible deniability is the chief concern of civil servants, and being able to blame somebody farther down the chain of command than you are has saved no small number of asses over the years.

The “more subtle reason” I alluded to earlier?

If somebody on the inside talks about stuff inside the intelligence community, they are commonly perceived as being The People Who Set Policy. Let’s consider J. Random Spook, an intelligence operative of some kind who happens to make a public statement that gets published. The little people think J. Random Spook is the one who makes the hard calls, orders the assassinations, organizes the overthrow of governments, and so forth. He looks like he’s in charge when he is, in fact, not particularly important. Unfortunately, this makes the agency J. Random Spook works for look bad. It also makes it look like J. Random is doing things above their pay grade which pisses everybody off and explicitly goes against agency policy (and by that I mean the handbook that says what Thou Canst and Canst Not Do While You Work Here). Also, due to the chain of command being one big game of Telephone, this also misrepresents what the Executive Branch wants done and makes the President look bad. Whether or not anybody in the Executive Branch knows that the chain of command is a big game of Telephone is an entirely separate question — one I don’t have the answer to. The Internal Affairs and probably Counter-Intelligence departments of the agency J. Random works for come down on him like a ton of bricks because he’s not only kicked over an anthill by running his mouth, he’s shit on the Director’s desk right before a visit by the President.

But, back to Russian embassy reporting. In particular, the Russian embassies in New York City and San Francisco being shut down a week or two ago, all personnel being expelled from the country, and people reporting fires at those facilities. Read more “The Unbearable Cluelessness of Russian Embassy Reporting”