zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Book Review: The Human Factor

Book Review: The Human Factor

The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture by Ishmael Jones

A former clandestine officer of the CIA who operated overseas without benefit of diplomatic cover, “Ishmael Jones” has painted one of the most damning insider accounts of a puportedly self-serving and risk-averse CIA’s management culture that has ever been written. Jones’ description of a mendacious and incompetent CIA headquarters bureaucracy has less in common with critical documents like the 9/11 Commission Report or the legendary Church Committee hearings than it does with the literature produced by Soviet dissidents and defectors during the Cold War.

Jones, who quotes from the iconic 1990’s film Glengarry Glen Ross, yearned to be in an aggressive covert intelligence service whose case officers would “Always Be Closing” . Instead, he finds a Central Intelligence Agency topheavy with career managers averse to approving operational approaches to potential sources, eager to recall effective and productive officers permanently home on the slightest pretexts, comfortable with padding their incomes through familial nepotism and not above lying to Congress or political superiors in the Executive Branch. Jones navigates successfully through three consecutive overseas assignments via a strategy of keeping HQ in the dark about his activities, never becoming known as an “administrative problem” to HQ paper-shufflers and advancing operational costs from his own pocket, with the CIA eventually in arrears to Jones to the tune of $ 200,000.

CIA management in The Human Factor resembles nothing so much as the Soviet nomenklatura crossbred with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Even if we were to allow for exaggeration for humorous effect, or frankly discount 50 % of Jones’ examples outright, the remainder is still a horrifying picture of Langley as an insular bureaucracy that excels far more at Beltway intrigue than at foreign espionage or covert operations. Jones also discusses the tenure of CIA directors George Tenet and Porter Goss, the Valerie Plame story and the post-9/11 intelligence “reforms” that aggravated the CIA management culture’s worst tendencies. Jones concludes by stating flatly that the CIA cannot be fixed and should be abolished, with its useful operational personnel transferred to the Departments of State and Defense.


An excellent – and more detailed – review of The Human Factor by  by fellow Chicago Boyz blogger, James McCormick:

Mini-Book Review – Jones – The Human Factor

….Other reviews of this book have proclaimed Human Factor a rather boring recollection of examples of institutional ineptitude and better as a guidebook for potential employees than a useful description of the CIA but I feel this is in fact the most useful book on the CIA’s clandestine service since:

Orrin Deforest and David Chanoff, Slow Burn: The Rise and Bitter Fall of American Intelligence in Vietnam, Simon & Schuster, 1990, 294 pp.

David Atlee Phillips, The Night Watch: 25 Years of Peculiar Service, Atheneum, 1977, 309 pp.

which covered clandestine case officer activities, first person, in Vietnam and Latin America.

Like these two aforementioned titles, Human Factor focuses on the day-to-day challenges of being a covert case officer … the “teeth” in any intelligence organization. It is noteworthy that the Director of Central Intelligence has rarely, if ever, been one of those covert (non-State Department) officers. It’s as if your dentist was being overseen by experts in small-engine mechanics.

Ishmael recounts the minutiae of what reports he needed to write, the porous e-mail systems he had to manipulate, and the permissions he needed to gain. The timing and delays of decisions from Langley … the phrasing and terminology that was necessary to get anyone back in the US to allow any activity whatsoever. As a former stock broker, Jones was entirely comfortable with the challenges of “cold-calling” and dealing with “No” over and over again. But this wasn’t the case for his fellow trainees or for any of his superiors. At every turn, he was able to contrast his experience in the Marines (and military culture), and with Wall Street’s “make the call” ethos, with what he was experiencing as one of the most at-risk members of the Agency

4 Responses to “Book Review: The Human Factor”

  1. James Joyner Says:

    Michael Scheuer’s IMPERIAL HUBRIS had much of the same take.   And that from a then-serving member of the Senior Intelligence Service.

  2. zen Says:

    Hi Dr. Joyner,
    It’s not a good sign for an organization when its’ top performers regularly exit and write books that declare it to be useless. 😉
    Probably time for a new civilian clandestine service entirely separate from the CIA and it’s culture to be formed. Something nimble and lean.

  3. James Joyner Says:

    I’ve long thought that clandestine operations and analysis should be conducted by separate agencies.  And am not sure why kinetic ops, including drone strikes, should be conducted by intel types at all; that should be a military function.

  4. Joseph Fouche Says:

    The CIA should be broken up.

    Analysis and operations should be broken up between State, Defense, Agriculture, Interior, etc. Centralization of analysis and operations leads to critical intelligence being revealed to foreign nations on the front page of the NYT and WaPo.

    Internal espionage should be separated from the FBI, which should focus on other crimes.

    The Foreign Service should be professionalized. No more sending Dubuque, Iowa housing baron Joe Podunk as ambassador to Slovenia.

    Crimes by "intelligence community" personnel should be handled by dedicated tribunals, if not put under military law.

Switch to our mobile site