Much has been written in the media about the CIA being risk-averse. Even some former CIA officers have commented on how the CIA avoids risk, making it a less effective intelligence agency. Clearly, this is a serious problem if an intelligence agency avoids risks. This would prevent them from getting the job done. Espionage, after all, involves considerable risk. For those of you who don't know and just to establish a standard frame of reference, risk-averse means "disinclined or reluctant to take risks." However, I believe the idea that the CIA is risk-averse is simplistic and does not reflect reality. I don't say this because I am some unquestioning acolyte of the Agency. But overall, the CIA is not risk-averse. Let me explain.
The idea that the Agency is risk-averse spreads every time the CIA decides not to undertake some action or operation. When a case officer goes to their managers and proposes some operation and the managers reject it, the easiest and usually first assumption is that management is risk-averse. Otherwise, "Why wouldn't they approve my wonderful idea?" There are many reasons why they wouldn't have that have nothing to do with risk-aversion. Management might not think it is such a wonderful idea, having seen similar ideas throughout their career fail. There might be other reasons you are not aware of. I have observed officers make proposals that are shot down with little explanation. They walk out of the room muttering and complaining. What they didn't know, in many of these cases, was that there were more important, overriding issues at play that the case officer was not aware of and couldn't be told of for security reasons.
The higher a proposal goes the more factors come into play. At a station, the Chief of Station (COS) has the responsibility of the station and how a proposal fits into that station's objectives. At a higher Headquarters (HQS) level, many things come into play that a case officer or station management might not be aware of, including resources and competing operations in other locations. At higher levels, the complexity increases. You might want to recruit an individual you believe has important access to information. You might not know that there is already a penetration of that organization that no one wants to jeopardize should your recruitment attempt fail. Or there might be a technical operation that is yielding important amounts of intelligence that no one at the highest levels of the U.S. national security apparatus wants to \jeopardize. And yes, at the highest levels politics will come into play as well as larger national security issues.
Intelligence is, in part, about risk management. Is the risk we take worth the intelligence gain? We are in an inherently risky occupation. We need to be certain that the risk makes sense. Are we going to recruit someone and place their life in danger, as well as risk being caught, for marginal intelligence information that can be acquired more easily and safely elsewhere? Intelligence professionals do not take risks for the sake of the risk or because it is cool. We do it because it makes sense and the intelligence we gain by taking that risk is worth it.
That having been said, there is a degree of risk aversion at the CIA, and throughout the intelligence community. However, this risk aversion is not unique to us. You can find it in the ranks of the military, corporate America, and numerous other places. It is not an organizational aversion to risk, rather, it is an aversion to any risk that would hurt an individual’s career prospects. I call it career risk-aversion. It centers around the age-old question, "Will taking this risk hurt my career?" This question gets asked by highly ambitious people whose main objective is not the mission, but rising through the ranks and reaching whatever they believe is the pinnacle. Ambition is not a bad thing. It propels us to do better, and that benefits the mission. I have worked with officers who lacked ambition and viewed their time with the CIA as a way to get great travel opportunities and benefits. They contributed little to the success of the mission. However, too much ambition is equally damaging to the Agency's mission.
I remember the movie poster for the film Saving Private Ryan when it first came out. One of the headlines said, "Sometimes the mission is one man." That is the motto of the overly ambitious, the mission is one man and that man is themselves. Careerism is alive and well at the CIA. Risks are measured by the personal impact on the individuals making those decisions, rather than if the risk benefits the mission or operation. If an officer knows the risk he or she is taking, has the support of those above them, then they will take the risk. If they believe they will be penalized and their career will suffer if the risk fails, they will think twice about taking that risk. This doesn't apply to all CIA officers (nothing in life is totally good or bad). In fact, it likely applies to a minority, but that minority is large enough that it can and does impact some decision-making. Many of these careerists rise to senior ranks and that negatively affects the overall mission. It also teaches the wrong lesson to junior officers.
Decision-making becomes more painful as managers decide to send decisions up the chain of command so they will not be the ones making the controversial decisions —and avoid the risk of making said decisions. Leaders cease to become leaders and become managers instead, and not very good managers at that. Frustrations mount, opportunities are lost, and the mission suffers.
Some people will say this careerism proves the CIA is risk-averse. I would argue that there is a difference, maybe subtle, but it is a difference. There is not a culture of risk aversion in the CIA, it is not inherent in the business of espionage. On the contrary, there is a culture of taking risks, it is one of the reasons many of us join. The trouble is in the growth of careerism. It is like a cancer that consumes its host.
Is the CIA risk-averse? No. I have personally worked with or observed officers who take incredible risks to carry out the mission, including risks to their very lives. The problem lies with the fact that careerism thrives in the Agency—we know it, senior leadership knows it, and nothing is done. Those who promote their careers above all else still thrive and succeed. They fail as leaders spectacularly. There are several who have been repeatedly removed from their management positions for having failed miserably, yet they continue to be promoted and given ever-increasing responsibility. At which they continue to fail.
Senior CIA leadership needs to demonstrate that failed leadership driven by concern for one's own career will not be tolerated. I understand this is a difficult thing to do. It is a fine balance between holding someone accountable for putting their career first over the mission and avoiding the impression that leaders will be punished for any risk-taking. But, in general, most people know who the officers are who place their careers above all else. Their subordinates know who they are, their peers know who they are, and their leaders know them as well. There needs to be a culture within the CIA where a leader's responsibilities are made clear: carry out the mission, take care of your people, uphold the highest moral and ethical standards, and place yourself last.