Differences at the Starbucks inside the CIA

Starbucks might be ubiquitous in busy American places but the location within CIA headquarters has some key differences:

“They could use the alias ‘Polly-O string cheese’ for all I care,” said a food services supervisor at the Central Intelligence Agency, asking that his identity remain unpublished for security reasons. “But giving any name at all was making people — you know, the undercover agents — feel very uncomfortable. It just didn’t work for this location.”…

The baristas go through rigorous interviews and background checks and need to be escorted by agency “minders” to leave their work area. There are no frequent-customer award cards, because officials fear the data stored on the cards could be mined by marketers and fall into the wrong hands, outing secret agents…

Because the campus is a highly secured island, few people leave for coffee, and the lines, both in the morning and mid-afternoon, can stretch down the hallway. According to agency lore, one senior official, annoyed by the amount of time employees were wasting, was known to approach someone at the back of the line and whisper, “What have you done for your country today?”…

“Coffee culture is just huge in the military, and many in the CIA come from that culture ,” said Vince Houghton, an intelligence expert and curator at the International Spy Museum. “Urban myth says the CIA Starbucks is the busiest in the world, and to me that makes perfect sense. This is a population who have to be alert and spend hours poring through documents. If they miss a word, people can die.”

Starbucks may market itself as a modern “third place” but in this particular case, this is an anonymous service business. I wonder how much Starbucks had to pay to get this contract…

Sociologist/CIA fellow describes “the paradox of the war on terror”

A recent sociology dissertation asked members of the CIA to describe their work and the “war on terror”:

Nolan, a CIA Graduate Fellow in sociology, produced the ethnography by making observations and interviewing 20 analysts in NCTC’s Directorate of Intelligence (DI) while also working full time as a counterterrorism analyst at Nation Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) from January 2010 to January 2011.

She notes that many analysts feel overwhelmed because “they often were not really sure what their jobs were, and they felt that they had very little understanding of what other people in the organization do.”…

What Anna detailed is the paradox of the War on Terror: The U.S. is fighting, but there are no clear day-to-day objectives. There is an enemy, but it is more of a network than an entity. There is an objective, but there is no clear way to win.

Last year The Washington Post, in a report on the NTCT’s disposition matrix, noted that Obama administration officials believe that U.S. global kill/capture operations “are likely to be extended at least another decade. Given the way al-Qaeda continues to metastasize, some officials said no clear end is in sight.”

I’m not quite sure this is confusing, as the article then goes on to suggest. This is a new kind of operation but the parameters are not entirely unknown. The U.S. is working against social networks, which take time to understand and track. (Think of recent efforts for academics and police to analyze the social networks of gangs.)

However, we could ask whether this new reality matches the kind of bureaucratic structure common in larger organizations. If the objectives change consistently as does the information coming in, it seems like there has to be a corresponding structure that allows smaller units to act somewhat independently and quickly respond to situations. Yet, more smaller and independent units still require coordination so they are not working at cross-odds or important information and actions fall through the cracks.

Similarly, it requires a different mentality from the public who might prefer clearly defined operations. Fighting terrorism is not that. Even when there are “successes,” it can take years to lead to them. “Winning” is not one-time event where a peace treaty is signed but rather the ongoing amount of time citizens in the United States are not threatened. (Americans have some experience with these ongoing wars. See the war on drugs and the war on poverty.)

It seems like there is a lot of room here for sociologists to investigate the war on terrorism, the military, the government, and the responses of the American public. Sociologists may have shied away from military sociology in recent decades but this is a critical component for understanding today’s world…

Argos hints at the negative foreign actions of the United States from the 1950s through the 1970s

I recently saw the movie Argo (95% fresh reviews at RottenTomatoes.com) which was quite well done for a movie for which you know the outcome. One part of the movie that intrigued me was an early timeline scene where the relations between the United States and Iran were described. The events of 1979 shouldn’t have been a complete surprise; the CIA had helped install the Shah through a coup in 1953 and the US supported the regime even through its abuses. This is the back story through which the events of the movie take place. (See the story of Iran-United States relations.)

However, the actions of the United States in Iran were not an isolated incident. Indeed, following its rise to superpower status after World War II, the United States was involved in a number of countries. Some of these actions are more well-known. A war in Korea which ended in a stalemate and reaching the brink of war with China. A war in Vietnam which became unpopular and the US didn’t reach the result for which it entered the war. The Bay of Pigs where the US hoped to depose Fidel Castro. But, there were plenty of actions that were not as well-known. Here are a few places to find out more about these actions:

1. The Church Committee was a Congressional committee that operated in 1975 and uncovered and reported on US foreign actions. The committee produced a number of reports that included information like this:

Among the matters investigated were attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile and President John F. Kennedy’s plan to use the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba.

2. Former CIA operative Philip Agee wrote a 1975 book titled Inside the Company: CIA Diary where he detailed what he knew about CIA actions to influence politics in Latin America. For his actions, Agee’s passport was revoked and he became a persona non grata in some countries friendly with the US. In 2007, Agee described why he came forward with what he knew:

“It was a time in the 70s when the worst imaginable horrors were going on in Latin America,” he says. “Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Guatemala, El Salvador – they were military dictatorships with death squads, all with the backing of the CIA and the US government. That was what motivated me to name all the names and work with journalists who were interested in knowing just who the CIA were in their countries.”

Watching Argo in light of this information may just change the interpretation of the final scenes. At first glance, these scenes can be viewed as yet another American success story: American ingenuity and hard work again fights off the forces of darkness. But, with the more complete back story, the final scene might appear more bittersweet.