Alex sits down with Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior intelligence officer in the CIA overseeing clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia. Marc retired after 26 years of service as one of the CIA’s most decorated field officers. The two discuss how the tech landscape has impacted CIA operations over the past 3 decades, the United States facing new near-peer threats, and Marc being targeting by a Russian energy weapon that ultimately lead to an early end of his CIA career. They highlight leadership principals from Marc’s new book, Clarity in Crisis, that are applicable for anyone looking to grow as a leader and as a human being.
Originally Aired: 06/18/21
#CIA #Leadership #Author
00:00 – Subscribe for Tech & Business News Daily
00:14 – Marc Polymeropoulos Intro
01:16 – CIA Ranking – 4 Star General
02:00 – Leadership Parallels Between CIA and Startup World
03:32 – Keys to Having Clarity in Crisis
05:02 – Harrowing Moments Where Marc Had to Keep Composure
08:51 – Embracing Change as a Leader
11:51 – U.S. and Foreign Intelligence Love to Use Social Media
15:13 – Do Your Kids Use TikTok?
15:31 – Tech Companies Influence Abroad
19:36 – Being Attacked in Moscow
22:08 – Energy Weapon Being Used Outside Russia?
24:23 – Do CIA Agents Have a “License to Kill”?
27:33 – Cyber and Information War
31:25 – Near Peer Competition from China + Russia
34:20 – Constant Change and Innovation in Intelligence Space
38:05 – Closing Thoughts
Alex Moazed (00:08):
Hello, I’m Alex Moazed. And welcome to Winner Take All. I’m really excited to have special guest with us today, Marc Polymeropoulos, a recently retired, I think 26 plus year CIA veteran. He was former senior intelligence officer in the CIA, has recently published a book, a great book here called Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA. Marc, so great to have you with us. Thank you so much for joining.
Marc Polymeropoulos (00:39):
It’s great to be here and you did a great job pronouncing my last name. I always got to start with a funny story on that. I was in the Middle East, many years ago and the President’s briefers were going down to see George W. Bush, and they wanted my view on a situation and I was pretty excited and I was a young officer. I was a manager at CIA station. So I waited a couple hours and they came back and I said, “How’d it go?” And they said, “Hey, we’re in the oval. They spent the whole time trying to pronounce your last name.” So you nailed it, you did better than President Bush.
Alex Moazed (01:07):
Yeah, well, thank you, Marc. It might be a little bit of a low bar, but much appreciated. And I think you mentioned, you’re a very humble guy, but you were saying that, you don’t have the same kind of tears in the CIA, but I guess kind of before your retirement, you were kind of the equivalent of a four star general in the CIA. Did I catch that right?
Marc Polymeropoulos (01:32):
So I retired in the Senior Intelligence Service and while it’s, the military loves to have kind of equivalent ranks, so I say this a lot, but I managed several thousand people before I retired and I spent a long time there, 26 years. So, I really grew up in a place, it’s frankly, the only job I ever had, which makes me uniquely unqualified to go into the private sector. So I wrote a book, but ultimately it was a wonderful career and I did a lot of great things along the way.
Alex Moazed (02:00):
Awesome. And you know, we’ve got a big techie audience, lots of entrepreneurs watching the show and the subheader on the book here is leadership lessons, right? And, I felt like there was some mappings, right? There’s definitely some mappings between what you were talking about like, hitting rock bottom, or kind of what you have to do to really kind of become a leader or grow people, that I saw parallels with kind of the trials and tribulations of tech entrepreneurs. Is that how you were envisioning it when you were writing the book and kind of thinking about these leadership lessons and what are some of those key criteria on that journey?
Marc Polymeropoulos (02:38):
I think you always wonder when you write a book on leadership, who is it going to appeal to? And then someone gave me some good advice one time, they said, “Look, it’s got to be to the entrepreneur, to the librarian.” So you try to make it appeal to everybody. But I’m really excited to be talking today because I think really the entrepreneur class is something that this book will appeal to because so much of what we do in the CIA is deal with ambiguity and deal with times of uncertainty and it’s about risk taking and managed risks and how you build teams to get there. And so I think there are enormous parallels on this. And then, we can talk maybe a little bit later also about technology too, because that’s the one thing that at the CIA has to remain relevant in the years to come. And that’s how we not only embrace, but also defeat, technical means that other services, other counter intelligence services are using to track our officers. So I think the entrepreneurs audience that you have is spot on to really enjoy this book.
Alex Moazed (03:32):
So yeah, let’s drill into that clarity and crisis. How do you achieve such a thing? I know you’ve got to read the book, but what does that mean to have clarity in crisis and what do you think some of the key building blocks to be able to have that characteristics?
Marc Polymeropoulos (03:51):
Sure. So, I wrote the book at the end of my career when I actually found that, I found that clarity, I became a great leader, unfortunately, before retirement, I think that happens so often. And I look back in earlier times in my career and you kind of grimace, maybe you read something that you wrote or you think about a situation, but I became a really good leader at the end and I sat back and I thought, “Why did this happen?” Particularly when I live in a world of gray. And, so what I did is I came up with some principles that kind of I started to understand because at the end of my career, there would be times of crisis, times of ambiguity, and I found it, that was my happy place. I was comfortable there. It’s kind of an odd thing to say. So, when people want to flee, I’m actually in a position where, “Hey we’re okay.” And then I started thinking about how I got to that position. So I came up with these nine principles and it’s all about sitting in positions when there’s adversity, there’s a lack of situational awareness. I call it living in the gray and you’re just okay with it. You’re like, “I’m good right here.” And boy, nothing can define an entrepreneur or a successful one, the ability to manage that. So, but maybe now we can talk about a couple of the principles.
Alex Moazed (05:00):
Yeah, and maybe an example story here. For me, for example, when I didn’t know how we were going to make payroll, not just two weeks, not just a week, literally maybe four hours out. And my hands started to shake and you have heart palpitations, and then kind of like everything that happens after that, it’s like, “Oh, okay. Yeah, not phased by it.” Right? What was maybe one of those real harrowing moments for you that then everything that came after was like, “Yeah, you guys don’t even know.”?
Marc Polymeropoulos (05:38):
So, one of the principles I talk about, and in each one of the principles, it’s a catchy phrase because that’s just what you do, but I call it winning an Oscar. And let me tell you why, because I always said there’s no day off as a leader because all eyes are on you. And I joke that if you need a friend, get a dog. And so let me give you some examples of this because it’s really important and when times are tough, when you have to meet that payroll, maybe you have three or four employees and they’re looking at you, like, “All right, boss, what are we going to do?” You don’t want to be shaking right there. So I’ll give you a perfect example. And it’s actually, there’s some funny ones.
Marc Polymeropoulos (06:11):
So there’s one funny one, one serious one. The funny one was, I was a leader of one of our paramilitary bases along the Pak-Afghan, the Pakistan Afghanistan border about a decade ago. And I had the kind of the baddest crew around these are folks, veterans with the special operations command, they’d been in Tora Bora, and they’d been in Black Hawk Down in Somalia. And we go out on a patrol one time and we come back and I hadn’t slept for 36 hours, I was hungry. And for the first time, in several months, I sat by myself, literally in the mess hall, it’s a lot of camaraderie. I was tired, I sat by myself and just wanted to eat by myself and these toughest dudes in the planet, it was like I stole their toys, like Christmas or a holiday was canceled and they were like, “Why’s Marc mad at us?”
Marc Polymeropoulos (06:56):
I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Are you guys kidding me? I’m just tired.” But I sat back and I reflected on it. And the bottom line is I failed in that, what I didn’t do was tell them, “Hey, I’m tired right now. I got to take a knee, I’m fine, but I’m going to go be by myself right now.” And so I love that story because it just shows how you kind of as a leader, how you need to be kind of your forward facing persona as a leader. And the other one was, I was in an embassy in the Middle East several years ago and was attacked by Al Qaeda. It was a terrifying moment, there’s grenades and there’s small arms fire hitting the front of the embassy.
Marc Polymeropoulos (07:33):
And I have to, we have these drills how to react to this. Everybody gets under the desk, they don some body armor. I’m trying to open the weapons safe to hand out weapons. My heart rate went from zero to a hundred, I was flat out terrified. So much of this book I talk about, I’m not thumping my chest on anything, I was scared to death. But afterwards, when we did the after action report and fortunately everyone lived, but when we did the after action report, everybody said to me, “Marc, you looked so calm there.” And I didn’t say it, but I was like, “I wasn’t calm, I was scared. I thought we were dead.” But you kind of look back and reflect on just that persona you have in times of crisis is really important.
Marc Polymeropoulos (08:12):
And you can also be honest, you can actually say, “Hey everyone, we’re going to be fine. Hey, I’m scared too, but yeah, just get on the desk, put your body armor on.” Or, you could say just, the example you gave before, “Hey, this is a little kind of crunch time. We’re cutting it a little close on payroll, aren’t we?” And smile, but it’s just the way your persona and how you’re seen is really important. So I love that principle in terms of winning an Oscar, because I think it’s really important when you deal with times of ambiguity and crisis.
Alex Moazed (08:37):
I love that, you’re a leader, people watch you, they look up to you, you got to always be thinking about that and setting the right example. Even when you think that maybe you don’t have to, right? And, people notice. Also as a leader, you got to be able to embrace change, right? And you have to know when to pivot or to shift, or do things differently or say no, right? These kinds of things, I guess. Does that bring up any bells or connect any dots when you think about your illustrious career, 20 plus years in the role of technology and how you saw that changing, how you just had to do what you did?
Marc Polymeropoulos (09:24):
So, one of my principles, I called the process monkey. And so, it sounds like this is kind of very rigid, but actually it’s not. So, what you do as a leader, you have to identify the core processes in your company, in your business, in your line of work that are absolutely essential that you cannot take short cuts on. And these are your fundamentals, but then you also have to understand, you have to innovate along the way. And changing technology, especially in the espionage business is a perfect example. So, one of the things I talk about is, as an intelligence officer, my job is to spot, assess, develop, recruit, and handle what we call an agent, That’s a spy.
Marc Polymeropoulos (10:05):
As we do that, we go out and we have to meet them on the street. So we do something called a surveillance detection route. And that’s taking some turns, maybe putting on a disguise, I don’t want anyone following me to identify who the spy is that I’m handling. So this is like a Navy seal has to be able to shoot, a CIA officer has to know how to evade surveillance. And so there’s ways to do this. And, I tell a story about when I was in the Middle East and I was stuck in traffic, I had to go meet a really important agent. It was like an eight hour surveillance detection route. And I knew I missed my timing stop, so it wasn’t going to happen. Now nobody’s with me, I’m alone, so this is all ethics and integrity on me. And what I had to do was I actually had to cancel, I aborted the meeting. I didn’t go because I would not be able to do the fundamental things that would keep that agent alive.
Marc Polymeropoulos (10:52):
Okay. So that’s a really interesting story about a process, but we also have changing technology in the espionage business, which means what? Which means people can track our cell phones. There’s smart cities, everywhere. Smart cities are really cool, sort of, but not for the intelligence officer. There’s facial recognition, there’s cameras everywhere. And so, as I’m trying to kind of disappear, there’s people looking at me, so what do we do? We have to innovate, we have to always think ahead. So and I love, there’s so many different examples. A car is a built-in GPS unit, right? There’s a GPS in there, I can’t now drive my car to meet an agent. So what did we do sometimes to innovate? Hey, we got a bicycle, there’s no engine on that. So I’m being serious that you kind of go back to the basics. So, technology changes and for just like everything else in life, but particularly for entrepreneurs, same thing for the intelligence business, we have to adapt and innovate as well. So the process monkey means you have those fundamentals, but you always got to be innovating as well.
Alex Moazed (11:51):
One of the things we’ve talked about a few times on the show is, the role of kind of US tech monopolies, and then it’s not a US tech monopoly it’s now pretty much a Chinese tech monopoly. And, for example, in the US we’ve seen the 50 Cent Army, China’s kind of, I think it’s got to be over a million people that are writing comments and creating posts. I’m sure Russia is also doing this too, because obviously in the book you talk about Russia was kind of your main post, right? You were in the Middle East, and then you went to Russia, we’ve seen the 50 Cent Army influencing opinion, but I’ve seen reports about the Chinese, I don’t know what their secret services even called, but maybe that’s how you know it’s really secret, but using LinkedIn to try and recruit agents. And so even what you were just talking about, kind of changing the dynamic of saying, “Hey, how do you even source these people that could become a spy in the future?” And it just seems like there’s so much change technologically. And, I wouldn’t even know where to start. I mean, it’s not my world, your world, but it just seems like there’s so much going on in developed countries and then emerging countries. And how do you even make sense of that?
Marc Polymeropoulos (13:20):
So, and that’s where intelligence services have to always innovate. I wrote a piece right before the new CIA director Bill Burns was confirmed and it was an open letter to him. And actually it turns out he read it and then he called me to talk about it. But, I had several different recommendations for him, but one of them was embracing technology, but also understanding that there’s a new world out there. And so you gave a great example about LinkedIn and the dangers of LinkedIn. Everybody uses LinkedIn, but so do hostile intelligence services. So the more you put on there, the more someone who may be actually a Chinese intelligence officers contacting you, looking like he or she is a company in Hong Kong asking you to do a market study, asking you to do some consulting, but it’s the first step and kind of going down the road.
Marc Polymeropoulos (14:12):
And so, we have always have to be very aware of what our adversaries are doing. Of course, I can’t talk about it. We do those things as well. And, I’ll tell you one thing, there’s both from the United States perspective, but from a foreign intelligence services, there’s nothing better than Facebook. There’s nothing better than social media, because I don’t know if you do, and I certainly make the mistake, I’m all over Twitter, but we put way too much information on there. Facebook is going to tell someone your story, your life story, as what we do as a CIA officer, my job, if I wanted to recruit you, we would do something called a targeting study. That means I want to know what you like, where you go at night, where you go during the day, all your friends, and I’m going to build a mechanism to approach you based on everything I know about you. Guess what you’ve done already? You’ve just handed that to me, thank you. And so, that’s where we are in 2021. But we have to embrace it in terms of we have to utilize this, but we also have to understand that from a defensive capability, we’ve got to be really smart too.
Alex Moazed (15:15):
Does that mean your kids aren’t on TikTok?
Marc Polymeropoulos (15:18):
My daughter’s on TikTok, but I’ve sat her down. I said, “The Chinese intelligence services are reading your stuff.” She goes, “Dad, I’m 21. I don’t care.” And she still sends me TikTok videos.
Alex Moazed (15:30):
See, that’s it right there. You can’t let go of it, it’s the monopolistic nature of it all, and we’ve seen now the US tech monopolies, Zuckerberg especially, kind of use it as a defense to say, “Hey, if you try and bust us up, you’re actually going to be hurting US influence abroad.”
Marc Polymeropoulos (15:54):
Alex Moazed (15:54):
And at the same time we’ve seen, and we’ve talked about this on the show too, some US tech monopolies have a reticence to work with US government, US Department of Defense, which we have very, very blatantly said, that’s completely inappropriate. I don’t know if any of that resonates, because if it’s US and China, we’ve talked about Southeast Asia and all these other markets, it’s kind of a battle between the US tech monopolies and the Chinese tech monopolies. And I do agree with Zuckerberg to some degree that these tech companies absolutely do help project influence over these other territories, which I’m sure you saw some of that stuff in the Middle East and in Russia and all these kinds of things.
Marc Polymeropoulos (16:44):
It brings up a really interesting kind of case study on what happened in 2016. And so, ultimately the Russians really exploited our use of social media to influence the US elections. But if you take a look at some of the indictments from Robert Mueller, there was several Russians were indicted, they had traveled to the United States and they had used Facebook and other forums in which to influence the American electorate. So for example, and the Russians were really good at this. So, Facebook would have their chat rooms or their forums in which they’d talk about really hot button issues, which really riled up the American public. So whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement or second amendment stuff, or it just goes on and on and on, and all of this was fake, so it was a fake Russian persona starting this. And of course, then kind of that feeds into this cycle in the United States. And that’s really hard to battle.
Marc Polymeropoulos (17:37):
And so, I think that obviously we’re a free and democratic society, so there’s a great struggle in terms of how you regulate this or not. But I also think there’s an awareness that it is 2021, and it’s very hard to kind of regulate things like TikTok or Facebook ultimately. I will say though, as an intelligence officer, so I think the FBI probably has a different view of Facebook than the CIA does. Again, we love this stuff for targeting. I want a terrorist in the Middle East to have a Facebook profile. That’s awesome because then you know what he’s going to do? His wife is going to have a profile too, meaning she’s going to post pictures of her house in Yemen. Thank you. I’m joking sort of when I say this, but we really can use this to our advantage too. So I think that probably the FBI for kind of internal issues here in the United States has a different view, but I love this stuff when I was in government service.
Alex Moazed (18:31):
I will tell you that I guarantee the Chinese secret service, which I still don’t know their name
Marc Polymeropoulos (18:37):
MSS. It’s the Ministry of State Security, MSS.
Alex Moazed (18:39):
Okay, okay, okay. They have a name, so that that’s kind of not as cool anymore, but so I guarantee they’ve got back doors and I think it’s been pretty well-documented into all these Chinese tech monopoly companies, platform companies, which is different. And, I think it’s probably very good that the US tech monopolies don’t just backdoor all the government agencies into these private businesses, but it is very different. And we’ve covered it on the show, a myriad of examples about the MSS and the tech monopolies, there really isn’t much of a barrier in terms of that sharing of information. How is that relevant to this conversation and to the book? I think is also mapping back to some of what you’ve talked about more recently as it relates to, if we broaden the scope of what we’re talking about with technology, not just social media and not just software companies, but what was also very unfortunate to read more about and learn more about, and what ultimately helped prompt or accelerate your retirement from the service. Could you tell us more about that? Because that’s also right smack dab in this kind of technological bucket, just a different form of it.
Marc Polymeropoulos (20:05):
Yeah. This is certainly part of my journey, I never thought that this is how, I actually never thought I’d be talking today to you or to any other, any of podcasts or members of the media I’m on TV a lot. So I was someone who lived in the shadows for 26 years. So, my life journey has certainly taken a different stand, but ultimately in December of 2017, I made a trip to Moscow. At the time, I was the head of clandestine operations over Europe and Eurasia. So it was a huge, vast territory, but I went there to see our embassy, there was an ambassador there, John Huntsman, who was kind of a legendary figure in foreign policy circles, and also to meet with Russian officials.
Marc Polymeropoulos (20:45):
The US and Russia had a very tense and has a very tense relationship, but we still meet, in the intelligence services do. And what happened was on the second or third night of the trip at a five star hotel, I woke to this incredible case of vertigo. I had tinnitus ringing in my ears, I couldn’t get up, I had a splitting headache. And, it turns out that both, I believe it, my doctors do as well that I was subject to, it likely was a directed energy weapon, very similar to what had happened to 30 or 40 US officials in Havana, Cuba in 2016. And unfortunately that really derailed my career because and to this day I still have these headaches. And so I had to retire in July of 2019. At 50 I could retire, but certainly far short of what I had planned.
Marc Polymeropoulos (21:32):
And there was a certain aura and a mystery around this, these directed energy attacks are still ongoing now. There’s recent press reports that over 130 American officials have been subject to this. So this is a huge issue for the foreign policy community, for the intelligence community. It’s affecting our military officers, our diplomats and our intelligence officers overseas. And, boy, when you talk about technology, at some point we’re going to find out exactly what is happening, but this is one of those kinds of unique mysteries. Eventually it’ll be solved, but it’s something that’s a lot of people are getting harmed right now, so it’s pretty serious.
Alex Moazed (22:09):
Yeah it’s very sad to hear. I was also reading that happening abroad, it could also be happening in the United States.
Marc Polymeropoulos (22:17):
Right. And so, there’s been a couple of cases, alleged cases, involving national security council personnel in Washington. So look, I’ve been out of government, I don’t have access to the classified information. I do know having talked to a lot of people who know these individuals, that the symptoms are very similar to what myself and others have experienced. What I say about this, I put this whole issue into two bins and the first bin is, access to healthcare. And one thing that, this will be a story that will go down in history is just like Agent Orange in Vietnam, just like Gulf War Syndrome after 1990, this is kind of gross government incompetence and taking care of our people. And so, they didn’t do that for our folks in Havana. They didn’t do it for me until I kind of pitched a bit of a fit and in the public. Things are much better now I must say, so that’s the first bin.
Marc Polymeropoulos (23:06):
And the second bin is the technology piece is, what is this? What does this weapon look like? And I think we’re getting closer to finding out, we know that the Russians and others have had such directed energy weapons in the past. American companies have this, there’s a company I know very well that is selling this system to the US government to take down small drones, directed energies, this is not a science fiction concept, it exists and it works. So that’s the kind of the two bins that I look at the healthcare piece, but also accountability and culpability, because this is something that’s causing lot of consternation kind of in my old world, it’s not only intelligence officers, diplomats, it’s their family members, there’s young kids who are getting injured by this. So it’s, it’s pretty sad.
Alex Moazed (23:55):
Very sad and great to hear that the health, I know the health care stuff has been a contentious point. You wouldn’t think it would be, but glad to hear there’s more progress being made on that front and taking care of people that have served the country. So, that’s great to hear. And, I was reading this and digging into your book and just reading more about your career. Ans you were saying, “Hey, dating back to like 2014.” Maybe earlier, but I know at least the date 2014, you were saying, “Hey, the Russians are kind of taking off the gloves, they’re becoming a lot more aggressive.” And it seemed kind of like a gentleman’s agreement between the different secret service agencies was that, there’s no killing, right? You’re doing spying operations, but if you’re going to actually end someone’s life, that’s kind of a whole special other situation, that really doesn’t happen. I felt like that was kind of news to me, you watch James Bond and you watch Jack Ryan, but that’s not actually what’s happening, right? It’s not license to kill. That’s not the standard operating procedure.
Marc Polymeropoulos (25:24):
You’re a hundred percent right. And so, there was this gentleman’s agreement over the years, particularly with when Russia was the Soviet Union. And so, intelligence officers doing harm to each other really was off limits. Now, of course, our terrorist adversaries would certainly try to kill CIA officers all the time, but we’re talking about kind of state actors where it’s us and the Russians, or us and the Chinese, but I think something’s changed. I attribute frankly all of it to Russian president Vladimir Putin, because ultimately this is an individual on the world stage has violated so many of these norms. And so whether he’s interfering in elections all over Europe and the United States, trying to kill his own dissidence, trying to kill you using a chemical weapon a former Russian Intel officer who had resettled in England several years ago, Sergei Skripal.
Marc Polymeropoulos (26:17):
And of course, the Russian activities in Syria, the Russian air force committing atrocious war crimes, killing civilians in Syria. And so, I think the Russians have certainly taken the gloves off, and so the United States has to really take a different view of this because whatever we’ve been doing to try to thwart this and stop this really hasn’t worked. And kind of getting a little bit into your world and your listeners world as well, is all about kind of the cyber attacks and ransomware. And it’s really interesting because if you think about our competition with the Soviet Union or our worry of it, this is all over nuclear annihilation. Well, we’ve actually moved now into the cyberspace where the Russians and I don’t care if you talk about the Russian intelligence services or a Russian hacker living in Russia, who is under the protection ultimately of the Russian government, but they have an ability to take down critical infrastructure, targets in the United States. So whether it’s colonial pipeline or the US has the largest meat packer. All of a sudden, these operations which are incredibly cheap to run, can be amazingly damaging to the United States. So kind of this new competition, it’s not in the nuclear sphere anymore, it’s in cyberspace. And, this is something that I think that the US is really struggling to try to figure out how to deter this.
Alex Moazed (27:35):
You know, what we say is, look, we may not be in a kinetic war, but we are today in information warfare. No question about it. We currently are in a war, it’s an information war.
Marc Polymeropoulos (27:47):
No, it is for sure. And, it’s also a battle for hearts and minds as well. I think about, and I talk a lot about this and I have over the last several days after the summit in Geneva between President Biden and President Putin. So how do we deter the Russians? And one of the things that I like, and it was frankly, it was started under President Trump and it’s continued under President Biden is this concept of defend forward. And that has to do with what NSA and Cybercom are doing. And so it’s been reported that one of the ways we are kind of hitting back on Russia is kind of an aggressive cyber campaign, offensive cyber campaign. And I think that when, I think President Biden gave a list of 16 infrastructure targets during the summit and gave it to Putin and saying, “These are off limits for hackers or for any kind of cyber cyber warfare.”
Marc Polymeropoulos (28:33):
And okay, so got it. But what happens when they do it, what are we going to do in response? And so I think this is something in terms of international relations that a lot of really kind of smart people, deep thinkers are really struggling about. We had in the age of nuclear annihilation, the idea of mutually assured destruction, are we going to use that concept in terms of cyber now? In terms of going after each other’s infrastructure target. So it’s a new age, it’s 2021, and I’ll tell you one thing, if I was someone in college right now, I would get a degree, do something in terms of cyber. That is the future, there’s no doubt about it.
Alex Moazed (29:10):
No, you got to do it, right? Going back to the leadership thing, right? If they’re taking their gloves off, then we better take our gloves off and put on some brass knuckles, right? Otherwise, if we just keep doing what we’re doing, and then why would you expect any different results? You know what I mean?
Marc Polymeropoulos (29:31):
Yeah. And so, one of my leadership principles I talked about in the book, I call it adversity is the PED to success, the performance enhancing drug to success. And ultimately, I just about you have to hit rock bottom first, you have to fail first in order to succeed. That’s your super fuel and how you grow. So this can be in the business world, it can be in the sports world, and in the intelligence world, but it’s also, okay, we’ve been hit here with all these cyber attacks. So we’ve learned for this. We got our taste of adversity. Three weeks ago, you couldn’t get gas anywhere in the East Coast. It was insane. I live in Northern Virginia, I live in Vienna, Virginia. We had no gas. I had to go pick up my kid from college, I couldn’t go. And so if we don’t learn from that kind of adversity, boy, we’re kind of fooling ourselves. And there’s so many examples in my kind of my world, and in the sports world. But, the easiest thing I talk about all the time is Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, right? So, he clearly did okay. But he didn’t quit, and he learned from that kind of adversity.
Alex Moazed (30:33):
I think that note of optimism, also something that I reflect on a lot about on the show is that people are waking up, right? People are kind of recognizing what’s going on, whether it’s big tech overstepping a lot of boundaries and that needing to be reigned in, or whether it’s I think kind of popping the bubble on like being buddy buddy with communist dictatorship countries, right? It’s like, yeah, don’t really know if you can trust them, not really worked out so well in certainly past few years. And, I think we kind of hoped that things would turn out differently. It doesn’t really seem like it is, and I think people are waking up to that. And what I see here in the book and what we’re talking about here is, it’s actually it’s Russia and, right? It’s Russia and China, right? These attacks that you’re talking about, these microwave attacks, it’s in Russia and it’s happening in China. And I feel like you’re seeing both of them kind of tag team this and are kind of becoming more and more buddy buddy, which is a pretty yeah, dreary outlook.
Marc Polymeropoulos (31:50):
So, we have a word for this now. So, of course we spent 20 years fighting kind of the counter-terrorism wars and one can debate whether that was necessary to do this for so long or not, but clearly after 9/11, we had to respond. But, there’s a new buzzword now in the kind of the national security circles and we call it near peer competition. And that means China Russia. And so, we are not fighting this kind of guerrilla armies or terrorist armies in South Asia and Afghanistan, for example, but, so now we’re kind of going back to kind of competitors who are pretty good. And so, we have to up our game on that as well.
Marc Polymeropoulos (32:30):
But in the near peer competition of 2021 and beyond, is going to look radically different than what we faced if we’re in Yemen or Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan. And so, we do have to adapt and innovate. And I look there, you see so much in the media now about, and there’s significant worry about Chinese technical capabilities in the military sphere, and if you take a look at kind of recent conflicts, the use of drones, and this is not the drones that we have because the United States has done pretty damn well using drones in our counter-terrorism fight. But these are drones that the Azerbaijan military bought from the Israelis that they use really successfully in a conflict in with Armenia recently.
Marc Polymeropoulos (33:19):
And, maybe not a lot of people know what I’m talking about here, and then this is really interesting and significant because the Azerbaijanis took out the entire Armenian kind of tank battalions in a day, using drones. And so, everyone kind of sits back and says, “Whoa.” And what is the US military now look like, are we able to defend against that? So, technology and innovation is moving so quickly and it’s something that it’s critical. I was lucky to work in the CIA where and when you have these kinds of classified special access programs, we were able to kind of build certain things and employ them on a very quick basis. But generally the US military particularly is not very good on timelines, to employ something might take five years where you really need five minutes. And so these are the things that everyone’s thinking about now kind of in the national security sphere, when it terms of how do we embrace technology in this near peer investment.
Alex Moazed (34:17):
I love that. Yeah, near peer and it’s spot on, and I’ll give you a little quote from my book, and it’s another James Bond reference. In the film, Skyfall, when Bond first meets Q, Bond’s technology guru, Q jokes that he could do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of earl gray than you can do in a year in the field. “Oh, so why do you need me?” Bond asked. “Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.” Q says, “Or not pulled. It’s hard to know which in your pajamas.”
Marc Polymeropoulos (34:52):
Alex Moazed (34:52):
Yeah, I guess the 2021 version is Bond actually doesn’t have a license to kill, but anyway, outside of that little detail, but I think it is exactly to this point, right? That when you’re going after these near peer rivals Russia and China and the role of technology, and then the people in the field, right? All of that is changing and needs to kind of be in a constant change, right? If it’s not constantly changing, then you’re falling behind.
Marc Polymeropoulos (35:31):
No, that’s a hundred percent true. And so, we better be really careful in not believing our own hype, because we might really good right now, but our near peer competitors are working maybe twice as hard. And I talk about that in the book. One of the principles I talk about is humility is best served warm, but because really great leaders know, you own your mistakes, you learn from them and you innovate and you don’t scapegoat or deflect, and you definitely don’t believe your own hype. I tell a story in the book and so I was involved in, and I have to be careful in how I say this here, but there’s an operational unit that was tracking terrorists. And sometimes they would meet their demise, but sometimes we made mistakes.
Marc Polymeropoulos (36:10):
And in one case, there was what we call CIVCAS, civilian casualties. And we had injured a civilian, that’s really bad. And for all the things you hear about US government and civilian causalities, this is something that we take incredible precautions not to have happen. So, what did I do? So I have to go up and talk to the leadership of CIA. And it was 40 people in a conference room, not really the place I really wanted to be at that point, but I walked up there and I said, “Okay, this is what happened. These are the four things we’ve done to correct this. And by the way, this is all on me. It’s my responsibility.” Because they were asking me who was responsible. So it’s on me, we’ve already made adjustments. And I said, “Any questions?” And it was silence.
Marc Polymeropoulos (36:47):
And I walked out and I saw a senior officer, and I said, “Man, I’m screwed. I’m going to get fired here.” He’s like, “No, actually you’re not because you did exactly what you’re supposed to do.” You own the problem, you fix the problem and you took responsibility and you moved on. So my bosses were happy, then I get that back down to my unit and they tell me, “Hey Marc, what happened?” I said, “I got your back.” By the way, I knew someone who made the mistake, but it built incredible team loyalty that I also stood up for them. So when I say humility is best served warm, we better embrace that concept in such a near peer environment where you have to kind of innovate and change all the time. And, I love kind of the expression don’t believe your own hype because boy, in my world of intelligence operations, I did some great things and I also got my face kicked in a lot. And it’s the old baseball adage of, if you’re batting 300, you’re an all star. That means you fail seven out of 10 times. And so that humility concept is something that I really learned over time, but it’s really important when you talk leadership.
Alex Moazed (37:49):
Yeah. I love that. Yeah, it’s so true, right? Hey, you make a mistake own it. What’s the solution? Right? Don’t pass blame, don’t deflect it, just own it and let’s move on. How do we fix it and keep moving, right? Yeah, couldn’t agree more. Last thoughts here, Marc. Maybe anything on the book kind of that you want to highlight that we didn’t cover? Anything that you think the American public doesn’t understand or should understand about what the CIA does that maybe they don’t understand, parting thoughts?
Marc Polymeropoulos (38:25):
No, that’s a wonderful question and a great way to kind of conclude this because I wrote the book also because I wanted to explain to the American people and really to the world, what an indispensable institution the CIA is for national security. And it’s made up of men and women who really do work in the shadows. Our successes are never celebrated, and our failures are kind of trumpeted all over the planet, but these are really dedicated men and women who kind of stand on the ramparts, protecting the US. So I wanted to kind of tell their story, and these are normal people, I live in Northern Virginia. So, actually there’s a lot of my neighbors work there too.
Marc Polymeropoulos (39:00):
So it’s pretty funny area to live in, but they go to Giant, they go to Safeway, they go to Walgreens, they go to the fruit stand. They’re normal men and women. But, in my view, they’re heroes because they also go overseas for great parts of their career and put their lives on the line, so Americans can sleep safely at night. So I wanted to tell that story and kind of put that out there. And you don’t hear a lot about that these days, but I always believed that the CIA had a soul, it’s an incredible place made up of really amazing individuals. And so I wanted to talk about it and celebrate it. And you’ll get a lot out of that in the book too.
Alex Moazed (39:42):
Book is here, Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA, that’s Marc Polymeropoulous, I think the second time. Marc, so great to have you with us. Thank you so much. Wish you all the best with the book. Great read and thanks again for coming on.
Marc Polymeropoulos (39:58):
Thanks so much.
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