This Tuesday, as much of the nation awaited the results of the New Hampshire primary, all four prosecutors working on Roger Stone’s case resigned. They reportedly disagreed with the decision of their Justice Department superiors to file a shorter sentencing recommendation for President Donald Trump’s longtime friend and quit in protest.
The explosive news came after the president removed Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman from his post at the National Security Council, as well as other career officials he apparently considered unable to follow orders because of their disagreement with his actions toward Ukraine. Vindman, unlike the prosecutors this week, chose not to resign. And, speaking as a former counterintelligence official, his firing was both predictable and necessary.
Intelligence collection and analysis are the easy parts of working in the intelligence community. You gather information about what is happening in the world, structure what you know, make judgments about what you don’t and draw inferences to share with policymakers. The hard part is what comes next: letting the policymakers decide what to do. Even though you know the intelligence, the situation and the likely outcomes, you don’t get to make the call.
If you work at the NSC, your job is to determine what is going on in the world and predict the results of potential policies. What you don’t get to do is make policy. You often listen to discussions where officials are choosing to do things you think are a terrible mistake, and your job is to say nothing. Your job is to predict as clearly as possible the outcomes of a course of action—not to express an opinion regarding whether the course of action is wise.
Serving on the NSC is particularly challenging because the line between providing intelligence and making policy is regularly blurred. Intelligence analysts work at the White House, where policy is made, and predicting outcomes easily crosses into strong opinions on what the outcome should be. That’s why jobs at the NSC are difficult to get and difficult to keep. Vindman should not be ashamed that he was not able to keep his opinion to himself. But he should also not be surprised that it led to his removal. He should have resigned.
It’s similar in the diplomatic corps. Ambassadors such as Marie Yovanovitch, who testified that she was pushed out on Trump’s orders, are personal representatives of the president of the United States. They do not represent the United States; they represent the president. They do not get to decide policy; they implement policy.
Wise presidents will seek the “ground truth” from ambassadors when developing policy and forming opinions, but disagreements are inevitable. And when a disagreement is so egregious that the ambassador no longer feels able to follow instructions, the ambassador has a moral choice to make. And the only honorable decision is to resign. Yovanovitch was wrong to complain of being pushed out. She should have resigned when she was no longer able to serve the president.
The intelligence process supports the policymaker, and the diplomat implements the policy once it’s made. Wise policymakers will seek advice from analysts and ambassadors, but the decision rests with the policymakers alone. The jobs in the intelligence community and the diplomatic corps require individuals who are capable of serving the policymakers. And that includes setting aside their own opinions regarding policy when possible and having the moral courage to resign when doing so becomes impossible.
It’s not uncommon for employees to disagree with bosses. Problems arise only when employees seek to both disagree and keep their jobs. That’s why Defense Secretary James Mattis, the four prosecutors on the Stone case and so many others have resigned.
Mattis said it well: “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
If you decide to stay on and undermine your boss, it should come as no surprise when you get fired.
Scott Olson served as an FBI agent for 21 years, working as a counterintelligence operations officer, a counterintelligence supervisor and an assistant special agent in charge of intelligence and counterintelligence. He holds the ODNI Exceptional Achievement Medal, the NCIX Counterintelligence Award of Excellence and the NCIX Community Award for Counterintelligence.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.