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Alumni Confidential: Brenda Seaver

September 03, 2021
Brenda Seaver

Alumni Confidential

In our latest Alumni Confidential interview,  IGCC associate director Lindsay Shingler talks with Brenda Seaver, a CIA analyst and former IGCC dissertation fellow (1997-99) who received her PhD in political science from UC Irvine. Brenda discusses the ways her academic training prepared her to be a CIA analyst (and the ways it didn’t), and organizational and cultural shifts at the Agency during her tenure, including increased reliance on quantitative analysis. An expert in international security, democracy, and democratization, Seaver remembers back to January 6, and the only time she’s ever cried at work.

How did you initially become interested in democratization and international relations—subjects you studied in graduate school—which eventually led to your career as a CIA intelligence analyst?

My journey was hardly linear. As an undergraduate, I was a first-generation, low-income student, and my family in Oregon did not have the money to travel. It wasn’t until I dated a Lebanese Portlandian that I was exposed to the human consequences of war—in his case, the Lebanese civil war that began in the mid-1970s and forced his Maronite Christian family to flee Lebanon. It is no coincidence that years later I published a journal article on Lebanon’s democratic collapse. That was my attempt to understand the complexities of sectarian strife in the country that had so deeply affected his family.

I experienced a more significant political awakening as a college junior in 1986. I jumped at the chance to study abroad in Greece, but the program was nearly cancelled following the U.S. military’s bombing of Libya that spring. Once it was given the green light, I lived in Athens and traveled throughout Greece. My friends and I witnessed anti-U.S. and anti-NATO protests first-hand (we pretended to be Canadian in the surprisingly rowdy crowds). After the Iran-Contra scandal broke, Greek friends, merchants, and students bombarded us with questions about “Contra-gate” and NATO, raising our awareness about issues we had blithely ignored.

Meanwhile, our coursework focused on the history of democracy and dictatorship in Greece, Greek enmity toward Turkey, and Byzantine history. The latter was a riveting evening course taught by a Greek master storyteller who lectured with a cigarette in his mouth. After I returned to Pomona College, it was too late to change my major from psychology to political science, my new passion. So I enrolled in courses in international affairs, including a seminar on Middle East politics.

My formal training in international affairs continued after I graduated in 1988 and landed a job at the NBC affiliate in Seattle, which paid for courses at the University of Washington. I studied democratization, Soviet politics and history, and the history of modern China under a brilliant professor who supported my research on what was then called “informal groups” in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, several of which would evolve into new democratic political parties once the Berlin Wall fell.

More than a decade later, my Ph.D. dissertation fieldwork on the nexus between democratization and interstate war, funded by IGCC, took me to Ethiopia and Washington, D.C., where I met with Ethiopian government officials and political party leaders and U.S. officials, academic experts, and journalists.

Fieldwork made me rethink my longtime career aspirations. After I started the process of applying for faculty positions at liberal arts colleges, I had a nagging feeling that I was heading in the wrong direction. I wanted a career that had the same excitement and policy relevance I experienced during my fieldwork. Around this time, I accepted invitations to lunches with foreign service officers who whispered to me over appetizers that “the spooks are hiring.” It was 1999—a time when the Agency’s analytic directorate started to hire again after downsizing at the end of the Cold War. I gave their suggestion little thought until my husband found a position on the CIA website for an analyst with my somewhat unusual background that blended international security, democratization, and psychology. I figured nothing would come of applying. I joined the CIA about nine months later.

You have been an analyst at the CIA for more than two decades. What is an ordinary week for you?

For many analysts, an ordinary week resembles the tempo and structure of working for a newspaper. Analysts get into work early to scan large amounts of raw intelligence on their countries or functional areas (like counterterrorism or global health) that came in overnight before their morning team meetings. Those meetings typically cover who is writing what and for which U.S. officials; who will give briefings and on which questions from U.S. officials or senior CIA managers; and what raw intelligence reports need to be passed to managers. Analysts who are writing current production—an article for the highly restricted President’s Daily Briefing (PDB) or for the World Intelligence Review (WIRe), for example—may have to work under very tight deadlines, or they might have days or weeks to draft their articles, coordinate them with other analysts and intelligence agencies, and receive edits from several layers of management and editors. Other analysts might focus on writing longer assessments, contributing to intelligence community-wide National Intelligence Estimates, or collaborating on operations led by the Directorate of Operations.

Having published journal articles in the past, I can say that the academic peer-review and editing process is a cakewalk compared to getting articles through the Byzantine editing process at CIA. Earlier in my career, I would receive calls in the wee hours of the morning from PDB editors who had questions on my articles before they “closed the book.” Those late-night phone calls happen less often now. However, our Operations Center will call analysts to come in—at any time on any day—if major events break on our accounts that require immediate analysis.

International travel is also a big part, and perhaps the best part, of an analyst’s career. That’s when analysts get to compare our raw intelligence reporting and analytic judgments to “ground-truth” to assess the accuracy of our analysis.

Part of what I have enjoyed most about my career is the unpredictability of daily life in the Directorate of Analysis. Breaking developments overseas, new intelligence reports that drop, or quick turnaround tasks from U.S. officials can upend our daily schedules in a matter of minutes. Most analysts keep a suit or jacket at their disposal in case they get called downtown or into our executive suites to give unplanned briefings.

In what ways did your academic training prepare you for a non-academic, government-focused career? In what ways did it not?

The best CIA analysts have spent years developing expertise in specific areas, which began with courses they took as undergraduates and, usually, as graduate students. Time spent living overseas and learning foreign languages in high school and college is also invaluable for intelligence or diplomatic careers. Giving presentations in graduate courses, teaching undergraduate courses, and presenting research at academic conferences prepared me for the briefings and presentations I would give as a CIA analyst. After I interviewed for my first position at the Agency, my manager told me that my ability to scrutinize sources and write clearly helped get me the job. Today, with the explosion of disinformation in social and other media, evaluating the veracity of information, biased reports, and propaganda—often from foreign actors—is more important than ever.

As for differences, I had to learn a new writing formula as a CIA analyst. Whereas academic papers build toward their conclusions and are often long and replete with methodological details, intelligence products present judgments up front and often have short, bulleted sentences that corroborate those conclusions. Our products are much shorter. Writing is crisp, jargon-free, devoid of most adjectives and adverbs, and gets to the point fast. We assume that senior U.S. officials will devote seconds—maybe a minute, if we are lucky—to skimming an article.

A major gap in my academic training, which reflected conventional international relations and political training at the time, involves data science—a deep understanding of algorithms and big data—and cybersecurity. Today’s undergraduate and graduate students can declare majors in these areas, preparing them for analytic positions in data science and cyber analysis/operations.

How has working as a CIA analyst changed since you joined the Agency?

I love this question, which I catch myself thinking about as I enter the final chapter of my career.

In terms of organization, the CIA Director since the post-9/11 intelligence reforms is no longer dual-hatted as the head of the CIA and of the intelligence community. When the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the DNI’s staff were established, the CIA Director’s job became limited to overseeing the Agency. That was a major shift.

Then came “modernization” of our bureaucratic structure under CIA Director John Brennan around 2015. That shook up the Agency. It replaced the earlier structure of four directorates with regional and functional “mission centers,” which better integrate analysis, operations, science and technology, digital, and support functions.

Modernization’s impact was much greater than the creation of new organization charts. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly changed and if the new structure favored operations over analysis, as many feared it would. One thing is clear, though: Modernization enabled analysts to work more closely with operations officers and assume operation-centric positions.

Looking at the big picture, I have watched the Agency’s focus shift from an emphasis on the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War/nuclear era to supporting warfighters and countering Islamist extremism after 9/11 to countering China’s global expansion. Following the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in late August, the Agency will be challenged to achieve a balance between the increased importance of counterterrorism and China.

As for collection and analysis, I think the biggest change has been in the direction of balancing quantitative/big data analysis with qualitative analysis (the latter being the traditional area-studies approach to analysis). The Agency established a new directorate—the Directorate of Digital Innovation—to promote and centralize data-centric positions. Quantitative methodologies, which used to be viewed as alternative or secondary by many, are now much more prominent in driving our analytic judgments than they were 20 years ago. This is a substantial cultural and occupational shift in the way we do analysis. As a result, the Agency has broadened the academic and professional credentials it seeks in analysts to include data scientists, mid-career professionals from the private sector, and cyber experts.

You were a dissertation fellow with IGCC (1997-98; 1998-99), which meant that IGCC funded your research as a Ph.D. candidate at UC Irvine. Can you tell me about what IGCC has meant to you?

IGCC funding was critical to my ability to conduct fieldwork and complete my dissertation in a timely fashion. Without those funds, I would not have had access to Ethiopian government officials, aggregate and qualitative data I gathered in Ethiopia, and the general familiarization that comes from fieldwork that can’t be replicated by reading books. I also would not have had the funds to travel to Washington, D.C. multiple times to conduct vital interviews.

Before I advanced to candidacy, IGCC helped me to develop a professional network that would prove useful during my dissertation. I was able to establish relationships with other academic experts at IGCC conferences, sitting in on book-planning meetings, and poring through IGCC publications on topics of interest. Some of the contacts I made during those early years proved helpful when I was researching my dissertation.

In an article you published in 2015 while working as a national security fellow at the Wilson Center, you wrote about global democratic regression and that the potential threat to democracy of the growing global middle class. Since then, scholars and journalists have documented widespread democratic backsliding— in Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. What do you think are some of the drivers of this trend, and how can the US shore up democracy at home and abroad?

Although I could go on and on about this topic, I am not permitted to as a current CIA analyst. (Talk to me in a few years after I retire!) That said, I have been kicking myself for not including pandemics as a potential global threat to democracy, particularly nascent democracies with limited resources and institutional capacity, in the articles I wrote while at the Wilson Center. I also stand by my analysis from that period, which argued that expanding middle classes are not the panacea that some democratic theorists and pundits have championed; they can be a double-edged sword that can be wooed, as we have seen, by dangerous populist or extremist leaders whose actions undercut democratic institutions and norms.

Like many Americans, January 6 hit me very hard. I had never cried at work—even on 9/11 (when I was in crisis mode and too stunned to feel anything)—until January 6. I told my colleagues that day that I wished I hadn’t spent so many years researching democracy and democratization and learning about the fragility of even the most institutionalized democracies. Understanding the significance of the January 6 insurrection was emotionally overwhelming. As the last one in my office working late that evening, I broke out a personal-sized bottle of Brut that a colleague had given me months before for my birthday. With tears streaming down my face and my eyes glued to CNN, I finally drank it, thinking that no democracy anywhere in the world is immune from collapse. History teaches us that.