Faculty Interview Series: An Interview with Dr. James Bruce, SSP Adjunct Professor

By: John Woog, Reporter

Photo Credit: Dr. James Bruce

Dr. James Bruce is an Adjunct Professor in the Georgetown University Security Studies Program. Dr. Bruce has a long and distinguished career in public service and government, beginning with service in the US Navy. During his 24-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency, Dr. Bruce held senior executive positions within both the Directorates of Intelligence and Operations. His wide-ranging responsibilities at the CIA have included briefing Congressional committees on intelligence-related issues and serving as Branch Chief in the Office of European Analysis, as well as Chief of Counterintelligence Training in the DCI Counterintelligence Center.

Dr. Bruce has a distinguished career in academia and research, and following receipt of his PhD in International Relations at the University of Denver, Dr. Bruce served as a member of the faculties at Columbia, American, Kent State, and Marshall Universities, in addition to being a Professor of National Security Policy at the National War College. As a Senior Political Scientist at RAND, Dr. Bruce has published extensively on a variety of intelligence-related topics ranging from group processes and outcomes in intelligence analysis to interdiction of unauthorized disclosures at the Department of Defense to scenario analysis within Anbar Province prior to the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

Dr. Bruce recently served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Science and Technology as well as Vice Chairman of the Foreign Deception and Denial Committee at the National Intelligence Council, where his responsibilities have included drafting National Intelligence Estimates.

Dr. Bruce, you have had a wide variety of experiences in government and academia throughout your career. Aside from your position here at Georgetown, can you share with us what have been (1) the most challenging and (2) the most rewarding experiences of your career to date?

In general, challenging and rewarding correlate well with each other. You can see that I’ve had one foot in academe and the other in government for most of my professional life. Both are challenging and rewarding, though in different ways. Both involved research, writing, and teaching, though not always in the same order. With my last dozen years at the RAND Corporation, it’s been mostly research and writing. Unlike academe, the government and RAND experience added management to the list. I much prefer the classroom to management, and the challenges are rather different. I want to emphasize here the tremendous rewards I’ve enjoyed in the SSP seminar rooms, in part because of the challenges we experience in learning together there. The rewards for me are higher wherever I can make a difference. I think I enjoy the greatest career rewards from having impact.

I didn’t fully appreciate my impact in government until I left it. Looking back, I can see where I made a difference, though not the stuff of best-selling memoirs in the way a very senior policymaker might enjoy. Still, I’d like to think that some of my analysis while at CIA—for example, on the internal problems challenging Soviet political stability eight years before it collapsed; my work in counterintelligence that helped improve human operations and counterintelligence awareness; or developing counter denial and deception programs to ensure more effective intelligence collection and analysis against hard targets. These and other efforts presented unexpected challenges, and all proved very professionally satisfying. Perhaps that was so because they had impact where I hoped, though sometimes not as much as I had wished. Since we have to leave Georgetown aside, I do want to mention a highly satisfying teaching experience elsewhere: I recently directed a PhD dissertation at RAND on nuclear deception and found still another example where challenges and rewards correlated highly!

What brought you to Georgetown, and what attracted you to join the faculty of the Security Studies program in particular? 

Good luck and Professor Roy Godson. Dr. Godson, then in Georgetown’s Government Department, had pioneered intelligence studies at major universities, including Georgetown. He alerted me to an adjunct opportunity with what was then the National Security Studies Program, then run by its founder Steven Gibert. I taught the first intelligence course there in 1995 in what is now the SSP. What was my Intro to Intelligence 101 course (under a better name) later became the Theory and Practice of Intelligence course to be offered only by the core faculty. So I diversified and taught a different course several times in Intelligence Reform when reform was all the rage. I then developed (and co-taught it with Roy Godson the first time) a course on Covert Action and Counterintelligence which I’ve been teaching in SSP for the past decade or so. Now in my 22nd year with the program, it has been a wonderful association for me—and I certainly hope as much for the students and program too!

What course are you teaching this coming semester, and what key points would you like your students to take with them from this course as they prepare for their careers?  

This fall I am teaching my well-established course on Covert Action (CA) and Counterintelligence (CI), but I’ve revised it a bit for this year: In the past, it has focused almost exclusively on the United States. For this iteration, I’m revising the course to expand coverage of Russia, but with emphasis on the US-Soviet intelligence competition during the Cold War. Who did better in CA and CI? No one’s ever constructed a data-based scorecard. We won the Cold War, but the question remains: What was the intelligence contribution to victory, if any? It’s a complex causal issue and remains an open question. I intend this course to provide an answer, at least a provisional one, to that question. Takeaways? There are several, but two in particular: The strategic value of CI and CA as vital tools of statecraft, and the challenges of conducting intelligence in a democracy, and why you wouldn’t want to do it any other way.

You and your colleagues at the National Intelligence Council have played an important role in identifying and promoting “best practices” in intelligence analytics, and you have recently co-authored a textbook on this topic. It seems like we have continually increasing amounts of print and online information and commentary available to us regarding topical and regional security topics. Can you share with us a couple of the open-source resources and/or strategies which you find most helpful in keeping up with important intelligence and national security issues and managing this information flow?

Great question: First, at this stage (MA studies) of professional development, I would say that building a solid knowledge base of the craft of intelligence is vastly more important than keeping up with it. SSP may be one of the few places in the country—arguably, in a class by itself—where the curriculum genuinely supports such foundational understanding. Every student should have a hip-pocket list of the 10 or 12 best books on intelligence, and know the contents of at least half of them very well. On best practices for analysis, my personal favorite is George & Bruce, Analyzing Intelligence (no surprise), and the Heuer-Pherson volume on Structured Analytic Techniques is a must-read, though it’s a “how-to” approach.

But only after building a foundation does keeping-up make sense. Here, I think the best resources are the US government websites and a few journals. For intelligence websites, there are about 17—16 intelligence agencies plus the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Here, with periodic access, you can follow the issues they deal with in press releases, open Congressional testimony, speeches, recent unclassified publications and the like. I think the DNI and CIA sites should head this list, but I’d add a couple more of favored agencies in the intelligence or national security communities for the keeper-uppers. I think the best intelligence journal is CIA’s Studies in Intelligence (unclassified issues are accessible on its website) which has a slight practitioner’s bent. There are several other good, more academic, journals as well such as Intelligence and National Security, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, and the military-oriented American Intelligence Journal. All are worth an occasional perusal for articles of interest (with a caveat on quality variability).

Some SSP students are already preparing for careers in the armed forces, government intelligence agencies, academia, or defense- or security-related consultancy or industry, while other students are actively exploring their career options. What advice would you give those students who are currently undecided about their career paths? 

For young people interested in national security (like SSP students), I can’t imagine any professional development experience more valuable than government service. It’s not for everyone, of course, and it need not be career-long. But I think it’s somewhere between hard and impossible to fully understand how government works without having had any experience working in it. I freely admit that this is a personal bias of mine, but I come by it honestly: I feel very lucky that my own professional development took this path, and I seriously doubt that my own growth could have benefited as much through any alternate route. Another dimension of government experience—especially, but not only, in the military—is service to country. That makes it, for many of us, anyway, an intrinsically worthwhile commitment.

My other advice is that wherever you go and whatever you do, be a true professional in the best meaning of that term, and develop a genuine professional ethic that supports that self-identification. Also try to identify who are the top professionals in your chosen field and try to emulate what you think are the best qualities they exemplify. No one is perfect, but identifying few professional role models can help you shape a valuable understanding and conduct of bona fide professionalism in your field. A final epistle: Don’t take intelligence courses because of any implied boost to a job application in the Intelligence Community. Take them because they are interesting and important. No matter where you wind up in the national security business, you’ll be better for the experience and a smarter intelligence customer if you become a policymaker. 

As we continue the executive branch transition in Washington, our country is facing a number of significant challenges to our national security. Could you identify one or two national security issues that you think will be of particular significance during the next four years?

I think every new administration is well advised to look hard at exactly the question you’ve posed here—though more broadly—and conduct a major review of our past policies including their goals, means, priorities, and resources to accomplish them—in a word, a review of US national security strategy. And I don’t think we should mindlessly continue to conduct any specific policy today or tomorrow just because we did it yesterday. That said, I think we should be especially careful when making any major policy changes to have sound reasons for doing so, a solid appreciation for the risks as well as the benefits, and have an objective understanding (i.e., neither partisan nor advocacy) of what would make a changed policy succeed better than the one it’s replacing.

With that as context, here are the two national security issues that I think will be of particular significance: First, I am frankly concerned about an overly muscular “America First” policy framework. No sensible American or ally wants a weak America, and our global responsibilities demand strength and resolve. But a hard pushing of selfish or myopic interests over more cooperative policies designed for regional or global stability—which also serve America’s vital interests —invites uncertainties that demand smart risk management. Thus far, the jury is still out, but this raises my second concern: I also worry about whether we’ll have an accessible off-ramp to avert an unneeded war if a pugnacious America First ranting invites other ambitious or dim-witted dictators and boy-kings to challenge the United States in ways that escalation control could fail. Successfully managing these two major issues will require the best intelligence possible. This administration has imposed unnecessary baggage on using it, and I’m hopeful that the new appointees, Mike Pompeo and Dan Coats, can win the confidence of the President in ways their predecessors could not. Lacking outstanding intelligence support, this administration won’t be playing with a full deck in a global game with big stakes. 

If you could walk over to the ICC Cafe and have a cup of coffee with any historic personality, who would it be, and why? 

Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Jefferson would be my most preferred coffee interlocutors. Both Galileo and Darwin literally changed the paradigms they worked in in a very permanent way, the first in planetary astronomy and the second in evolutionary biology. What extraordinary contributions they made—and wow, talk about impact! Jefferson too, had a huge impact on the development of American democracy, and we are today the beneficiaries of his brilliance and that of his amazing Founding Father colleagues.

What makes these historic personalities so notable to me is what they have in common: their power of intellect to think big with uncommon attention to detail; the rigor and creativity needed for the discovery of something truly new for the very first time; a measured propensity for risk-taking; and the stamina and resolve to see it all through despite the opposition they faced and the daunting odds against succeeding. And succeed they did. Our present paradigms in cosmology, biology, and liberal democracy are indelibly better for their significant contributions—two empirical and one normative. Imagine a conversation with any one of these giants. Any of the three would make for an unforgettable coffee-break experience—and the hope they’d stay for dinner! Count me in.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.