By: Rebecca Robison, Reporter
Photo Credit: George T. Kalaris Intelligence Studies Fund
Paula Doyle retired in December 2016 as one of three CIA Associate Deputy Directors of Operations, where she oversaw worldwide HUMINT operations and activities that required the use of air, land, maritime, space-based and cyber technologies. She was the Deputy National Counterintelligence Executive from 2012-2014. She led three CIA stations in Europe, the Levant, and Asia.
Prior to joining CIA, Paula Doyle was a Foreign Service Officer in three embassies in Latin America and Europe. She is the recipient of several awards from the CIA, the DNI, DIA, and the NRO, the most significant of which was a CIA Team Trailblazer Award in 2007 for her role in a decade long effort against a significant nuclear proliferation network.
Earlier this semester, you shared about your background and life in the intelligence community during an SSP Spotlight in the CSS Lunch Series. You spoke about how you grew up in the Midwest and how that gave you a strong sense of belonging. How did that help you succeed as a public servant?
It helped me in a number of ways. I think when you grow up in a small town there is an expectation that you will be a part of everything. If your little town aspires to have a basketball team, then everyone has to play. There is no such thing as a tryout; you are on the team. There was never a sense of “are you going to try out for this?” It was—“you’re on the team, now do your part. Do your best.” There was never the expectation that you would be the best, but there was an expectation that you would give your all. And when you did, everyone was patting each other on their backs. So the sense of belonging was well rooted in knowing that I always had a part to play, and that I was expected to play my part. It didn’t feel like much of a choice. I never thought that way. It was just part of being in a community.
It helped me in public service because there were times when I could have easily said “oh I’m not good enough for that” or “I haven’t’ been invited into that team meeting” or “I’ll never get that job.” But my DNA, my upbringing taught me: “No, no, no—you go ahead and raise your hand. If they pick you, great. If they don’t pick you, fine. But for goodness sake’s raise your hand. If your organization or your country needs you to do something, you go do it. And once you are assigned to it, do your best. So that’s the intense sense of belonging that I took everywhere. It served me well and I hope it serves others well.
In your various roles, you have been around the globe—traveled and lived in different places. What was your favorite assignment and which did you find the most challenging?
So I don’t have a favorite, and that’s a common question people ask. I was a different age, a different stage in marriage, a different stage in motherhood, a different stage in responsibilities in each post. I’m kind of wired to like everything so I never had a bad posting. I had postings where the topics were very challenging. My first three tours I was still under thirty and being new to pretty serious issues I felt a lot of pressure to learn the topics, learn them in a foreign language, and carry myself well.
As for challenge, I’ll make my main point by offering that one of my favorite lines from a movie—it’s not my favorite movie, but one of my favorite instructive lines in a movie—is Uma Thurman when she looks across the table at John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, and she’s very frustrated with him, because, of course, they are both crazy high, and finally she stops and cuts him off and says, “are you listening to me or are you just thinking about what you are going to say next?” I learned to be present in the moment. I am a world-class listener. I like to listen to other people and when they are done talking—I like to recap it back to them to see if I understood it correctly. And I found that that was a very useful way to learn, and to reassure the speaker. In any country I served, in both agencies, I was listening. When I grasped various themes, I would pose questions. Listening and then formulating questions was far more effective for me than constantly focusing on any chattering in my own head—“what am I supposed to say next?” Experience taught me that smart, relevant questions would come naturally—if I just listened and learned.
What led you to make the transition from Foreign Service Officer at the State Department to Operations Officer at the CIA?
It was a personal relationship with someone overseas who took me aside and said, “What are you doing? You should do this.” My first couple of encounters with this individual were not positive. I thought he was a real difficult character, “arrogant” might have come to mind. But as I got to know him and came to understand some of the complexities of his job, I learned that some of the things that come naturally to me would be very helpful for that organization. It took a leap of faith. It was a big decision—glad that it happened. I was lucky to come across someone—and back to the listening piece, I was pretty junior compared to this guy. So when he called me and asked me to come to his office so he could ask me a couple questions, of course I went—he was a senior person. And by listening I could begin to understand what exactly he needed and how I might be able to help. Again, I am used to raising my hand—how am I able to help? I may not be the best point guard on your team, but I am going to do the best job I can.
It is evident that you care deeply about these issues and your work at the State Department and the CIA. Did you ever find that you had to disassociate—to make a distinction between caring and your job responsibilities?
I’m sort of blessed with a caring gene, and I am not a very good actress. So when dealing with difficult people in a foreign government, especially in the confines of a safe house or car with a source, I always found it useful to connect. I can look in almost anybody’s eyes and see a father, a brother, a mother, a sister and connect on some sort of personal level, because I believe that is what makes this work so fun. If we didn’t need to go toe-to-toe and shake hands and drink tea in foreign environments with people, we would simply just send emails back and forth from Washington. What makes diplomacy and intelligence relationships so different is that they are so human. We are always dealing with humans who are doing their best—or sometimes their worst—to fight for whatever their country is trying to get done. That’s why I am so interested in getting to know people on a personal level because I want to know if they can share our worldview. And if not, I don’t have much to work with. But I have met terrorists, weapons proliferators—I have met all kinds of people that you would go “eww, they must be terrible, creepy people.” No, they’re dads, they have families—they are kind of interesting people, actually, and they trust us. So I did not find it useful to disassociate. I was very careful to remember what my key job was. My key job might have been to get the answer to three questions, but if someone had time to spend with me, I would get to those three questions, but I was going to get to know that person well enough to understand what it was like to live in their shoes.
As you went up the chain of command and took on more leadership roles, were there certain characteristics or qualities you looked for in people that you especially appreciated?
Skills are always an important attribute—if you need language, you need language; if you need certain kinds of tradecraft experience, there are no shortcuts. But beyond skills, I always looked at attitude. Why are you interested in this job? The world presents itself at your front door in ways you can’t anticipate. But having a positive attitude, filling your jar with enough energy to get through the day is really important. I looked for good teammates. I looked for a sense of humor. I looked for quick wit. I looked for taking responsibility. Things don’t always go well and owning it is really important. Owning it means you’ve learned something from it and you are not running away, hiding from something.
You’ve had so many remarkable experiences and could do so many things. Why have you decided to teach?
I’ve wanted to give back. I was the beneficiary of work-study, BEOG Pell grants, and scholarships, without which this little girl would never have gotten her degree. I did not come from families that could pay for college and I didn’t have the wherewithal to do it on my own. I really needed those scholarships, financial aid, and grants, in exchange for which, I got to learn so many things, and I got to explore how I might be able to design a career, and there were these wonderful professors and teachers. Their sole purpose in life was to do research and teach. They were considerably older than me; I was in my late teens and early twenties when I went to college. I guess I just thought it was the natural progression of things. When I finally got old enough and wise enough, maybe I could help future work-study students, future grant-winners, future scholarship-winners, and fill their heads with ideas that will help them get a good start.
If you could take an SSP class or classes or delve more deeply into a topic, which ones would you choose?
Two things that we tend not to do well in either organization (either the Department or the Agency)—we are so busy with today’s job jars that if you don’t already come with a rich understanding of the history of a country or a program, you are at a disadvantage because chances are that something has cycled around again, So I would study history, and specifically I would study the great powers of the 19th century and the 20th century. Understand that what is happening in the Middle East has been going on there a long, long, long, long time. A lot of what is happening is a recycling of grievances between Russia and the Middle East or grievances between Great Britain and the Middle East, or grievances between France and the Middle East.
Number two—you’ve got to understand the digital environment. We have run towards embracing the digital environment for lots of good reasons, but there are national security reasons that we need to develop good policy around it. I think a lot of SSP students are afraid of cyber because it’s too techy, and my answer to that is don’t work the techy stuff; there are techies out there—thank god—who are putting together all the right technical aspects. Make sure the policy is sound, make sure it is consistent with American values, work with Congress to make sure that laws reflect the digital economy, the digital cyber warfare space. We are nowhere close, and that troubles me.