The period of the junta influenced deeply the way Greece’s political elites came to regard the country’s main intelligence agency and how they sought to bring it under strict government control. The restoration of democracy stirred many virulent antipathies and pressure for settling old scores. Addressing the essence, mission, and direction of a national intelligence organ was thus trapped in a micro-political frame of mind that focused on pseudo-ideological arguments, narrow partisan interests, and the ubiquitous chanting about “democratization,” while ignoring the particular problems and requirements at hand all along. Between politicians and an often hostile press, missing no opportunity to demonize and ridicule the “ruffians” of both the police and the intelligence services, Greek intelligence remained on precarious grounds.

This environment could hardly promote an “unconstrained vision” of intelligence as a vital tool in defending and protecting national interests, let alone the reversal of the resident bias against CIS. Thus, the post-1974 history of Greek central intelligence remains checkered. In 1986, a re-organization brought onboard many desirable characteristics, including the effective “de-militarization” of the service and the creation of a permanent position of a central intelligence director. The period leading up to the 2004 Athens Olympics witnessed further efforts to augment capabilities and streamline operations. But “keeping the eye on the ball” could not be freed from the broader constraints of the Greek political scene and the persistence of the image of central intelligence as a rogue rather than a dedicated soldier.

In 1999, Greek central intelligence came, for the first time in its history, under a non-military chief, a career ambassador whose appointment was hailed by the politicians of the day as yet another must-have “safeguard” in keeping the intelligence service focused on its “democratic” obligations. Not a word was uttered of course about the suitability of such an appointee to handle the unique challenges inherent in the job of a director of central intelligence. The need to “democratize” overrode, as usual, all other crucial questions. Career ambassadors continue to hold the post, with only the briefest of intervals between July and October 2009, when chief of intelligence was… a senior prosecutor!

Historical experience shows beyond any doubt that the person who actually runs an intelligence service must be (1) a shepherd guiding a specialized, often idiosyncratic group of people in a complex, ever changing enterprise of decisive importance to the Nation, and (2) a hands-on senior officer possessing the experience and involvement in the “active” mission of the organization and the trials it faces.

The importance of such leadership cannot be overstated. Intelligence is unlike “any other job”. The chief must be able to generate not only the dynamics for success -- focused tasks, organizational integrity, above average productivity, and control of “drift” -- but also that uncommon kind of loyalty and commitment in the ranks that is vital for maintaining high levels of flexibility required to adjust quickly to fast-developing situations without losing focus, which is perhaps the most critical quality of any robust intelligence organization.

Appointing chosen outsiders to the post of director of intelligence may make politicians and their party hacks feel more comfortable in the thought that the outsider is better suited to ensure no spooks go astray, but, in effect, it does a great disservice to both the organization itself and the purposes that the organization is supposed to meet (incidentally, experience also shows that if spooks do want to go astray bad enough, they would do so irrespective of who’s the boss at the top floor).

Furthermore, a “safe” political appointee, with no idea of the broader imperatives of the job at hand, not to mention the complicated technicalities of the practice of intelligence, is at an obvious disadvantage right out of the gate. A “safe” political appointee, with no prior exposure to the intricacies of the trade, would need an education in how to prioritize a mind-boggling array of specialized, frequently obscure, subjects and outline strategy on the fly; identify accurately areas of poor performance needing a boost in an organization he/she barely understands; and follow without missteps the analytical process that is governing intelligence service operations. Unlike most other parts of government, intelligence services are expected to constantly produce material for “consumers” looking for real-time information on “how to” and “what if”. This is a mean task whose pressures no superficially prepared official can accurately predict, or indeed navigate through, without often crippling damage, save cases of outstanding, thus rather rare, individual leaders.

Greece cannot afford the luxury of experimenting with its intelligence services. Surrounded by unhappy neighbors, stuck in the middle of one of the shakiest regions of the world, faced with a clear and not too subtle Turkish threat, and exposed to an unstoppable wave of illegal arrivals that could be carrying dangerous operatives concealed within the throngs nobody can realistically expect to monitor, this country urgently needs a re-think of its overall intelligence policy and act without delay.

Unfortunately, one of the first steps of the newly installed government was to place NIS under the ministry for Citizen’s Protection, a cabinet department attempting to bring under the same umbrella all of Greece’s law enforcement, civil defense, and intelligence resources. Subordinating intelligence agencies to cabinet ministries, instead of keeping intelligence separate, independent, and directly accountable to the highest authority of the State, has been cited more times than we care to remember as one significant step in the wrong direction. And insisting on placing NIS under, no doubt well-meaning and highly motivated, non-professionals may further signal persistence on this wrong direction.

Greece is not a great power where a “safe” political appointee as head of intelligence is surrounded by cohesive, established, loyal, and thoroughly professional communities of long-serving analysts, agents, and field operatives, thus allowing him/her to occupy most of his/her time with lofty oversight and cabinet antics. Greece’s predicament is very different. It is such that even the heaviest “hats” need to put their energies full time behind pushing the cart. The new government has indeed promised this is one of its primary aims.

Treating Greek intelligence according to tested criteria of effectiveness, instead of subjecting it to the fatigued excuse of “Greek uniqueness,” which has buttressed so many abysmal fiascoes in the past, would be a most welcome step at a time of growing internal and external challenges. And it will also offer proof that government proclamations about a “new beginning” are actually tied to some serious go-get thrust.

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