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What It’s Like to be One of the Nation’s Top Intelligence Officials

Thirty-five thousand people work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but there is only one national counterintelligence executive (NCIX) to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). The role steers away from the spotlight (it’s literally behind closed doors at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence) but requires a lot of other private meetings in the halls of Washington D.C. Frank Montoya Jr. plied his trade as the NCIX from February 2012 to May 2014.

Montoya was the special agent in charge of the Honolulu field office before taking his position as NCIX. The NCIX before him, Robert “Bear” Bryant, oversaw the Aldrich Ames case, a CIA officer who illegally passed vital intelligence to the KGB. During his time as NCIX, Montoya  dealt with an intelligence nightmare of his own: Edward Snowden. With Snowden came the news reports about the US government eavesdropping on foreign countries’ telecommunications.

Montoya had to deal with the fallout of this case when a foreign power confronted him and other intelligence leaders at the ODNI over the issue.

They “came to the ODNI to complain bitterly about newspaper reports that the US government was eavesdropping on telephonic communications of several of its leaders,” Montoya recalled. “They weren’t a first- or even second-tier ally, but they complained like they were the only nation on the planet. There were several of us in the room, including the DNI, Jim Clapper. We listened politely to what they had to say, and that seemed to enrage our guests even more.”

He continued, “That’s when they started cussing us out — some of it was pretty vulgar. Our translators got red-faced, and everyone else in the room who didn’t speak the language seemed to know what was going on, but our guest kept chattering.”

One thing they didn’t know was that Montoya understood everything they said.

“So, in their language, I reminded them that as much as they might like to think it, they weren’t speaking in code, and as our guests, they shouldn’t,” Montoya said. “Needless to say, it got their attention and they began to apologize profusely.”

The meeting didn’t go much longer, but according to Montoya, they were better behaved.

Montoya enjoyed working with Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence at the time.

He was smart, had tremendous bearing, was demanding, and maintained high standards,” said Montoya. “But he was also easy to work for. He was serious but had a great sense of humor. He was assertive. You always knew what he wanted. But wise and humble.”

Gushing with praise, he elaborated further, saying, “He was the kind of leader who respected you and earned your respect. The kind of leader you never wanted to fail. It was one of the highlights of my career to work for him.”

According to Montoya, Hollywood appears to get at least some of it right when it comes to the kind of technology at the disposal of our intelligence officers and assets.

“Even James Bond’s Q would have marveled at the kinds of toys we got to play with,” said Montoya.

What kind of influence did he have as the NCIX? He said he was a fundamental player in the National Insider Threat Policy (NITP).

“The National Insider Threat Policy was a major thing. We developed it in the wake of the Manning compromise and were in the early stages of implementation when the Snowden defection occurred. There weren’t many bright spots in regard to the defection, but it did provide a stiff kick in the pants to the IC (intelligence community) to get the NITP implemented,” Montoya recalled.

“Our response to the Snowden defection, despite its impact on the IC, was a key highlight, too. For the longest time, CI (counterintelligence) and security were viewed as the wicked stepsisters of the USIC — or a necessary evil. People literally cringed when we walked into the room,” Montoya said. “I don’t know if it was a vestige of the past, but it was clear they expected us to be the folks who said ‘no.’”

However, Montoya saw things a bit differently than his peers.

“That was never my approach to CI, and as NCIX, security, as well. I saw our role as asking, ‘How can we do this better?’ I also saw CI and security not as an expense but an investment — current and future,” he said. “I like to think that approach influenced the DNI when he made the decision to direct NCIX to lead a comprehensive IC damage assessment at the start of the intel crisis Snowden set in motion instead of waiting until long after it was over.”

From time to time, Montoya found himself privately testifying in front of Congress. He revealed what it’s like to sit in front of the House Intelligence Committee.

“Testifying before Congress was always a ‘treat.’ On the one hand, testifying in closed (classified) sessions limited the amount of posturing congressmen and women would engage in, but some could still be quite partisan,” he said. “Most were professional, though. I testified mostly before the House Intelligence Committee. Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger were chair and ranking minority member for most of the time I was NCIX. Both were professional and bipartisan on intelligence matters. They could be tough and critical, too, but generally for the right reason: to make us (the IC) better.”

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